Monday, 7 December 2015

Uk CSAR gap

With airstrikes now underway in Syria it strikes me (pun not intended) that it's time to go back and look again at something I brought up before, if only briefly, and that's the possibility of the UK setting up a dedicated Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) unit for recovering personnel from behind enemy lines. 

CSAR was effectively pioneered, albeit unintentionally, in 1916 by Squadron-Commander (later Vice Admiral) Richard Bell Davies of the Royal Naval Air Service, on operations in Bulgaria. He received the Victoria Cross for his actions, landing in hostile territory to recover a fellow pilot whose aircraft had been shot down. And now? There doesn't seem to be any formal unit whose sole task is assigned to this role in the UK armed forces. Which seems very odd to me. 

Thankfully Britain has not found itself in a situation where it needed such a unit that often, but there have been a few cases. Some Tornado pilots over Iraq in 1991 were downed by anti-aircraft defences and subsequently captured. The infamous Bravo Two Zero SAS patrol also went missing during this same campaign, though for a variety of reasons predominantly related to communications it is debatable whether a CSAR unit would have been able to find them. Though no pilot from the UK has been shot down over either Syria or Iraq during the current operations, one unfortunate Jordanian pilot ejected and was captured by Daesh, after which he was burnt alive. That knowledge surely has to linger in the back of the minds of RAF pilots as they take to the skies now.

As such this would seem the perfect time to address the CSAR gap. And we even have a unit in the British order of battle that would seem to be well placed to take the role.

That unit would be II Squadron, RAF Regiment. On paper its role is to capture and hold forward airfields by air assault for the use of friendly air forces, hence why it is parachute trained. Quite how an over strength company is supposed to single handedly capture and then secure an entire airfield is a different matter however. As I've suggested before, probably a better role for it would be to attach it to 16 Air Assault Brigade (which has recently regained 1 PARA and its old Pegasus badge) and have them used as the security element of 16 AAB alongside formed units of the reserve 4 PARA battalion, securing a safe zone for the brigade where HQ operations, artillery, medical, resupply, prisoner handling etc would take place.

The alternative is to let it form the basis of a new CSAR unit along the lines of the USAF's pararescuemen. It's already parachute capable so has that element down, but would need additional work to gain capability in water based rescues etc, and could potentially serve on the future carriers providing the CSAR element for Royal Navy aircrews as well. It's a tricky subject in many ways. The US learned through bitter experience in Vietnam that there are limits on what a CSAR mission can realistically achieve and what resources can realistically be risked for the sake of recovering one man. But the US at least has a formal process for assessing the risk and making that decision, and a formal organisation in place to action a plan should the decision to attempt a rescue be made. I'd like to see the UK follow this lead and develop a proper, full time CSAR unit.

And really it's not just CSAR for pilots alone. US pararescuemen have had their specialist skills put to a variety of uses. They've been involved in domestic search and rescue operations on the continental US, they've been sent abroad to help search and rescue efforts following natural disasters, they were deployed frequently to Iraq and Afghanistan to protect US medical helicopters sent to pick up wounded soldiers in contact with the enemy, they've supported US special forces by providing a quick reaction unit to support them as well as providing rescue parties to help organise the extraction of SF soldiers in trouble, and were even involved in the Battle of Mogadishu, fast roping in to help secure one the crash sites.

So it's reasonable to presume a UK CSAR force would not solely become a one trick pony. Like much of the armed forces it would likely end up being deployed for a variety of tasks. Predominantly though it would be tasked with making sure people like Daesh don't get their hands on any UK pilots who find themselves having to eject over hostile territory. I think II Squadron RAF Regiment is probably best placed for this right now but I really don't care who does it. Perhaps a role for a reserve unit? And frankly I would rather we gain this capability before its actually needed than wait until its too late.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Hillary Benn's speech on Syria

So the commons has voted and it has voted in favour of expanding airstrikes into Syria. Many members stood to give speeches representing both sides of the argument. But the one that has drawn all the plaudits was that by the shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn. It received a response in the House the like of which I don't think I've ever seen in my lifetime, the closest the House will ever get to a standing ovation. The press have lauded it, some MPs were supposedly moved to tears by it, and it's possible that some members were swayed by it.

