Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bandwidth! Low latency! Sexy!

OK, so Thomas P.M. Barnett is purring like a kitten at the discovery that his Blueprint for Action has been translated into Turkish. Barnett's famed prescription, the so-called SysAdmin Force, seems to be vanishing under the far horizon. Check out this NYT report from western Afghanistan. It seems the Iranians are dramatically out-competing NATO & Co in reconstruction in Afghanistan.

What's more interesting is the how. As well as building roads, they laid a new fibre-optic link across the border into Herat, whose far end will interconnect with the Europe-Asia 1 and 2 cables and the FLAG and SMW3 landings in the UAE. They are also planning to extend the railway from Mashad into Afghanistan - hell, even the British Empire didn't manage to build a railway in Afghanistan, and that's saying something. Note, by the way, that quite soon there will be through standard-gauge track from anywhere in Europe, and onward towards China not long after that.
Iranian officials said they had focused on roads and power as a quick way to strengthen Afghanistan's economy. A major project has involved upgrading roads linking Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman.

In many ways, Muhammad Reza Dabbaghi embodies Iran's new approach in Afghanistan. Mr. Dabbaghi, a 46-year-old engineer, is the top executive here for the Iranian company that built the new 70-mile highway linking western Afghanistan to Iran two years ago, is paving much of the northwestern city of Herat and hopes to build the new railway, all with Iranian government financing.
Can anyone provide an economic and technical rationale for the Western reconstruction effort that succinct and credible? Meanwhile, in Kabul, some ugly signs:
Last year, the Iranian Embassy opened the Iranian Corner, a room in Kabul University's main library filled with computers, books and magazines from Iran, promoting Iran's ancient culture and modern achievements. Librarians say it is more popular than the adjoining American Corner, sponsored by the United States Embassy, primarily because it has a better Internet connection. Unlike in Iran, where the government blocks thousands of Web sites, the Iranian Corner offers open Internet access.
Consider that for a moment. We're being beaten for openness and connectivity by the Iranians. Wi-Fi: it's the Marlboros of today, if that isn't too Friedmanesque. And we are still offering outreach projects, speeches on the radio (to quote Carlo Levi), and the occasional AC-130 strike-in-error. When was the last time you heard of an Iranian F14 accidentally bombing an Afghan wedding?
When the Taliban were ousted in 2001, Iran promised to help stabilize Afghanistan. In Germany that December, it was Iranian diplomats who stepped in to save foundering talks to form a new Afghan government, persuading the Northern Alliance to accept the agreement. Soon after, Iran pledged $560 million in aid and loans to Afghanistan over five years, a "startling" amount for a nonindustrialized nation, according to James Dobbins, the senior American envoy to Afghanistan at the time.

A week later, President Bush situated Iran on the "axis of evil." But even as they assailed that characterization, Mr. Dobbins said, Iranian officials privately offered to train Afghan soldiers. The Bush administration rejected the offer.
Elsewhere in the story, it seems the Iranians have got rid of $230 million of that budget already. When the British Army headed for Helmand this year, there was talk of a £50 million aid budget in its baggage train, or $97 million, almost twice as much as the apparent Iranian annual total. At the last count, I'm not aware that any significant capital amount had been spent. Certainly DFID hasn't bought 40 per cent of the Iranian effort.

Ian Blair: Still Ignorant

All right, I said I'd held Sir Ian's comments on the Today programme on Christmas Eve for treatment. What he did this time was to complain at length about the extra paperwork a cop has to complete after making an arrest. He reckons it's increased by a factor of three since his wild youth. But I'm not arguing about that.

He claims it's all down to stricter requirements on the prosecution to disclose unused evidentiary material to the defence. But what concerns me is that he proceeded to blame this on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. RIPA is the legislation, much criticised itself, that sets the conditions under which the police can spy on you - phone taps, surveillance, that sort of thing.

The duty on the prosecution to hand over all the evidence the police collect is, in my humble opinion, entirely right (why, if they find information that suggests you didn't do it, should they be allowed to keep it a secret?). But it ain't RIPA that determines it. It's the Criminal Investigation and Procedure Act, 1996. Not just that, but it's also a pre-existing principle of Common Law (see the Crown Prosecution Service legal guidance, here).

What I would like to know is whether he simply got it wrong, or whether this was a wilful misrepresentation. I have absolutely no doubt he'd love to get rid of the provisions of RIPA that require him to get authorisation from the Surveillance Commissioner to do various forms of spying (not that this gentleman has ever refused) - it would fit near-perfectly with the pattern of behaviour he has shown over the past few years, and a pattern of behaviour is admissible evidence these days. If Sir Ian had checked the CPS guide, he would have noticed that, in fact, RIPA actually limits the scope of advance disclosure:
There is no duty to disclose either at Common Law or under CPIA:-

* material for which a claim of public interest immunity is upheld by the court
* material which falls under statutory exceptions: section 2 Interception of Communication Act 1985, section 17 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
* material which attracts Legal Professional Privilege;
* material which is detrimental to the credibility of someone who might be called as a defence witness..

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas ceasefire

The traditional TYR truce will be observed until the 27th of December. Sir Ian Blair should note that his performance on the Today programme this morning has been noted for future action.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

There is still going to be no attack on Iran

Chatter builds that the US govt is considering moving another carrier to the Gulf to put pressure on Iran. Meh. Fleet availablity is still low. Eisenhower is on station, Enterprise back from deployment and due to go in dockyard hands. Nimitz is doing her COMPTUEX off Southern California. Reagan is still in the CARQUALs phase of the training cycle, Theodore Roosevelt is also a long way back in the deployment cycle.

Vinson, Lincoln, Truman, and Washington are all in drydocks. That leaves only the John C. Stennis. She has recently signed off her JTFEX, which means she has all the ticks in the right boxes to sail. There is also the Kitty Hawk in Japan, but she is essentially marking the Korea and Taiwan commitments and would have to be replaced by another ship to go to the Indian Ocean.

Two carriers is not going to cut it. Still no attack in prospect.

You must have scared yourself

Dear God, John Redwood says something entirely sane. This frightens me - there is something we agree on. Naturally, I followed a link from Chris Dillow - I don't read his stuff, you know.

