Archive for November, 2015

ISIL: Pig Iron Knows What’s To Be Done

November 27, 2015


27th November


Pig Iron – The Man Who Can Kill ISIL


A man with a limp called Pig Iron sat in the gallery and listened to the Prime Minister. Every few words he would nod slowly in agreement. Yes ISIL is bad news. Yes What goes down in Syria is bad news. Yes it is bad news letting others fight our battles. But when the man in the suit got to the bit about let us go bomb, then Pig Iron sat taller and shook his bearded chin in defiance. No. No. No.


In the bar across the road Pig Iron looked more like what he had once been. Special. Special Forces. Sturdy. Untrusting eyes. Thick hands with whittled down nails. He had spent much of his Service life in those parts as he called them. Oman with Salusbury-Trelawny in the Sultan’s Dhofar Brigade. Clugged down in Waddhi Something or Other with his Firquat irregulars he did not quite trust and just a couple of sandbags on the floor for protection in their Land Rover. Iraq in1991. Cleaning up the mess in 2003. As an instructor in Jordan attached to the Little King. Four decades or so a long way from Lympstone where he had learned to hold his breath in Peter’s Pool in the Royal Marine basic training course.


So why the head shaking? Chipping in with a few RAF sorties would make Cameron feel good he says but would have no result and anyway, the record shows 60% of Iraq RAF sorties are aborted.


Pig Iron knows the Middle East as much as many. He knows what is happening and who it is happening to. The rest he hears. He says with the wisdom of a man who drinks lager with a whiskey chaser (or maybe it is the other way round) that we should sector Iraq and Syria put French, US, British and maybe Australian special forces backed up with Kurds in each of the seven sectors under (reluctantly) a US commander with a second in command British Commander Operations – that is, the guy driving the whole thing.


The US Marine Corps, RAF and French should provide close air support. The US, French and Royal Navy should use air launched, drone launched and sea launched (including submarine launched) assets to ground-soften ISIL.


The seven sectors would be separated so no ISIL command and control and force movement could overlap. British and American ISTAR – information, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance – should feed the lot through a distributing joint command HQ. At the command with all the fancy titles they could handle would be commanders-in-chief of the major Gulf states.


And then? And then you go in and clean out ISIL as an operating force inside six months.


Much of ISIL will not be killed unless they are looking for early blood baths and mythical virgins. ISIL will disperse. And then? And then it is a hot pursuit job. You continue operations not as an army sitting on its bum but as a fast moving opportunity force harassing stragglers, acting on ISTAR follow up.


And then? You hand back the Middle East to the Middle East with Western guys on the military advisory top table and on two year tours. We are there for the duration.


Job done? No. But a good place to start from. Maybe Pig Iron knows a few things from 40 years that have been forgotten elsewhere. Forgotten? Another shake of the beard. Nope. He reckons they know. So? So no one wants to get real. There are, he say, no votes in real. But that is how it eventually has to be done.






Trident: The Question No One Asks

November 24, 2015


24 November 2015


Today the House of Commons debates Trident. That is the shorthand.  MPs will put forward or debunk the arguments for having a so-called nuclear deterrent.  The purpose is to endorse or oppose the government’s programme to modernise the system.

But the hard question is not in the Parliamentary motion. The background to asking the toughest question is in the system itself.

The Trident system is four Vanguard-class submarines each of which carries up to 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  The missiles carry nuclear warheads some the size of the weapon that razed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to some big enough to make a small country depopulated and barren for decades.

The system took over from the then updated Polaris-Chevaline boats in 1994. The missiles are American.  The warheads are British.

The debate to renew Trident is primarily about the submarines. They have been in service since the mid-1990s.  By the time of replacement they will be about 30 years. So it is the boats not the missiles and warheads that need the nod to replace.

However when building new boats – the cost will be somewhere in the region of £40billion – the engineering and firing configuration will be different.  Therefore the missiles will be replaced. In theory the US Navy Trident will still do the job. The warhead is being updated all the time so that is not an issue.

On top of all this the debate in the Commons centres on the value of Trident as a deterrent.