But the whole thing was a nonsense

The presentation was about as slick as they come. Clearly Mr. Benn has been brushing up on his skills and many Labour supporters probably now dream that Mr. Benn could be their leader. The delivery was crisp, impassioned, engaging and perfectly timed. It was a perfect parliamentary speech. Except for the actual content. It was a speech that - like all good political speeches - appealed to and played on peoples emotions, instead of reason. It was very... Adolf Hitler*, but in a calmer, more gentile way. Big on rhetoric, short on actual sense. It was a classic example of the quality (or lack thereof) of modern political discourse.

(*Please note, I DO NOT mean to imply that Hillary Benn has anything ideologically in common with Adolf Hitler. This wouldn't normally need explaining, but this is the Internet after all.)

I found particularly odd the idea put across early in the speech that everyone is going to hold hands at the end and Syria will become a model democratic state once Assad kindly obliges by stepping down to make way for elections. Let us just remind ourselves a bit about who Assad is and what a nice, accommodating chap he is; he used chemical weapons against his own people

Yes, apparently that is the Assad that Benn thinks is going to calmly step aside at the end of all this and just make way. A man who used chemical weapons in a desperate bid to cling to power. A man who has been told that one day he will be dragged in front of the international courts to answer charges about crimes against humanity. I'm sure he's packing his bags and preparing his resignation speech as we speak. Oh, and did I mention that Russia has intervened in the conflict in order to prop up Assad's position so they can retain their best ally in the region? No? Well that has happened as well. Right now Assad is only likely to leave office in one way and that's in a coffin. Whether he ends up there through old age or someone puts him there against his wishes is the only real question mark as things stand. Unless the Russians want to take in a VIP class refugee?
Continuing, Benn made the point about the threat of terrorist attacks at home and how the UK must reduce this threat. He appealed to peoples sense of fear and spoke about "what if that was London?" etc, an argument that has been a cornerstone of the pro-bombing Syria movement at the minute. What of course he failed to acknowledge was that a) the US has been bombing Syria for a while now. That didn't prevent the attacks in Paris, indeed b) France started bombing Syria in October and a month later was hit by the brutal attacks in Paris. Despite claims by Daesh/ISIS, it's not clear whether the attackers in Paris carried out their operation as a direct response to this fresh twist to the bombing campaign, or whether this was something they had been planning for a long time and this just happened to be an opportune moment. 

What is clear is that this ridiculous relationship that is drawn between bombing ISIS = less chance of a terrorist attack at home is just that, ridiculous. The 7/7 attacks in London pre-date ISIS by some way. The UK and its allies are not fighting one group, or even many groups. They're fighting an ideology, a group of nutters who think blowing up civilians and shooting people in nightclubs will convince western populations to turn against their leaders and bring an end to western involvement in the middle east. Al-Qaeda is so last decade, ISIS is the flavour of the month right now, and I suspect it will be someone else in a few years time. There are lots of good reasons to want to take action against ISIS, but pretending that bombing leadership targets in Raqqa will magically make the UK streets safer is an utter fallacy. Not least because c) home grown terrorists are just that, they're home grown. By definition they exist here, in this country, among our own population. Defeating them is the job of the Security Service and the police, not the RAF.

Next came his claim that bombing stopped the Daesh/ISIS advance, which it didn't. The ground forces of Daesh are just like any other military force. They don't exist in a bubble, they require support. Food, water, ammunition, fuel. The old phrase about how amateurs talk about tactics and professionals talk about logistics springs to mind. Daesh/ISIS was at the extreme end of its logistical trail when it began to run into stiffening resistance from a combination of the Iraqi army, Shia militas and Kurdish fighters. Bombing helped, as pretty much any interdiction air campaign of decent size will against an active military force, as well as providing close support. But it was the ground forces and not the bombing which halted the advance. And it's the ground forces, not the bombing, that will push Daesh/ISIS back.