But I think he's right that a big part of the solution to party spending is that the buggers ought not to spend so much. As energy geeks will tell you, only half the problem is supply. After all, if they couldn't rely on spin, broadcast ads, and billboards they would rely so much more on their activists, which would imply greater accountability of the politicians to the base. Broadcast, by the way, should here be read to include all forms of one-way, centre to mass communication.

In a sense, large donations and their pal, broadcast campaigning are to British politics what oil revenues are to (enter 'orrible rentier state here). That is, they provide a way of escaping not only from accountability, but also from the realities of society.

Sir Ian Blair: Ignorant

Whatever Sir Ian Blair says, the opposite is probably true. It's a basic working assumption that has at least one major advantage - that even when it's wrong, it won't lead you into anything too terrible. Rather like the Malatesta estimator. To estimate a value people disagree about accurately, take the most and least exaggerated values, total them, and divide by 2, then subtract 30 per cent. This last manoeuvre takes into account the fact that exaggeration has no limit, but underestimation can only go as far as zero.

Sir Ian is currently furious that one of the suspects in the murder of Bradford PC Sharon Beshenivsky apparently fled the country posing as a veiled woman. Why didn't the Immigration Service stop him, he wants to know? Subtext: if real men like Sir Ian were in charge, they would have been more offensive to brown people.

Unfortunately, the Immigration Service hasn't operated any embarkation controls for some time. When there is a APB out, police detectives are deployed at ports to look for the suspect. As he is believed to have passed through Heathrow, it's Sir Ian's very own Special Branch who missed the unusually hefty lass.

Electricity - let it wash all over me! Or not

James Glanz of the NYT reports at great length on the electrical siege of Baghdad, with detail, network maps, and more. Great.

Obviously, this being a blog, the primary meaning of this is an excuse to moan about the press. Why didn't Glanz (or anyone else at the NYT) report on this back in 2004, say? It was a commonplace as early as the summer of 2003 that electricity production was a crucial indicator, that pylons were being destroyed and wire dragged away to sell. John Robb was writing about it then. So was this, ah, blog.

Did I say I loved the FT? Check out this story (subreq) on Gazprom, and especially the Robbtastic pipeline map (direct link (swf).)

I see a ship in the harbour

Yet more stupid giant floating radar news. Not only can't it keep the sea if the weather turns bad, not only is there no sea boat, and no security - but its support vessel won't be able to go alongside it most of the time, according to the US Coast Guard. This really is one of the poster children for Stupid Defence Procurement, no?

Speaking of stupid defence procurement, Richard North has issued a Christmas list of stuff he thinks the armed forces need. Predictably, all but one item on it comes from either BAE or the United States, and it's all very expensive, electronic and Rumsfeldesque, not to mention tactically defensive. For example, he advocates we buy a "system" (a word that is usually the key indicator of useless expensive kit) whose manufacturers claim it can shoot down mortar rounds in flight.

Well, when it's working, if the enemy chooses to shoot at the camp that got the scarce gadget, and until they invent a countermeasure (like chaff stuffed in the tail of their 107mm rockets, say). This is a classic example of cheap, highly available 4GW that entrains incredibly expensive technofixes on the part of conventional armies. Far better to take the money Northo wants to give Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Rockwell, Raytheon and Co and pay a large bonus to recruit more linguists and agent handlers for the Intelligence Corps, so there might be a chance of finding out who is firing the mortars. And that way, perhaps we wouldn't just have discovered that General Richards' interpreter was an Iranian spy.

(Seriously, the guy is a nightclub owner and salsa instructor as well as a TA I-man. How could he not be a spy of one persuasion or the other?)

In other North-related news,
HRW picks up the "ambulance hoax" bullshit and hoofs it into Row Z.
Bloggers were said to be collapsing with asphyxia awaiting Dick's apology.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

When you feel the heat you've got to move your fleet

An interesting couple of mystery-jet stories - last week saw an aircraft using a Flying Dolphin/Dolphin Air callsign (ICAO: FDN), the company in Sharjah that took over the assets of Viktor Bout's Santa Cruz Imperial and that continues to deal with Phoenix Aviation, pass through Dubai en route to Baghdad. Not that unusual, but interestingly it was bound for Al-Muthanna, the old airfield next to the Green Zone, not Baghdad International Airport (or SDA for Saddam Airport, as it's still known by ICAO). You might well wonder who was aboard.

The week before, Kyrgyz-registry/Sharjah-based outfit Tenir Airlines - ICAO TEB - who fly regularly between the UAE and Iraq did something interesting. They sent one of their Il-76s from Sharjah to Baghdad International and from there on to Kabul. Now there's a trip. Tenir, according to, has three Il-76s, all from Moldovan operator Airline Transport Incorporation. This company, which was suddenly wound up in 2005, had a sizeable fleet of Ilyushins, which were transferred to companies including Click Airways (a regular on the Sharjah-Baghdad run), Jet Line International, and Tenir. The association with JLI went pretty deep - when their aircraft ER-IBR crashed into Lake Victoria on the 23rd of March, 2005, it was operating with Jet Line's documents, or possibly the other way around. ATI's planes sometimes used the callsign "Air Trans", a company that doesn't exist but has often cropped up being used by Viktor Bout's planes, and they also traded aircraft with Aerocom (and Jet Line). Two of the three Il-76s owned by Tenir have been reported under this designation.

Those are EX-065 (serial number 53460832) and EX-071 (43452546). The other is EX-075 (53463908).

In other news: Firedump-listed 727 UN-B2701 photographed in Nizhni Novgorod on the 26th of November. Something tells me that one is safe.

Update, 03/01/2007: Now we know how UN-B7201 got to Budapest, anyway. Carrying a Kazakh football team, apparently.

..with diesel power!

You may recall the incident off Somalia where a cruise ship beat off pirates using a LRAD, a long-range audio device - essentially a weapon that produces a very loud noise in the direction of a target. Here is a civilian version, with a standard MIDI interface. Now we make beats with computer technology, indeed.