The truth is that there is no evidence that Trident was ever a deterrent to a nuclear attack by the USSR.  The argument that there has never been a nuclear war and therefore British deterrence worked is clearly shabby scholarship.

If deterrence did work then US nuclear missiles and not the British and French stopped war between America and the Soviet Union.  There is no evidence that the UK and French nuclear systems established  any deterrence whatsoever.

The UK and France have nuclear weapons because in the 1960s every military scenario was convincing enough that both nations as part of their status as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council regarded the submarine launched missile as the best weaponry and so built them.

The land fired and air launched nuclear programme was vulnerable to attack and had no guarantees of getting through Soviet defences. But the submarine could hide and by the introduction of Trident could hit Moscow from the depths of the South Atlantic – 6,000 miles away. Polaris and then its successor Trident were perfect for the job  – or so it was argued.

When in the 1960s HMS Resolution went into service carrying sixteen UGM-27 Polaris A3 missiles the deterrence case was overwhelmingly successful although it did inspire the formation of nuclear protest groups.  But by and large the case seemed reasonable.

But today, the case is not so easily argued.  Instead successive governments and oppositions present the case for renewing what the UK has already – the so-called Successor Programme and it is here that we come to the question that if answered truthfully would destroy the government’s case for Trident renewal.

Having asked six former Defence Ministers on both sides of the House, the late Denis Healey onwards, the view has been there is no sure evidence of deterrence and few would ever “press the button”. The military is the only group that would ever recommend “nuclear release” and probably starting at the battlefield level.

In short, the UK bought Trident for the right reasons.  It is renewing it for the wrong reasons.

Therefore, no one in today’s Commons debate asks the hardest question:

If the UK did not have Trident would it go out and buy one?  It is not asked because the answer is No, it would not.




UK Bombing Syria: is it legal?

November 20, 2015


20 November 2015



The Blair-Cameron Rule of War

November 18, 2015


18 November 2015


Those who criticised the way Tony Blair took the UK to war may reflect that the present Prime Minister David Cameron expresses similar sentiment.

Here at Westminster, in the mother of all parliamentary democracy Mr Cameron announced that as far as he is concerned it is not necessary to get the consent of the United Nations to start British bombing in Syria.

Of course, that is an image of the transition to war adopted by Tony Blair in 2003.  It was an apparent flagrant sweeping aside of the authority of the UN.  So it is again.  The bigger picture is different but there is one disturbing similarity between the Blair and Cameron reasoning.

In 2003 Tony Blair had been told by the then US President George W Bush that if there were to be political hassle for him (Blair) then there was no need to send in the British forces.  Political support would be just fine.

Blair believed that if the UK military was not on the start line then his famed support of the US after 9/11 would be meaningless.  He must have known also that Britain and he personally would be seen as what the former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk called a nation that had lost an empire but  had not found a role in the world.

Blair would be a second team player. Nice guy but what the White House would always see as someone in the Unsigned Christmas Card column.

And Cameron?  Go back to the intervention in Libya. There is every indication that Cameron joined the Libya operation in a hurry because the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy was leading on this, had decided to go in and that Cameron was being left behind. That could not happen again.

So Cameron told the Commons this lunchtime that whatever the UN said and presumably however his law officer the Attorney General described the legality of bombing, he Cameron would be going to the House to say the UK was joining the A Team of the US, France & Co.

Cameron may be right in what he said but best to remember four things: the UK’s bombing capability will make little difference to the campaign; a military role that has status value only  is not today needed – best stick to reconnaissance; re-read Dean Rusk and most importantly, mission creep.



CyberWar:UK Could Shut Down in 3 days

November 17, 2015


17th November 2015


The Chancellor George Osborne is putting an extra £1.9billion a year into the Government Communications Headquarters.  The money is to fight the ISIL hackers.  This is something that has never been so publicly obvious.

Five years years in the Defence Review Cyber was there but not a big issue. Next Monday when the new review is published it will feature alongside the top line subjects: nuclear deterrence, naval force projection, special forces enlargement and recruiting.

This interest has nothing to do with international whistle blowing of secrets out of Washington and GCHQ nor hacking into mobile telephone accounts. The reasoning is straightforward warfare against ISIL.

