Patrick Mercer: Wars cost money. False economies cost lives

After nine deaths in 10 days in Afghanistan we need to apply some of the lessons learned the hard way in Northern Ireland. To make our troops less vulnerable we need more of them, and they need to be properly equipped with armoured vehicles and helicopters

Sunday 22 June 2008 00:00

Whatever your stance on the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one can doubt the courage of our young soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen who fight there. Thank God that we have got youngsters like these who are prepared to do the brutal and bloody work that ultimately keeps us safe in our beds.

In February 2006 the Government announced the deployment of troops to Helmand province – an area of Afghanistan in which there had been very little fighting and which seemed benign. But it was benign because no one was challenging the Taliban in that area and they, in their turn, were using it as a staging post for operations further into the interior of the country. A cursory glance at history showed that fighting was likely to be severe if troops were deployed here in any numbers and some of us pointed this out to the Government. John Reid was Defence Secretary at the time and his hope that no shots would have to be fired in anger was thought by many of us to be ludicrously optimistic.

So it has proved, and two years later, the single battle group that was first deployed has had to be expanded to a force five times that size. After the initial fighting, when the Taliban used relatively conventional tactics and lost many men, they have adopted terrorist tactics that kill our soldiers but make our enemies less vulnerable. So, how can we deal with this?

First, the Government needs to decide whether this campaign should be prosecuted or not. To my mind the Taliban and their henchmen must be confronted. If we are to fight terrorism successfully it has got to be done not just by soldiers in Afghanistan, and intelligence officers in Pakistan, but by judges, religious leaders and politicians inside the country as well.

The most obvious manifestation of this fight, though, will be the success or otherwise of our troops in battle. For them to win they have got to be properly resourced and that is why I have been vocal in my criticisms of vehicles such as the Snatch Land Rovers in which they are forced to travel. Of necessity a hotchpotch fleet of un-armoured and armoured vehicles has grown up around the fighting troops while a new generation of specially designed armoured vehicles is slowly coming into service.

Our enemies have been extremely resourceful in deploying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against which very few vehicles are safe. Unlike the campaign in Northern Ireland, where explosives were in short supply, in Afghanistan there is no shortage of munitions that can be readily adapted to attack vehicles remotely. But, it is worth looking at the solutions that we used to counter the IRA.

In order to stop vehicles being attacked by IRA mines, we simply banned movement by road ensuring that every operation mounted on the Irish border was done either on foot, with helicopters or a combination of the two. Such an approach is impossible with the vast areas of town and hinterland that has to be dominated in both theatres, but somehow our small number of troops have got to be deployed as safely as possible and to maximum effect.

Road movement is inevitable. But, we have been in Afghanistan since 2002 and there is no excuse for any more foot-dragging by the MoD in deploying the right vehicles in the right numbers. To continue using Snatch and other vehicles that are hardly suitable is inexcusable – a much better solution is the use of helicopters. Again, this is what we did on a much smaller scale in Northern Ireland, but it required an expansion of our helicopter fleet. We must do the same for the current campaigns and if that means diverting money from other areas or other equipment programmes, then it has got to be.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan are unforgiving theatres for helicopters. The grit and heat wear the aircraft out more quickly, meaning that more must be made available. Self-evidently, if you have a big area to cover and a small number of troops, then they have got to be as flexible and mobile as possible, and although a troop-carrying helicopter is by no means invulnerable, it is a much less easy and predictable target to hit than a lightly armoured Land Rover on a road or track.

But this leaves the question: why are there so few troops? As Iraq winds down so Afghanistan consumes what manpower is left over, but it is an unpalatable truth that the forces are just not big enough to fight hot wars on two fronts. It may seem counter-intuitive, but more foot soldiers on the ground makes targeting less easy for the enemy. If you have four tasks and 10 soldiers they are vulnerable, compact targets as they move from task to task and it is almost impossible to hold ground. Four tasks with 20, or better still, 40 soldiers makes them much safer.

That is why successive commanders in Afghanistan ask for more and more fighting manpower. But although the MoD claims that the Army is only about 7,000 short of its manning target, only about 50 per cent of the Army is capable of deploying overseas. Furthermore, of that 50 per cent we only have about 25,000 combat soldiers who are being asked to take the brunt of the fighting. If the rumours are true that General Sir Richard Dannatt will not be considered for the post of Chief of Defence Staff – the forces' supremo – I very much regret it. In this man, the services have a real champion who will tackle the sorts of problems mentioned here. While that may be unpalatable to politicians, he is just the leader that the men and women at the front need.

The curse of terrorism and jihad is going to be with us for the foreseeable future and our sons and daughters are going to be fighting and dying in hot, far-away places just as their great-grandfathers did. The Government needs to recognise this and make some tough, and expensive decisions, but only by doing so will it save lives. Our forces – and the Army in particular – have got to be larger and they have got to be properly equipped. To do anything less is squandering life and blood.

Patrick Mercer is Tory MP for Newark and Retford and former shadow minister for security

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