Paying the cost to be the boss (of the civil service)

I knew roughly what Resource Accounting and Budgeting was all about, but I never imagined they could invent a system that would require NHS trusts to pay back any overspend twice. Especially as, at the same time, the introduction of payment-by-results means that their income scales directly with their output. So, they can't reduce the number of operations performed, because their income would go down still more. That also means they can't really cut any variable or semivariable costs - pay is set by long-term negotiations with the unions that aren't readily adjustable, and inputs such as drugs are dependent on the scale of production.

Worse, a lot of them are committed to paying unalterable PFI charges, so even the overheads cannot be trimmed. It's less well known, but MOD has been struggling with RAB ever since its inception. By definition, MOD has a lot of stuff that is only used if there is a war on - vehicles, sets of combat body armour, bandages. RAB requires government departments to pay a notional cost of capital charge on the value of their assets back to the Treasury, which is or used to be 6 per cent. This was a significant drag for the MOD, which responded by flogging stuff it then had to buy back when the wars started. There are vehicles in Afghanistan that were acquired for Kosovo, sold, bought back for Iraq, sold, and bought back again. It's hard not to see the whole thing as an exercise in treating the public servant as a servant.

Latest is that the RAF is leasing-back two Canberra PR9 reconnaissance planes it disposed of literally months ago. The Canberra was the RAF's first jet bomber, going into service in 1949 or thereabouts, and it is planned that it will finally be replaced by the (delayed) ASTOR reconnaissance plane, a business jet stuffed with gadgetry. That isn't in service yet, so it's yet another of those "capability gaps" Blair's defence secretaries are so fond of. PR-9 had some extremely advanced cameras, the like of which are unavailable on anything else - it was one of the few UK or NATO assets the Americans specifically asked for in Afghanistan in 2001.

I'd very much like to know what the two (officially civilian) PR9s are doing.

Say yes and let's enjoy the...

Did I say I loved the Financial Times?

When everyone else was frontpaging with Princess Diana, the paper had the following stories on the front: the BAE investigation kibosh (this was the lead), Blair grilled by the rozzers (number two, opposite the lead and separated by a photo of the man), then the OPEC meeting and Vodafone's €67 million fine in the Greek snooping case.

Spyblog, via Iain Dale, carries a table of journalists using illegal "data brokers" to get at private information. It's fascinating that the more illegal snooping was done, the less actual news. Here's the data. The left column shows the total transactions, the right the number of individual hacks involved.

Daily Mail 952 58
Sunday People 802 50
Daily Mirror 681 45
Mail on Sunday 266 33
NOTW 182 19
Sunday Mirror 143 25
Best Magazine 134 20
Evening Standard 130 1
The Observer 103 4
Daily Sport 62 4
Sunday Times 52 7
The People 37 19
Daily Express 36 7
Mail Weekend mag 30 4
Sunday Express 29 8
The Sun 24 4
Closer Magazine 22 5
Sunday Sport 15 1
Mail Sunday mag 9 2
Sunday Business 8 1
Daily Record 7 2
Express, Sat 7 1
Sunday MirrorMag 6 1
Real Magazine 4 1
Woman’s Own 4 2
Daily Mirror Mag 3 2
Mail in Ireland 3 1
Daily Star 2 4
Marie Claire 2 1
Personal Mag 1 1
Sunday World 1 1

Do you see a pattern? Quality is inversely proportionate to bastardness. This even holds for the Guardian Media Group papers - The Grauniad isn't in there with even one request, but its super-Blairite stablemate the Obscurer put in a performance worthy of the Daily Beast. It's also noticeable that the Murdoch press was almost restrained compared with Rothermere and Northern & Shell titles.

The generals bow to the government: they're tired of the truth

Via Pat Lang's, the American Enterprise Institute's plan for yet another atttempt to secure Baghdad. You won't be very surprised to learn that neither Lang, nor I, think very much of it. Peter Kagan's strategy - a PowerPoint presentation, natch - is risible. The first and most basic fault is the frantic insistence on victory, victory, victory - there is no consideration of how it could fail or what to do if it does. This is Lysenko-esque. I know they say that if you fail to prepare you prepare to fail, but that isn't an argument that if you prepare for the consequences of failure, you are more likely to fail. At every point where he is challenged, he simply asserts away criticism. Will it break the Army? It will not. No why given. Analysis of possible enemy reactions goes beyond trivial; he merely suggests there might be a surge in violence and attacks on civilian and coalition targets. No consideration at all of the long MSR down to Kuwait.

When he does try to think about it, it's noticeable that, somehow, everything is vitiated of meaning. Apparently, the enemy might respond by launching attacks in already secured areas. Well, they obviously aren't secured then, are they? That would signal the failure of the whole strategy. He suggests that better intelligence might deal with this threat - well, yes, and a pony. No word on how.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, General Chiarelli hands over to Raymond Odierno, who brought the 4th Infantry Division into Iraq after the invasion and was responsible for all those silly operation names like RIFLES FURY and PLANET X, not to mention the silly operations and worse they designated. The learning process appears choked with Lysenkoist crap - the change of command comes just after Chiarelli launched an effort to recommission some of the state-owned industries Paul Bremer's merry men shut down, in order to cut the unemployment rate. So, it's taken him his entire tour to get a clue, and now a freshly clueless general is rotated in to replace him. They did that in Vietnam, too. I've said before that if you want to understand Iraq, you nneed to read Neil Sheehan's A Bright, Shining Lie - I get my copy out every so often to check what's going to happen next.

But the worst assumption of Kagan's paper is that "we must not be defeated in Iraq". Kagan defines defeat as withdrawal from Iraq, which is a very silly assumption he doesn't trouble to make explicit. If everything had gone as he and pals predicted, we'd have been out in months, after all. I'd agree that we must not be defeated in Iraq in the sense of losing a major battle, being routed, but this isn't what concerns him.