The UK government has to assume that we are close to a point when a group of ISIL hackers could effectively bring the British Isles to a standstill of essential services.

Hackers have demonstrated that in spite of the brilliance of the UK’s counter-cyber systems, a 15 year-old can get into supposedly secure systems because he or she has expertise to challenge IT security, rather like a game.

In other words big companies relying on IT are not secure.  Even GCHQ and other agencies have to play catch-up.

So what damage could a high-end ISIL (or any other organised hack group)  do inside a week when scattered through British back bedrooms like the geeks in every street?

Food supplies in major stores rely on empty shelf re-ordering by computer. Hack the system and the food supplies would take about 3 days to reorganise through other routes.  Motor fuel distribution can be slowed and then halted for 24 hours. That is enough to grid lock the UK.

The whole country now relies on communication systems – mobiles and upwards. The servers and signals can be hacked and made useless in a few minutes.

Air traffic control even with their back-up and emergency planning systems in place need only a suggestion of computer invasion and aircraft are diverted and grounded. Railways are almost all reliant on computer scheduling.

Emergency services including blood supplies, ambulance and drug services plus scheduling emergency vehicles can be knocked out in a couple of hours and maybe for much longer then that.

Most of these systems have back up.  So have hackers. The grim scenario is that while these systems are down or just disrupted, a lot of society goes into chaos and that is where the gunmen perform.

All unlikely? Not all.  That is why Mr Osborne has his Treasury cheque book out.








ISIS Can Be Beaten – But Not This Week

November 16, 2015


16 November 2015


ISIS is beatable.  It is not a mystical zealotry wielding an Islamist excalibur. It is not invincible.

ISIS is not a supremely organised and state supported military organisation

ISAS is in military terms terrorist organisation that could not withstand a 21st century centrally command-led  onslaught from, say, the United States and the Global Coalition.

ISAS has very little natural support in the Middle East.  Most governments and people of all Islamic persuasion want ISIS put down.

That is the message that the G20 leaders meeting in Turkey should be giving out and then backing that up with all their military and most importantly political resources. They have to agree what they are going after, when they are doing that and those without major military roles should support diplomatically, financially and territorially those that have.

They should be making it clear that today starts new planning to re-establish a joint service military command to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There will be  subordinate commands to do the same in the ISIS diaspora in Afghanistan, Gaza,  (more powerful by the day), Libya and sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not let’s-get-’em redneck reactionary rhetoric.

Compared with the political and economic authority of the major nations against ISIS and most certainly the military assets of those same powers (ISIS does not have, an air force, a drone capability, satellite intelligence, elint etc) ISIS’s only advantage is that  coalition powers are relying mostly on air attacks and Kurdish ground forces.  Even now an apparent success against ISIS in reality means fast withdrawal having raped and wasted the town they then leave behind the booby traps and images of misery because the locals assume they will return.  This means that something has to come out of Turkey that will lead not only to chasing ISIS out of town but then going in hot pursuit.

But that does not make ISIS unbeatable.

The International Syria Support Group who will be in Turkey insist that ISIS will be turned back and then talks on both sides to bring peace to Syria can proceed.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

The anti-Assad rebels will not agree to an election and anyway you cannot have an election in rubbled homeland.  All the time there is that condition then ISIS will be there until the high table in Turkey or wherever next they meet take a decision to go beyond a handful of nations with bombings and drone attacks.

A single command system with a four star general and five star resources must be established. It should have regional and UN plus domestic legal authority to throw electronic, satellite, human and special forces intelligence systems into locating and then applying the military hardware in unrelenting bitterness and purpose against ISIS. It must too have a follow-on plan what to do in regions where ISIS is defeated and the resentment of its followers festers.

None of this is a job for the week, next week or long weeks after that. Wars do not work that way.  But the near truth is that with all the advantages of scattered and sleeping anonymity ISIS has not been so successful.

If the suicide bombers had got into the Stade de France on Friday, then the dead list would be even more gruesome and the mood and shock nationally depressing.  But the bombers did not get in. There too is the fact that although 132 deaths occurred on Friday, that is not a big number.

That number is killed on a daily basis in the Middle East.  Now we may appreciate that – for the moment.

