Monday, April 28, 2008

Technology or Glory?

The documentary “Reluctant Hero” about Corporal Bill Apiata V.C which screened this ANZAC day on Television One provided a limited insight into the type of long range patrols the Special Air Service carries out in Afghanistan. It was impossible to explain Corp Apiata’s incredible act of fearlessness without showing how these patrols operate and what they look like.

Key to the patrol is the patrol truck based on the BAE Systems Pinzgauer. Like the 30 cwt trucks of the SAS's WW2 antecedents, the Long Range Desert Patrol, the truck is equipped for speed and firepower. There is no roof and no glass. The vehicle is built for ease of dismount, speed and high firepower. Essentially the truck is all gas and guns.

Corp Apiata’s truck was ambushed by Taliban supporters, probably based at a nearby village. The vehicles were drawn up in a laager and the Taliban snuck up unobserved and fired RPG-7 and heavy machine-guns into Apiata’s vehicle. Even a main battle tank caught in this way is vulnerable as the Afghani’s – now into their second generation of fighting invaders – would well know. Following Corp Apiata’s heroic and incredibly lucky withdrawl under fire the patrol drove off their attackers. Curiously Corporal Apiata was allowed to tell us the patrol kept firing for some time after the incoming fire had stopped.

What does this tell us?

First we have to ignore the British trick of smokescreening blunders behind acts of individual heroism. The most VCs ever won in an action was at Rourke's Drift - a classic example of the Brits lionising brave men who were fundamentally desperate. Obviously the kind of patrol Corporal Apiata was on is meant to attack vulnerable enemy elements on the move caught in the open. It is not a defensive unit and is not meant to get ambushed itself. It goes without saying that unless you are luring the enemy into a trap, being ambushed means someone made a mistake. The mistake either lay in the lack of intelligence about the village nearby or the planned or actual rate of progress of the patrol. If they were late they would be forced to lay-up in poor defensive terrain with a near-by risk. Everyone on the patrol would have realised this.

Secondly the fact that they were firing after the enemy had stopped suggested they didn’t really know where the enemy were. The tracer was coming in and they were just throwing it back. While the rest of us would all be cowering in the foetal position it seems even the SAS can find heavy incoming fire a trifle hairy and their main motivation was simply to drive their assailants away.

Are there any ways one can ameliorate these kinds of risk? The lack of intelligence about local politics is as unavoidable as it is ever-changing. Soldiers can be attuned to political winds but they can’t do much about them. The real issue is the lack of perimeter security for highly mobile forces during rest periods.

Obviously there are all sorts of perimeter security technologies available (radar, seismic, acoustic) etc but most of these are designed for securing static posts and take ages to set up and calibrate. They would also be prohibitively expensive in places where there are multiple avenues of attack. Claymore mines are deadly but are not much use over 100 metres and a sensible ambusher is only this close if he is certain of a massacre or isn’t planning on coming home. The attack was clearly an opportunistic one where the target was relatively easy and the escape routes many. All of this means that what these patrols need are quick to install, cheap and effective forms of perimeter security.

One tried and proven technology that has been used since ancient times is the Mk 5000 dog. With excellent hearing and sense of smell dogs are relatively cheap and potentially useful in up-close situations where people are trying to hide things. Not always that good at sound discipline this hardly applies to a motorised convoy. A few dogs on such a patrol might well earn their biscuits.

A newer technology being used in Iraq and Afghanistan is tethered 4m diameter helium balloons with surveillance cameras on them. For only US$20,000 a patrol could fill, launch and winch out a surveillance camera 1,000 feet overhead which would provide look-down coverage over themselves and the surrounding area. Floating silently in complete darkness out of danger from small-arms fire a thermal or low light camera could provide excellent warning of a gathering threat to those on watch - perhaps even allowing a counter-ambush. Potentially the system could also be used to provide surveillance without exposing the patrol. A relatively low cost solution to perimeter security and a lot cheaper than a new Pinzgauer.

Finally there are UAVs. Hand launched UAVs are being used by American, British and Israeli special forces for tactical reconnaissance. Tiny UAV’s could be used not only to provide area surveillance but also track enemy contacts as they attempt to escape.

I must confess on sighting the special forces Pinzgauer I was impressed and could not help wondering whether my review had been correct to recommend the much cheaper Landcruiser. The Pinzgauer admittedly does have some stunning rock-crawling capabilities and is used by the British. But my argument is that the Landcruiser with commercial-off-the-shelf global support is more cost effective over a shorter service life while 90% of the time the Pinzgauers capabilities will be wasted - effectively becoming an expensive, over-muscled light truck. And by the time they are 20 years old they will be very sad indeed. My issue then was whether Pinzies should still be the go for special forces?

The Landcruiser 79 has been re-developed for the special forces patrol role by Jenkel Ltd (UK)and the Jordanian Ministry of Defence as the Al-Thalab (Fox) and is being used in Afghanistan alongside its ubiquitous civilian cousins. While a relative softy when it comes to hard terrain it carries a useful load and has a range of 1500kms and an endurance of 10 mission days. There is no escaping the fact, however that the Pinzgauer is a better vehicle for surviving extreme terrain than a Landcruiser and as loss of mobility can be lethal in special forces environments the question must be whethera non-Landcruiser solution for special forces should be considered.
Currently my Review budgets about $10 million for light armoured vehicles for the Rangers companies (the equivalent special force unit). The proposed solution is the South African RG31, an armoured mine protected vehicle. The obvious objection to this vehicle is that it is nothing like as nimble as a Pinzgauer. On the other hand the US Special Operations Command has ordered hundreds of the later RG-33 as has the Marine Corps.More to the point it is sensible to retrofit the RG-31 Nyala with slat armour which can prematurely detonate RPG rounds reducing the amount of damage they can cause.

Ultimately the argument comes down to mobility versus protection. SAS soldiers, by their nature, like mobility. However even the SAS has to sleep sometimes and as the encounter in Afghanistan demonstrated there are times when any patrol is vulnerable. At these times real steel is a lot more reliable than moral steel. A patrol consisting of dirt bikes, land cruisers and RG-31's might not be quite as mobile as Pinzgauers but it would would have a far greater survivability capability and as Rommel once observed reconnaisance without survival is pointless.

One has to consider that instead of a VC there was a very real chance that Corporal Apiata and the rest of the crew could have come home in body bags. Instead of glory there would have been some sad little tangis. Had the patrol been equipped with suitable perimeter sensing technology and vehicles better armoured to deflect RPG-7 rounds the disastrous ambush could have been transformed into a counter-ambush which would have been usefully educational for the hostiles family and friends than the heroes welcome they probably recieved when they came home.
While no-one can doubt the courage and commitment of our soldiers the circumstances in which Corporal Apiata earned his Victoria Cross is not a shining example of military success. Doubtless there are better examples of SAS operations than this of which we must unfortunately remain ignorant. But while it is good to know Defence personnel are as gutsy as they were 60-years ago it would also be nice to think that the Force was much, much, much more sophisticated.