What would the consequences of Kagan-defeat in Iraq be? The civil war would go on, and get worse. How this differs from the current position is not clear. Iranian influence down south would rise, as would Saudi and Syrian influence up north. Multiple tension would continue to exist about Kurdistan. This is no different to the current situation. Whether the worst-case scenarios for all of these came to pass would depend on how retreat from Iraq was managed, militarily and politically. If it was botched, we get most or all of the bad consequences plus a military disaster. If it was carried out in an orderly fashion, with regional agreement to contain the crisis (for example, the Kurds agreeing to continue their Shia alliance and abstention from formal secession, the Saudis and Iranians observing mutual nonprovocation) and the US forces in the region moving out to ships and existing bases (Qatar and Kuwait, but please, not Saudi Arabia), it would be no worse than the position at the moment, and possibly bettter.

Why "must" we not face this? Any discussion of operational level changes around Baghdad or tactical level changes in the streets must start with a discussion of what the total strategy is that these serve. Bad strategy cannot be saved by good tactics or operational art.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Operational sovereignty

So what is in the Memorandum of Understanding old Virus Drayson signed with the Pentagon and Lockheed-Martin? As far as I know, he says it guarantees that no USAF personnel would be necessary in the chain of command. This says very little in and of itself. No US personnel are necessary in the chain of command for Trident, nor for any US-made aircraft in foreign service I've heard of, though I am open to contradiction in the space provided. It would have been astonishing had the opposite even been suggested.

Of course, it wasn't the chain of command we were arguing about. It was more the intellectual property rights, and specifically the ability to fiddle with the software ourselves (without necessarily telling LM, or the Pentagon), what we were doing. Secondarily, it was more the commercial terms under which UK IPR embedded in the Unified Control System (specifically the VAACS stuff, without which the F-35s wwe are ordering cannot fly) was supplied that we were worried about.

I have heard and seen nothing bearing on this.

You've been bought and paid, you're a whore and a slave

Well, where to start with my utter rage at the kiboshed Al-Yamamah investigation? It's a total map of state direness, New Labour subtype: we have hypocrisy, we have a good day to bury bad news, we have cash, we have Lord Goldsmith, the professional get out of jail card himself. Obviously, this being a blog, we'll start by abusing a leader-writer.

In today's Guardian, we have Martin Kettle, who wants to say that we aren't serious enough and we don't understand how tough it is for politicians. In fact, our understanding is so minimal we will slide into fascism, and be raped by the dogs of a British Pinochet. No, this is not snark. Mr. Kettle actually threatens the nation at large with a British Pinochet, which put like that sounds pleasingly like some kind of baroquely obsolete firearm. Look at him! Look at Martin Kettle!, as Withnail would say.

I've said before that I'm not comfortable with the fisking tradition, but then, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Here goes.
It had been Tony Blair's day of infamy, the veteran pundit Anthony Howard told Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. By yesterday morning, having drunk deep from Thursday's heady cocktail of police interviews, discontinued fraud inquiries, and furtively announced airport expansions and post office closures, the amalgamated union of right thinking people all seemed to agree with him.

Well, count me out of this facile consensus. A difficult and politically damaging day, yes. A shaming day too, in some respects, particularly on the killing off of the BAE Systems probe. Further evidence of the Blair government's terminally battered condition? Certainly. But a day of infamy? Get real. Kenneth Williams rather than Franklin Roosevelt spoke with more relevance about Blair's real predicament. Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy.
Ipswich Killer: "By yesterday morning, having murdered five women, I found the amalgamated union of right-thinking people all seemed to agree that killing them was wrong. Count me out of this facile consensus!" Yes, I know it's tasteless. I know it's not serious. But if seriousness and good taste are what Kettle defines them to be - and we'll get to that - you can, ah, count me out of this facile consensus. "Seriousness", "responsibility", "consensus" - these are all words that are very useful translations of "in the interests of power". Kettle:
The government has accumulated many failings over the years. Yet it is not alone. Especially since the 2005 general election, much of the wider political culture, of which the media also forms part, has failed too. As a society, we seem to be living through a collective suspension of seriousness about how politics and government should be carried out in modern Britain. This is doing sustained damage to our ability to think clearly about what we expect from politicians and ministers. Of course, some of this deepening disengagement and cynicism is the government's doing. But it is time there was more honesty and self-criticism about the role of the wider political culture too.

The issues of the week exemplify what's wrong. Yes, it is embarrassing that a serving prime minister should be questioned in Downing Street as part of a criminal investigation into political donations. And yes, part of the issue lies in the way Blair leads his party and his government. But the fundamental failing is not his. As a country and culture we have not worked out an open and fair system of financing necessary political life in a rapidly changing world. We wish for the end, but persistently ignore the means. Yet with a general election to fight in 2005, the parties had to act. The rest of us can afford to hold our noses. The parties needed big money in the bank. In that sense, Blair is a victim of our collective failure, not the perpetrator of his own individual one.
Note the tropes of establishment journalism, the false balancing (yes, the government has failed, but so has the media, and apparently the nation, every man jack of us, too, so no-one is responsible), the false generalisation that lumps the government in with the opposition, the politician and the bureaucrat with the journalist and the activist, the worker and the boss. Everyone is to blame, so nobody is responsible - it's not new, but it's effective, something bound to go over well at the Glasgow Empire.

So, what would have happened if all of us - tweed-makers on Harris, tarts in Ipswich, programmers in Reading, immigrant cleaners in the West End, unemployed ex-miners in Featherstone, BAE bagmen in Mayfair (they have rights too!) - had bent our minds to designing a state funding scheme for political parties? Precisely nothing, if the government had not wanted to find parliamentary time for a bill to make it so. Let's be clear: Tony Blair did not find the parliamentary time for such, and he's the man who decides. Of course, the opposition could have, but they didn't - and do you think the Government would have voted with them?

The parties had to act, the poor dears. Well, they could have cut down on TV and billboard display ads, on tele-harassment, and sent the MPs to hammer the streets more. Perhaps they might have had to reconsider their policies, if they had discovered a lack of activists. Perhaps, with less money for neat debate-framing tricks and mass bullshit, we might have had some token of a real debate on institutions, aims and values. Who knows? Instead, they accepted bribes.