So put in perspective the Global Coalition with hugely superior intelligence gathering and firepower can defeat ISIS.  Whether or not it has the political will (the Paris atrocity will quickly lose its effect) is another matter.

Terror? Slaughter? This is IS on the March

November 14, 2015


14 November, 2015


The pundit on France24 news show said ISIL has brought its war to Europe.  With the station’s headline saying 130 dead and others critical that sounds about right.

The blood is still on the pavement outside the Bataclan theatre and the bit of poster says the band was The Eagles of Death Metal. It does not get much worse. Or maybe it does.

If ISIL is out of area as the security people here are calling it then the next targets are obvious: Christmas late openings in department stores, carol services, Santa grottos, car ferries and maybe a motor way service station or two.

The ISIL operation we saw Friday night was properly organised.  The killers knew how to go about their business. The timing and coordination meant rehearsal and professional reconnaissance – helped by Paris’s lack of CCTV.

The hit on cafe society was at the least a diversion that confused security communications and spread response resources.

The use of a car at the vital diversion point gave a suggestion of extra resources properly used.

The manner of the gunmen, including the unhurried reloading of weapons was a reminder that until the police showed up, they were going through a routine of wasting unarmed victims and that they were committed to a one way mission. And they were highly motivated and trained to succeed in that.

So if there is more to come what is there to be done? There is a 3-part answer.

The French say the eight terrorists are dead. But what about the others? This was no small group operation. There is somewhere a back up organisation.

There are in France large radicalised and disaffected Muslim groupings. French security have top Intelligence on them. They have to be scoured and further suspects dug out or at the very disrupted.  But the French like most other security people are over-stretched.

Secondly, the leaders of the Global Coalition fighting ISIL have to examine their own capabilities in going after first the leadership and then the financial, industrial and supply stores that keep the logistics moving. That means blatant military cooperation with countries and organisation that otherwise would be shunned. Iran is an example.Assad is another.

Thirdly, everyone needs to examine their political motives.  There is a lot more that could be done to take on ISIL in a powerful manner.  ISIL’s image is an exaggerated example of its capability. It is not invincible.

As terrible the hit here was on Friday night it was militarily not such a big deal put alongside what else is going on in the Middle East.  ISIL is beatable.

But Global Coalition members have to be willing to commit themselves to the political bravery needed to authorise thus far close encounter operations. You cannot beat ISIL with drones alone.  And then comes an even bigger effort.

If you do beat ISIL, then what? The sentiment that spawned the fanatical group would not be dead, just dormant.

World War III on Terror – But What Is ISIL’s Next Target?

November 8, 2015


9th November 2015


There are people in the UK who want the chance to put a bomb in a British passenger jet flying out of Heathrow. That is the Intelligence briefing to senior ministers including the political head of MI6, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. In other words the 31 October Russian Metrojet flight from Sharm el-Sheikh was not the only target for terrorists.

In the BFBS Radio current affairs programme Sitrep last week the UK’s most recent ambassador to Cairo John Watt  told presenter Kate Gerbeau that he was certain that the Russians were the exclusive target when the bomb went off 21 minutes after take off from Sharm. Was he right?

Go through some of the dark on-line pages of jihadists after the hit for example al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) Inspire and what you will see is predictable. Inspire, just two months ago was given an 88-page handout on assassinations.

A simple message such as telling sleepers as well as activists to go out and kill is not a hidden message.  There are no hidden agendas. The message is clearly given, it is clearly understood and when what we call a tragedy occurs, the sites are alive with celebrations.  This war on terror is that simple.

So it must be that the most important question is what is the next target.

The websites and mobile chatter loops are not telling terrorists go get a Russian plane or an American or a British holiday jet.  They are not explaining that an attack will reduce profits at Sharm el-Sheikh by 70%, or beach resort bookings in Tunisia by 62%. They are not saying that every believer working air-side at Gatwick, Heathrow, JFK, Schiphol, Paris CDG or wherever should be ready to slip in a primed detonator into the hold at loading point.  It is all simpler.

If a terrorist goes for a big picture target the longer term impact is a thing about anniversaries instead of what is intended: striking long term and terror to damage and disrupt and then question governments ability to keep populations safe.

