Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Helicopters, horses, Martin van Creveld - what can it all mean?

Numerous reports in the main media suggest that the Ministry of Defence is going to come out very badly in the current public spending round (yes, I know it's not called that any more). In so far as the leaks agree, they seem to be suggesting a 1% budget increase. Whether this is real terms or cash terms is not clear. Even in the best case assumption that it is a real terms figure, though, it will still be a serious cuts-demanding crisis. After all, there's that Iraq thing to pay for, not to mention the astonishing cost of transition from cash to resource accounting (accounting for the notional Treasury capital charge hits the MoD savagely, since by its nature it has huge stocks of materiel that earn no income and stand still until called on although they are indispensable). And this is before we get to those BAe cost overruns on all the Forces' new stuff.

The effects are largely unknown. Much of the media reporting must be treated as radioactive and handled with tongs, especially that found in the Daily Telegraph as this is part of the routine of defence politics. The Torygraph, although it maintains one of the bigger specialist staffs on military issues, seems to have absolutely no ability to see when it is being used. Constantly, the Tele's "defence sources"' latest goss/political spin is printed without question - I've lost count of the times they have reported in frenzied terms on the armed forces being handed over in their entirety to "Europe", on gigantic cuts that never happened, or actual military operations that turned out to be nonsense. I recall the Sunday Tele headlining with a supposed British airborne landing on Kabul airport in the autumn of 2001 and stating not only which unit (2 Para) would land but also the tactics to be employed (an airlanding (TALO) rather than parachuting). Needless to say it just didn't happen, perhaps fortunately given the Telegraph's security fart. It is a well worn tradition that whenever any change or consideration of anything to do with defence is possible, all the armed forces' interest groups run off to brief the Times or Torygraph in bloodcurdling terms. It is almost as traditional that it all turns out to be shite. You would think they'd learn. However, getting back on the topic, some regularities are apparent.

Everyone seems to expect swingeing personnel cuts and the disappearance of several army regiments and possibly either ships or RAF units. Worst casers suggest that an entire aircraft type, HMS Ark Royal, and four infantry battalions might go - but this must be treated as above. The justification for cuts if/when they come is exactly the same as the justification for the government's whole defence policy, although policy has changed. New technology is meant to stand in for armour and numbers. By this, we really mean the Westland-assembled version of the AH64D Apache helicopter. When they speak of deployability and lightness, they mean relying more on attack helicopters for tasks usually given to tanks or artillery. (There are many other equipment programmes grouped under this heading, but with the exception of the Bowman communications system most are looking at cuts.) Originally, this was seen as a way of enabling the forces to respond to threats that might come from anywhere, now that the Cold War is gone. Now, though, with the various supporting schemes going and the rank and file being cut, it is seen as a cureall to fill gaps cheaply.

Apaches in the UK have had some problems, mostly due to the crappy PFI deal for pilot training. But there is a more fundamental problem. Relying on a UK Air Assault or "Air Cav" capability means a much bigger reliance on many more choppers and fancier ones. And this is where we get to the horses. It's no longer an original statement that the military enjoy a horse/helicopter analogy. The US Army's decision to make the 1st Cavalry Division the first air-assault division helped, but there are deeper reasons - the drama and speed involved and the proliferating entourage of specialist trades, as with the cavalry, boosts an image of elite dash and institutional pull. That isn't the point, though. Martin van Creveld's Supplying War reminded the world of a lost point about the campaigns of the horse-drawn world - the dominance of fodder. As a horse eats roughly 10 times as much as a man by weight, fodder was the most difficult item of supply to obtain. Just putting the horses to grass worked for a day, but an army would eat out the land in a weekend. And after all, transporting fodder meant even more horses.

Helicopters show signs of being the horses of today. In the war against Iraq, at times the US Army's Apaches required one C-17 load for each helicopter each day. This is bad enough, but attack helicopters are meant to operate very close to the fighting, using Forward Arming and Refuelling Points (FARPS) placed as far forward as possible to maximise the time each chopper spent in the target area. You can't expect to land a C-17 there. The stores must be forwarded by road transport, by C-130 if possible, or at worst by support helicopters (who of course suck up logistic resources too). The bill is astronomical and the number of vulnerable groups of technicians and kit, not to mention vulnerable transport, huge. In the Falklands, the main constraint on British operations by land was the lack of support helicopter capacity as there was no other serious overland transport. Many of the choppers went down aboard Atlantic Conveyor to worsen the problem. When, however, late in the war a sufficiency of lift was provided (with the arrival of more aboard Atlantic Causeway and the conversion of antisubmarine Sea Kings), a new problem was created - suddenly the navy faced a struggle to keep up[ as the helicopters "drank incredible quantities of fuel" in the words of Commodore Michael Clapp. After all, fuel had to be handled through improvised gear at San Carlos because the fuel handling gear had been sunk with Conveyor, and anyway fuel meant bringing tankers into the danger area.

Moral? Geoff Hoon should resign. Funny, I seem to have said that almost daily.

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