Or take the BAE Systems inquiry. Yes, it is humiliating that a multi-million pound corruption investigation should be pulled in the interests of keeping onside with the Saudis. Lord Goldsmith's announcement that the rule of law at home has to be sacrificed to our failing foreign policy entanglements will haunt him - though he also says, and it can't be merely ignored, that he thinks a prosecution would fail. The whole saga underlines that close relations with the House of Saud come at a price - which others remain happy to pay - that is neither politically perverse nor materially trivial. Oil supplies matter. Middle Eastern peace, stability and security matter, even though, Lord knows, we get these things badly wrong. Defence contracts and jobs matter too. It is too easy to brush aside the complex web of practical issues as if they are of no account. Ministers do not have that luxury.
So - it is wrong to kill the SFO inquiry, our foreign policy is failing, Goldsmith will be "haunted" (may I suggest a donation to Combat Stress? some people have had to do more haunting things than give the Prime Minister what he wants, when he wants it), but nobody should be responsible. Trebles all round. We don't import very much oil, although we will more and more, and Saudi Arabia is not the obvious place to get it (Norway isn't far). Obviously, if they were to stop exporting, the price would shoot through the roof - but why, pray, would they do that rather than just buying French?

The TYR research staff recently did a simulation of Saudi Arabia stopping oil exports, and we gave up at the point where the king was lynched by a screaming mob. It is not, by the way, beyond the bounds of possibility that they might export a lot less in the future simply because they run out - perhaps a more useful topic to direct a national newspaper column at. Anyway, "Middle Eastern peace, stability and security"? Have these ever been served by sending more guns? Is Tony Blair really the best man to ask what might lead to them? (After all, Lord knows, we get these things badly wrong.) And these jobs? Well, the aircraft being sold to Saudi Arabia are the ones the RAF was told it couldn't have by the Treasury. They are not additional airframes. Had Lord Drayson not signed his historic piece of paper with Lockheed - on the same day! - they might have gone to the Navy. BAE would have got rid of them somehow.

Similar realities dog every decision across the political board. It's what politics and government are about. Expand our airports or keep them as they are? Things to be said on both sides. Close down lots of barely used post offices or maintain them as a community resource? Pros and cons again. But in the end, decisions must be made. I think the way we raise political donations is wrong. I think the government should not have killed the BAE probe, especially, post-Iraq, for security reasons. But I can see what was at stake, and even respect its seriousness. The bigger the issue, the bigger the stakes and consequences, as John Major rightly said about withdrawal from Iraq yesterday.

This is not to maunder about how difficult everything is. It is to insist that we must not oversimplify. For the past five years, far too much of the British political conversation - disproportionately dominated, as ever, by the educated middle class of both right and left - has been reduced to an assumption of contempt and superiority, above all towards Blair himself, but also towards the Labour government and to politics in general. This is both wrong and dangerous. Our politics has never been as sleazy as we pretend, either in the Major years or now. Our politicians are not moral pygmies. Ultimately such talk paves the way for a Le Pen or a Pinochet - or worse. We may be drifting towards such a point.
Worse than Pinochet? Worse than thousands of dead, 40 per cent unemployment, electric shocks, death squads sent abroad? Apparently, we now have a duty as citizens to forget our citizenship, to ask no questions, to help the enlightened ones (and who the hell are they but the educated middle class?) in power in their aims - or face the slide to fascism.

The bigger the issue, the bigger the stakes and consequences. Very true. Doesn't that mean that "the issue" affects all the citizens? Kettle seems to argue that the more important something is, the less scrutiny is required. This is roughly how the state functions, anyway - it is true that planning decisions in local councils go through tortuous examination and careful precautions against corruption, and civil servants' mileage expenses are scrupulously audited. But the odd open-ended guerrilla war goes through on the nod. This is, at a deep level, the whole Kettle argument - that pomposity sanctifies. He argues that
The continuing and inevitable disappointments of the last decade have been legion. Thursday was a shabby day.
It is whether the particular record of compromises and best efforts that they make over a generation means that they have passed on a better country than the one they inherited.
So if the disappointments were legion, surely things ain't quite just so peachy as all that? Ah, no. We are the adults, and we know best. We are Serious. The rest of you refuse to realise our problems. You ought to be grateful. Peter Hennessy remarked, apparently, that all British males are products of empire. Kettle, here, is a very specific one. He is the Sirkar, the "ruler as the gift of God" in the Moghul honorific hijacked by the Indian Civil Service.

Classic DSR!

You want disturbing search requests? We got'em.

Two days ago, someone searched Indian Google for "security systems for British crown jewels" and landed here. Now, I think there's a movie in that. They are to be found somewhere on VSNL's network in India: traceroute.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Here we go again

Whilst we're on the subject of dubious Anglo-American diplomacy, it looks like nothing at all has been done about the F-35 intellectual property question. The HOC Defence committee says, essentially, that the supposed agreement on this is worthless and urgent steps should be taken to prepare a plan B. There is still no word on the fate of the VAACS flight control system developed at Boscombe, which is apparently going to be licensed back to us at vast expense. (There's a nice article on what VAACS is in Flight International, but nothing on the politricks.)

All together now: You can't get these people to do a fucking thing/Oh, you can't get these people to do a fucking thing.

The possible alternatives, you ask? I answer. Option 1 would be simple, if unpalatable. Rather than the JSF, we could order the Dassault Rafale from France, which is the aircraft the French will fly from the carriers we are building together. This would mean changes to the carrier design, as Rafale is a conventional take-off and landing type, but the good news is that this would just mean that all three ships would be identical. This would probably be the lowest-cost and lowest-risk option, as Rafales are already with at least one operational squadron.

It would, however, be very likely to suffer from "Not Invented Here Syndrome" to the Nth degree. French aeroplanes? The (US-encouraged and probably funded) jingo whingeing would be intolerable, as would the reaction at BAE. Never mind that quite a few of the Forces' major systems are part-French.

The remaining options are a long way back. Navalise the Eurofighter? BAE has done design studies for this, but it would be yet another expensive design change and delay, and would also necessitate changes to the carrier design. However, if the Saudi deal fell through, it might be an attractive option to keep the Warton line running and get rid of one extra platform's support costs.