Which brings me to the faith that everyone seems to have in the opposition forces in Syria. These forces have so far proven themselves in their current state to be singularly incapable of stopping Daesh/ISIS. That's why they're in the critical state that they are. A few extra bombs dropped on Raqqa is not going to change the fact that the Syrian opposition is a mixture of disparate groups, mostly concerned with protecting their own neighbourhoods, and lacking severely in organisation, equipment, training, communications, intelligence (in the military context) and logistical support. You know, all those things that are generally considered critical to the success of a military force. In reality they aren't that much of a step up from Dads Army. 

And frankly the time to start equipping, training and organising them to become an effective fighting force has long since passed. Add to this the problem that they aren't just fighting Daesh/ISIS, they're fighting the Syrian government forces as well. Forces that have tanks, and artillery, and armoured personnel carriers. And are now being backed by Russian airstrikes. That's probably the greatest piece of lunacy in all this. The UK is going to start bombing Daesh/ISIS in Syria with a handful of jets on the promise to the public that this will degrade their fighting ability sufficiently to allow Syrian rebel fighters to defeat them, while at the same time those very rebels are being bombed by the Russians, who have more planes and a much looser definition of "rules of engagement". The Syrian opposition would do well just to survive at this point, let alone start any major offensive against Daesh/ISIS. It all has a whiff of the Iraq wars "dodgy dossier" all over again.

Meanwhile the Iraqi army, its militias and the Kurdish fighters are much better organised, much better trained, much better equipped, and have much better communications, intelligence and logistical support. They're not under dual pressure from Daesh/ISIS and the Syrian government, nor are they being bombed by the Russians. They have secure bases into which international support can flow. They have been making some gains over the last year in recapturing territory from Daesh/ISIS. And they have the ability - eventually - to push Daesh/ISIS back out of Iraq and away from its major logistical bases and economic centres. In other words, at this stage, they're a thousand times more supportable than the Syrian opposition fighters.

So if you really want to speed up the demise of Daesh/ISIS, then Iraq is the place to do it, not making token strikes in Syria. A more organised, aggressive approach to helping the Iraqis and Kurds is at this point a much more sound way of producing the outcome that everyone wants, using the extra Tornados and the Typhoons to help by bombing targets in Iraq instead of Syria, providing a concentration of effort at the critical point. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a serious military analyst who would disagree with this. It wouldn't end the war tomorrow, but if defeating Daesh/ISIS is your desired outcome then this has a much greater chance of success in the long run. And it's not like the Americans are short of their own assets for hitting targets in Syria now is it?

The only way strikes against Syria by the UK really makes sense is if your desired outcome is to simply relieve the immediate pressure on the Syrian rebels, allowing them to worry less about Daesh/ISIS and focus more on beating Assad, with the end goal of toppling him then dealing with Daesh/ISIS later. But no government would be so underhanded in its appraoch would it? To dress up one political aim as if it was another, tricking MPs into voting for one course of action while secretly plotting another? Hmm....

Finally we need to address this fallacy of connecting strikes in Syria with being anti-Daesh, as if strikes in Iraq were not. There's been lots of talk about how this is all about siding with France and helping our allies etc, as if we weren't before hand, just sitting on our hands and watching while everyone else did the dirty work. The UK has been carrying out strikes and ISTAR missions over Iraq for quite a while now. Britain has been playing its part and would have continued to play its part even without the authorisation to hit targets in Syria. I think it's a deeply flawed position to assume that only strikes against Syria can show solidarity with France.

And it sums up Mr Benn's speech in a nutshell. A deeply flawed position, disconnected completely with the reality of the situation, but dressed up in rhetoric that plays to the gallery. Indeed, it sums up UK politics as a whole.