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July 13, 2009
Much of the reporting of the current British military involvement in Afghanistan has left me somewhat irritated and has caused some discussion in the household about the current state of war reporting and of people’s understanding of military matters.
Two things to say first.
1. None of this discussion is intended to lessen the individual tragedy of any death or injury or the impact of this on families and loved ones – it’s all horrid and awful
2. I say this stuff as a reflection on various reading and study over many years rather than from any direct experience of military engagement.
So, firstly. Some of the debate about ‘are our troops getting the protection they need’ or ‘we need more armour, helicopters, bigger, heavier, stronger’ leaves me wondering about what people understand about military operations.
Lets think about helicopters first.
Helicopters are great for getting from one place to another very quickly and in moderate safety. Not complete safety mind you. Helicopters are still vulnerable to ground fire – Black Hawk Down is a useful reminder of this.
The other thing about helicopters is that they are great for rapid response to a situation, but they don’t allow for long term domination of territory. The American experience in Vietnam is a useful comparison. Helicopters allowed US forces to move quickly around zones but with a few problems. Landing zones attracted a lot of attention from enemy fire making them dangerous locations. VC forces would get wind of the approaching US troops, leave an area wait for the patrols to leave and then come back. It made it very difficult for the US to actually gain long term control of areas. To do that you need men on the ground over a long period, not jumping from zone to zone to zone in an endlessly futile dance.
At some point you also have to get out of the helicopters and actually spend some time on the ground. You can’t effectively search an area using helicopters – you need to talk to people and get a grounds eye view, and that means risk.
And on that point – piling up armour seems to me to be an odd response. There are many occasions where fast and light wins over slow and heavy, especially in areas of uneven terrain and against a lightly armoured fast enemy. Yes, it means accepting greater risk but there are reasons why it can useful to be quick and manouverable.
Take for example a much older scenario. The massed ranks of French cavalry on the field of Agincourt were feared as the ultimate shock troops of their age. Heavily armoured, a mass charge was a terrible thing to experience, let alone be on the end of. However, as history illustrates, a muddy field and an opposing line of lightly armed English Longbowmen soon brought the medieval tanks to a grinding halt.
Similarly there are plenty of examples from more modern time where quick infantry have knocked out heavily armoured tanks and transports. Sure, you’d give the odds to the tank but then you can still get occasions when a plucky soldier armed with just a PIAT (basically a high explosive round stuck on a spring – not kidding! Afghanistan would not be the first time British Troops have been sent into combat with crap weapons!) can take out a heavily armoured German self-propelled gun.
And again, at some point you have to get out of the tank and walk about and that means risk.
The heavy armour approach leads you down the line of American Forces – big tanks, big guns – and this is not necessarily going to win hearts and minds.
The Russians had this same problem in Afghanistan – they had plenty of helicopters, tanks and more, and they couldn’t manage it.
This is a difficult conflict in military, political and ethical terms. I worry that the way it is reported turns it into the sort of debate we have about England’s lack of a genuine left-footed winger. It’s a gross over simplification of the reality of modern conflict.
And on this subject. The media representation seems to have drifted into a position where death and injury is a surprise. Do we think this is a zero-cost engagement? What is the agenda here? Do we think that with more equipment we can make soldiering a no-risk activity?
Falklands – 74 days, 255 British and 649 Argentine soldiers dead
Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam (where they had plenty of helicopters!) – 307 US killed
Allied dead in WW2 – 16 million in 6 years – of these 382,000 were UK
UK losses on D-day – 2,700
At Monte Cassino allied forces could lose 100s of men in hours of fighting, let alone days.
and that’s not to mention the terrible attrition of the first world war.
Not sure what the point here is – do we think that we can minimise risks in a combat situation? Considering where we have been the forces in Afghanistan seem to be doing a rather effective job of managing risk.
If you look at those numbers it’s simple – this is a risky business and if we are going to take military action then people will die, regardless of how many helicopters, tanks, sets of body armour and the like we can provide. Indeed, over reliance on these things may in fact reduce operational effectiveness both in terms of getting the locals on side and being able to respond to a mobile enemy.
It’s all a damn sight more complicated than the reports on the 24 hour news channels would like it to be.