There's also the Saab-BAE Gripen, which is considerably cheaper per aircraft than either Eurofighter, Rafale or F35, and doesn't involve the French or Germans but does involve BAE, hence politically palatable. Gripen is a lightweight aircraft and might be technically easier to navalise than Eurofighter/Typhoon, and the Saab line is currently going begging as the export sales have not been great. This, though, would be a step off the map and must therefore be discounted. One thing that speaks for it is that going either to Rafale or "Sea Typhoon" (perhaps Neddy as in Seagoon?) would definitively end the RAF and Fleet Air Arm's ability to operate without prepared bases-since 2000, the Harrier force has operated as a single outfit, JF Harrier, across carriers and land bases in support of the Army and Royal Marines. Like most Saab designs, Gripen can operate off unprepared strips, roads and such, although it isn't VTOL. Even the monster Viggen, for example, could fly off roads, and the Swedish air force regularly practised this. (The RAF's Jaguar, now going out of service, had a similar "rough CTOL" capability which was tested on the new M55 motorway outside Blackpool before the road, and the plane, went into service.)

Finally, there is option 4, an entirely new design or a rework of the Harrier so drastic as to be equivalent to a new design. This would delight BAE and lobby precisely because it would be fearsomely expensive, and would entail an entirely new support base - loads o'pork! It's fair to say that this one is a nonstarter, as much from the time factor as the cost. To avoid the HOCDC nightmare scenario of carriers without aeroplanes, they need to be here by 2012, and to avoid the end of the Harrier CAS capability, by 2010 (as the Harrier's out-of-service date is the end of 2009). Designing a new combat aircraft in this timeframe is not really an option, certainly not with BAE in charge.

Old "Virus" Grayson really needs to get his finger out. Alternatively, we could give the job to one of these cocktail robots.

Update: Reuters reporting that a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed. Document was last seen crumpled and sailing off into the wild blue from the window of Lockheed Martin CEO's Cadillac.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Colonel of the 36th

You may recall that we've followed the career of the Iraqi Special Forces, née Ministry of the Interior Commandos, née 36th ICDC Battalion in some detail. This force is one of the few reasonably capable Iraqi units, made up of a mix of exiles and SCIRI Badr Corps men.

Kazimi has a mildly hagiographic post on its leader, Colonel Ya'arub al-Hashimi, who has been assassinated. Finishes with the line Some commentators on Iraq make a habit of deriding ‘the exiles.’ I would have liked to see them do that to Harbi’s face.

Indeed, because he would have had his boys drive a hammer drill through their balls.

For Dawkins' sake...

Get your idle legs over to the Weblog Awards and vote for Fistful. Exercise your democratic rights here. We're losing to some random bunch of Dutchmen, but you can help us finish ahead of the demented thrappers of Brussels Journal.

As usual with blog awards, it's stuffed with the overrated and the clichéd. There was only one category where it wasn't blindingly obvious who to vote for (hint: the one that hadn't advocated anything amounting to a crime against humanity in international humanitarian law or propagated a deliberate falsehood this year), excluding the ones that were just obscure. That was the Middle East one, where there's a choice between AFOE's sister blog Aqoul and the Secret Dubai Diary...

This crapness is a result of high traffic blogs exporting their traffic. I suggest a better idea: why not weight the voting per capita? It would be the number of votes divided by the average unique hits/day, thus putting BoingBoing, Scripting News, Little Genocidal Fuckwit et al on an equal footing with everyone else.

Saudi Nuclear Watch

Within months of the invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabian sources began hinting at a contingency plan to obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Now, some more. I'm not sure whether to take The Business seriously, but they seem to have been briefed in some detail:
Western and Middle Eastern sources have told this magazine that, if and when it is clear that Iran has the bomb (or is close to it), the Saudis will respond by buying one from Pakistan, a fellow Sunni state. They would also likely purchase Pakistani ballistic missiles to replace the Chinese ones they bought in the 1980s. Everything is already in place for this to happen.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, the Saudi-Pakistan connection has been close for some time. Western intelligence services are now convinced that Saudi Arabia played a large role in financing Pakistan’s nuclear bomb project. Riyadh’s aim was to guarantee it immediate access to a nuclear arsenal to counter the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. The Business has learnt that British Intelligence (MI6) already regards Saudi Arabia as a surrogate nuclear power, able to join the club whenever it chooses.

Riyadh’s long-standing links with the Pakistani bomb are only now being scrutinised. A senior Saudi who defected to America in the 1990s warned Washington that Riyadh was financially supporting the nuclear ambitions of Islamabad to ensure access to nuclear weapons of its own in the future. The Pakistani nuclear scientist and leader of the world’s biggest nuclear proliferation ring, AQ Khan, was invited to Saudi Arabia by its Defence Minister, who toured Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in 1999 and 2002 (the 1999 visit prompting a diplomatic complaint from Washington). A Saudi Prince was a guest of honour at a 2002 Pakistani missile test. Pakistan was given almost $2bn-worth of Saudi oil after the international community initiated sanctions against Islamabad following its 1998 nuclear test.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

Sunday Princess Diana Blogging

Rare feature, this, but the Observer has news: the Stevens report says, apparently, that the US National Security Agency was monitoring her phone calls the night of her death. A couple of questions: didn't they have anyone better to bug? And, more importantly, what was the French government's position on this?

The Obscurer makes the point that this, and especially the fact that MI6 wasn't informed, raises some difficult questions about the so-called "intelligence special relationship". Well, it's not as if there wasn't plenty to be getting on with in terms of scrutiny there - CAZAB, UKUSA and the rest being the world's most highly secret treaties. But it's hard to see the direct relevance - bugging the French phone system would have needed access to it, or else the use of some super-fancy platform like Rivet Joint, and the chances of the French permitting that are between zero and zero.

Else, there would have had to be folk physically on the ground, or some special arrangement with France Telecom, and presumably with the DST or SDECE. Still, we can always blame the French for this one, so no chance of anyone learning anything there.

Update: 1900 16/12/06: The Obscurer was sold a furphy. Spyblog explains, having read the 782 page report.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Teh data, fools!