Read the dark pages again and think what may happen if the next attack were to be, say, a happy holiday jet to Majorca and an Isle of Wight Ferry and a Christmas department store and a Cathedral family Christingle service – all on the same day.  In other words anyone is a target. No one gets to fly, ferry, go Christmas shopping, go to Carols round the Crib.  That is not going for anti IS USA, Russia, UK. That is going for the power-bring bystanders. That is terrorism.  That is where we are heading.

A reactively simple operation splits allies and makes populations nervous or in some cases downright frightened. That means, it succeeds in terrorising and people start to ask why great powers are unable to stop ISIL?

Metrojet proved if we needed proof that there has been a strategic step change in the battle against IS and its like. The Global Coalition was established in September 2014 “to Degrade and Defeat ISIL” Some 65 states joined the Coalition. Thus one third of the world, including the nuclear powers, has joined against ISIL. In any one’s language that is World War III. For the moment it is not going so well.

The Ethics of War?

November 3, 2015


3rd November 2015


I was through the Amargosa Valley in Nevada which boasts a gas station and the second best bordello in the state.  Nevada’s like that. I was heading for US Highway 95 and Creech Air Force Base close by India Springs. It is bare country and bare country has simple rules. You do what you got to do and never stand around unless maybe there’s a beer.

Forget the bordello. There’s not a batwing door to be seen and you won’t hear the clink of a dollar set of spurs. The nearby abandoned MX missile test site is known for its scorpion collection.  Packs a megaton sting they tell me.

We had moved from the base and were approaching Creech and a beer with a top sergeant who runs a four or five target analysis on some regular guy in a beat-up Toyota. The sergeant says that when Intelligence confirms that he is a baddie then the sergeant’s partner  a young lieutenant signs off the To Go sheet and takes a shot from an RPA. Goodbye says the sergeant and moves onto the tracking habits of another potential hit.

Could be a good morning for crispy bacon, easy over and maybe a beer.  The sergeant tells me that  the Predator drones (that is what a Remotely Piloted Aircraft is) are a good way to do some of the war. She says you get to track a baddie’s habits. You have a time from cover to automobile to destination. When the people at command one are sure then the baddie is as good as toast.

The score rate is high and most of the time the target is the only casualty.  Aborting a hit is easy.  You simply don’t press go. There will be another time. Clean.  What are we to make of this?

In World War One admirals talked about submarines not being fair weapons. Sneaky.  You watch the folk at Creech AFB and it cannot be sneaky. The technology is not a secret and, it is mostly clean.  War being mostly mucky that single fact could easily make it right.  Could it?

I was listening to something of an answer. I was listening to an Oxford professor discussing “Applying Ethics to Public Policy”. When it came to tracking a guy in a Toyota 7,800 miles away and then blowing him to seven waiting virgins the seemed no problem. But the ethics of what? Ethical revenge? Does it exist?

The ethics of using technology to do the damnedest thing because you have the technology is dangerous ground. In its simplest form ethical public policy has nothing to do with an eerie sensation of knowing that the baddie was about to get his. Is this not how it should be?

Taking out the enemy with no thought other than if he had a drone and I had a Toyota there would be no ethical discussion.

Then we get to think the next stage.  They say down here at Westminster the home of the world’s first bordello of democracy that the political risk of joining in the Global Coalition effort to air strike Syria is looking shakier every day.  They need a UN Resolution because President Assad has not asked the RAF to do it.

The ethicist cannot be certain of course.  To strike and prevent a massacre seems the very stuff of Biggarean moral philosophy.  I mentioned that at Creech.  The top sergeant looked puzzled.  You need a beer?

Cameron and Co need know nothing of all this.  He may not even ask Parliament to let him unleash what is left of the RAF (they have not really got enough assets to do this anyway) onto targets in Syria.  For there is the awesome fascination of the war against an unsophisticated enemy with the ethics of a zealot.

One is based at Raqqa.  One is based at Creech. One arouses horror, The other rouses ethical wonder.  And the British (complete with their own drones) don’t want to get their boots bloodied. No ethics. No uncompromising zealotry. Simply a frightened off political caste whose indecision is final.