SpyBlog hits the nail on the head: isn't it time for the government to disclose the actual numbers on how much po-210 (and anything else) was floating around Alexander Litvinenko's carcass? Scaramella walked from UCH two days ago, just after having told his boss's pet paper back in Italy he was dying of radiation sickness. Now, Kotvin vanishes into a sealed hospital ward just as the Yard pitch up in Moscow. It's possible he's really ill, of course. It's very strange that - seeing as he was exposed, presumably, at the same time as Litvinenko - he should suddenly fall ill now.

After all, the biological half-life is 50 days. So, assuming his argument is that he got a smaller dose, he's hardly likely to keel over now. And - seeing as he flew to London to see Litvinenko on a plane that somehow got contaminated, saw him, returned on another plane that is hot, and seems to have left traces in all kinds of places - there are some questions he needs to answer. It's certainly convenient that he's in an isolation ward, no?

Only the data will clear up even a little of the fog of bullshit floating around the case.

Sources of stupidity

In comments, Teresa argues that Rumsfeld's incompetence can be traced to his time as a fighter pilot. Over at Yglesias's, "Ajay" makes the same point with regard to John McCain, with impressive brevity:
Good grief. Aviators. I admit the cocky buggers are handy to have around if you want a plane flown somewhere, but they should seriously be barred from public office. Bush I, Bush II, Rumsfeld, Cunningham, McCain...
Well, sort of. Certainly, assuming that someone like any of the people on this list has strategic insight because they were a short-service aviator is unwise, chiefly because with the possible exception of McCain none of them were in it for the long haul, so weren't required to specialise. Instead, they could rely on the classic assets: two good eyes, a bad case of Short Man Syndrome, and one asshole.

But I think this is trivial. Stupidity in power has many sources, and from tomorrow on this blog will explore it with a new feature: Sunday General Blogging, by analogy to Rob Farley's Sunday Battleship Blogging.

BTW, "Ajay", who appears to be either a current or past holder of the Queen's commission and sound on most issues, is one of those people who badly needs a blog.


So the BBC was blegging last night for information on Transaero's B737 EI-DDK, an aircraft involved in the Litvinenko case which is reportedly all hot with po-210. You just knew this blog would end up being involved, didn't you?

Transaero is a fairly respectable outfit, set up as a competitor to Aeroflot in 1991 and mostly operating Boeing types from Moscow-Domededovo. EI-DDK is a 737-4S3, serial number 24165, which has been knocking around unremarkably since 1989. Transaero bought it off Boeing's resale division in 2003.

It was in Heathrow on the 28th-29th of October, having come from Moscow, which is presumably why it fell under suspicion - reportedly, Lugovoi, Kotvin and Co. travelled aboard it on their way to meet Litvinenko. Arriving on the 28th; leaving on the 29th. The last photo I can find of it puts it in Tegel Airport, Berlin on the 2nd of December.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Don't throw me into that...

So Mike Turner, CEO of BAE SYSTEMS, and friends are moaning about being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over the Al-Yamamah kickbacks. They are claiming that thousands of jobs are at stake if the Saudis pull out of their order for Eurofighters, and therefore the government ought to quietly call off the SFO and give them a free pass. God knows I've been critical enough of BAE before, but this is mendacious.

Right. BAE will not build any more Eurofighters as a result of the Saudi deal. The planes for Saudi are the ones the RAF decided it didn't need, Tranche 2 of the original order. They could flog them elsewhere. Much of the cost is already paid, largely from the public purse.

But the Al-Yamamah contracts - the guns-for-oil deals - are more complicated than that. Al-Yamamah 1 and 2 included, essentially, a turnkey air force. Not only would BAE deliver fighters, and bombers, it would provide training aircraft. Not only that, it would provide flying instructors to teach Saudi pilots to fly them. Not only that, but some of the work would be done in Saudi Arabia, and the necessary technical experts would be supplied. Not only that, but Saudi maintenance personnel would be trained.

Another detail of the contracts is that they were signed between the governments of the UK and KSA, with BAE being a mere contractor to the MOD. Now, one trick in this is that if the civilian flying instructors - grizzled veterans in reality - employed by BAE quit, the UK must fill the gap with RAF officers on secondment, at the public charge. Presumably similar arrangements apply for other trades.

Since 2003, many of the instructors - not men who are easily scared - quit and left the Magic Kingdom, for fear can guess. They were replaced. Please, King Abdullah, don't throw me into that not-training-your-air-force-at-my-expense patch.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Even More Iraq!

That leaked Rumsfeld memo. What strikes me is that it's incredibly poor in quality. Rumsfeld was clearly...well...labouring under delusions of adequacy when he wrote this.

Consider the "options". "Significantly increase the number of US trainers and transfer more equipment to Iraqi security forces," "Reduce quickly the number of US bases, currently 55, to five by July 2007", "Position substantial US forces near the Iranian and Syrian borders to reduce infiltration and Iran's influence", "Withdraw US forces from vulnerable positions, such as patrols, and use them as a quick reaction force to help Iraqi security forces when needed", "Reconstruction efforts should be in those parts of Iraq that are behaving and no more reconstruction assistance should be given in areas where there is violence", and "Provide money to key political leaders (as Saddam Hussein did), to get them to help us get through this difficult period."

Well, not only is none of this very inspiring, but most of it is mutually incompatible. How the hell do you reduce the number of bases whilst increaing the numbers of advisors with the Iraqi forces? They are both good ideas in themselves, but more advisers means lots of little camps with US officers and NGOs in. Reducing the number of bases to five fortified desert superbases has been official policy since June/July 2003, so must anyway be considered pure ponyism.

Further, how are the substantial US forces meant to be positioned near the borders and be withdrawn to five big bases at the same time? At best, this would mean big bases with the field forces out on the borders, hence lots of road convoys between the two. Which means that US forces will have to get out and patrol the roads to keep them open. And how will these forces on the borders secure them without either going out on patrol, or else placing lots of small observation posts along them?

Not doing reconstruction in places where there is violence is, well, interesting. It is probably the truth - where there is violence, the contractors won't go. And anyway, one doesn't try to persuade one's allies. Finally, showering cash on Iraq has been tried continuously since the 9th of April, 2003, and seems to have resulted in the biggest theft in history.

Donald Rumsfeld was actually stupider than I thought.

Supporting Iraqi democracy

The war comes to Iraq the Model. A modest proposal, if I may. Comments like this one are not "supporting Iraqi democracy":
Congratulations Mohammed.

You and your neighbors have taken the first step toward democracy and living as free people. It appears you are coming to the realization that being “free” comes with taking the responsibility of government.

By government, I refer to the small group you and the others in your neighborhood have organized for your mutual benefit and protection. Soon, you will join with other neighborhoods and the area that is safe for your families will expand.

In time, most people will figure it out that they, not some nebulous “government”, are responsible for the future of their country. True leaders will rise, criminals will be turned in or be dealt with within the community and the type of society the people want will become reality. Above all, it will be done with a feeling of ownership by the people in the way things run.

Chaos and corruption exist where the people believe the “government” should solve problems for them. Peace and fairness exist where people know that they are the government.
j.west | 11.27.06 - 3:08 pm | #
And a pony. Whoops, the pony got blown up. And another pony. Shit, they cut its head off. And another pony. Looks like KBR just delivered us a squid and charged the government $50 million. Pony attrition seems to be getting dangerously high. Send more ponies!

Seriously, I fear for the mental health of anyone who could write that. But not as much, say, as the physical health of the ITM two, or for that matter anyone else in Iraq. If you want to support Iraqi democracy and you're a US citizen, sponsor someone's green card. Especially in the UK, you might want to try to ensure the government's essentially vicious impulses towards "asylum seekers" do not get too far out of hand. After all, the Home Office was struggling to get existing Iraqi refugees shipped back, into Irbil in Kurdistan because it was the only airfield the charter line would fly into, for fear of their lives. Apparently, even if they came from Fallujah or Baqubah, the legal requirement not to send them into danger was fulfilled if the point of release was itself safe.

In other related news, this article on the potential for peaceful change in Iran is well worth reading. Note: does anyone think strategic bombing will lead to anything but the people involved being strung up as traitors?

Pinball Wizard

Apparently the alternative to the Baker commission/TYR solution in Iraq - get the fuck out under a negotiated settlement with Iran - that the White House is floating is a "tilt to the Shia and Kurdish 80 per cent. I find it a little hard to work out how we are meant to tilt to them any more-after all, I've been saying since 2003 that our presence in Iraq is dependent on the continuance of a Shia-Kurdish alliance, and the Shia have the government of Iraq that is held up by British and American bayonets.

But anyway. In pursuit of this, apparently, urgent talks are underway with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI, presumably with a view to throwing the Dawa guys like Maliki and Jaafari overboard. The obvious flaw in this strategy should be, well, obvious. SCIRI is the closest Iraqi actor to Iran. If you want Iranian and Shia power extended, this is just the right way to go about it. I suppose there is an argument that it's better to talk directly to SCIRI, who are strong, than to talk to Dawa and the Allawi fan club and through them to SCIRI, but the benefits are marginal at best.

Mark Kleiman, and many others, point out that the implication of tilting even further to the Shia is essentially that we are going to take sides in the religious war, which they argue will mean genocide. I'm not so sure. NOIA looks like it can look after itself, and it is being repeatedly made clear that it will have official Saudi support. But there is another concern, even before we get to the mind-buggering prospect of getting the Magic Kingdom involved.

If we align explicitly with the (pro-Iranian) SCIRI in its war with the NOIA, what happens with the Sadrists, who are at least as strong as SCIRI? Moqtada al-Sadr's movement frequently denounces SCIRI as an Iranian Trojan horse, little better than the Americans, although they have until recently cooperated in government after a fashion. The Sadrists are nationalistic and violently opposed to a) occupation and b) Iran, and they have on occasion cooperated with NOIA in the past. If we tilt the table towards Tehran, we risk bringing the whole thing crashing down on us as the Mehdi Army is called out along the MSRs to help the "besieged Iraqi resistance" fight the "Iranian invaders, American occupiers and their collaborator scum in Baghdad".

Indeed, if we really must continue to behave as if there was any hope of a non-terrible outcome, we would be much better off tilting towards Moqtada al-Sadr. What his price would be I dare not speculate, but it would certainly involve getting troops off the streets in short order, and an accommodation with NOIA in its stronghold regions. (You say that like it's a bad thing.) This post of Phil Carter's on the Sadr movement's civil-operations activities would argue strongly for it. David Hackworth would have said he's the G who's out-G'ing the other G's. (Phil's ten lessons from Iraq are highly recommended as well.)

And finally, can we please, please, please not do anything that is likely to get the Saudis involved? They do have some things that could greatly strengthen the NOIA, specifically an endless supply of cash and an equally endless supply of deranged takfiri killers who they are desperate to see explode, well, somewhere else. They also have no shortage of arms. This was, of course, their 1980s strategy of shipping jihadis to other wars so as to prevent revolution at home - call it the Anywhere but Abqaiq Approach. Unfortunately, they were left with an underutilised maniac industry after the Afghan campaign, and rather lost control. Doing it again is likely to have similar consequences, but much closer to home.

After all, as Michael Ledeen puts it in this criminally irresponsible tirade, They know their people hate them, and they know that revolution could erupt if we supported it. He's talking Iran and Syria. Perhaps. But somehow three little words show up nowhere - "Saudi", "Arabia", and "oil." Listen to this, too. Once we do, we will find that we've got many political and economic weapons, most of them inside our enemies' lands. Indeed, habibi, we call them debt, energy inefficiency and the exhaustion of the US Army's infantry. If they are fools enough to...where was I? What, this isn't the head of the Revolutionary Guards Corps speaking?

Ledeen is intellectually dishonest, ignorant, mercenary, mendacious and more. But I ask of you - surely he knows that there are 2 US Navy carriers capable of operations, that practically all US Army and Marine manpower is committed to Iraq? So what is this madness, from an objective point of view? We know his old chum Manuchar Ghorbanifar is almost certainly an Iranian intelligence asset, and his mate Chalabi told them their ciphers were insecure. Has he never wondered if he's being exploited?

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