Dishonouring the Dead

Air Marshal Sir John Day and Air Chief Marshall Sir William Wratten should hang their heads in shame.

The respect in which our Service men and women are held by the public at large is quite remarkable. Royal Wootten Bassett earned the gratitude of the nation and its “Royal” title because of the touching acts of respect residents showed to the fallen returning from Afghanistan, whose hearses by chance used to pass through their quiet town. The contempt in which the Ministry of Defence is held is equally remarkable. The MOD is an institution which has under-performed in spectacular style and has displayed gross incompetence, deceitfulness, and petty bickering on a staggering scale. It deals in denial, cover-up and blame shifting.

In 1994, an RAF Chinook helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, killing the crew of four and all twenty five passengers. It was described as “the largest peace time tragedy that the Royal Air Force had suffered”. The cause of the crash could not be determined by the Air Accident Investigation Branch, nor by an RAF Board of Inquiry who did not find the pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, negligent. Nor was negligence found by the civilian Fatal Accident Enquiry. This was because there was no evidence that they were.

The RAF Manual of Flight Safety AP 3207 published by the Inspectorate of Flight Safety and in force at the time of the accident provided in paragraph 9 of Annex G to Chapter 8 that “only in cases in which there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever should deceased air crew be found negligent”.

This strict rule did not trouble the AOC 1 Group and the C-in-C Strike Command, both of whom were required to give a final review of the Board of Inquiry into the crash. Despite there being no facts to support him, AVM Day concluded that both pilots were negligent to a gross degree and ACM William Wratten agreed with him.

What is known is that the Chinook was a deeply troubled aircraft with a history of mysterious faults that would show up during flight but be untraceable on later inspection. A report two years previous to the crash had cast doubt on the airworthiness of the Chinook fleet. And a House of Lords Select Committee which also investigated the crash in 2002 covered all this in great depth and included this telling account in their report:

Witness A, who was a member of the Special Forces Flight with considerable experience of flying Chinooks operationally, had, at the time of the accident, experienced intermittent engine fail captions on a reasonably regular basis. He had subsequently experienced torque mismatches on an intermittent basis. Pilots were instructed that if the failed captions remained on for more than 12 seconds they were to be treated as though something was wrong with the engine but if they stayed on for less than that time they could be ignored. When a caption came on in flight one of the crew was directed to check engine instrumentation and the engine itself.

Witness A also had personal experience of UFCMs in Chinook Mk1s. In one case over a period of days an aircraft bounced vertically every time it was turned right. Repeated unsuccessful attempts were made to find the cause and the problem eventually disappeared of its own accord. In another case in daylight the lights came on to maximum intensity, dimmed to minimum and the hydraulic gauges cycled between zero and maximum. The pilot reported that the aircraft was becoming difficult to control and Witness A ordered him to land at the first available opportunity. The subsequent engineering investigation found no fault.

In answer to a question as to how much the unforeseen malfunctions occurring in the Chinook Mk2 since its introduction were a matter of discussion among helicopter pilots, he answered,

“They occupied our minds to a great degree, crew room talk was of little else at the time. The crews felt extremely uneasy about the way the aircraft had been introduced into service. This perception was reinforced by the lack of information contained in the aircrew manual, the poor state of repair of the flight reference cards and such like as well”

The full report can be read here.

In all these years the MOD have maintained the line that the crash was caused by the gross negligence of the pilots when there is no evidence whatsoever to support that line, and plenty of evidence to suggest a failure on the aircraft may have been the cause.

The MOD in this matter have displayed every aberrant behaviour that has earned it the contempt of the public, but Day and Wratten plumbed new depths in blaming two hapless pilots in order to deflect criticism from the MOD.

Defence Reform: A welcome report from Lord Levene

I have to say I am very impressed with the Defence Reform report produced by Lord Levene and his team. It can be downloaded and read in full here. It is a report that examines the way the MOD is managed, rather than the usual report that looks only at how many ships, tanks and planes we think we need. They have consulted with a commendably wide range of informed sources both within the MOD of course, but externally as well including with foreign defence departments, academics, think tanks, even trade unions, and also including some of the MOD’s staunchest critics.

However I have a few bones of contention with the report.

My first concern is the time scale over which they envisage reforms taking place. It is far too long. They recommend that a Defence Reform Steering Group should reconvene on an annual basis for the next three years. The urgency of the situation surely dictates that they should reconvene quarterly for the next twelve months. Potentially disastrous decisions are already being taken and more will be taken before the reforms are in place. The harm that is being done must be minimised so we need to end the old way of doing business and have the new model established as a matter of urgency. The most ambitious time scale must be adopted.

That leads me to my second concern.

There is deep and widespread criticism of the SDSR. This is a plan that has been put together by what most commentators agree is a dysfunctional organisation that has made catastrophically bad decisions all of which this report acknowledges. Why on earth is the discredited SDSR still being implemented? It is the product of bitter inter-Service rivalry and a lack of strategic thought. It must be halted immediately, and any decisions that irrevocably removes military capabilities must be reversed. Nothing should happen until the newly reformed MOD is up and running and can make its own decisions based on a rational appraisal of balanced military need. A new SDSR should be drawn up within a year of the reforms being completed.

My third concern is about money.

The drive for reform is made critical because of the calamitous mismanagement of the economy by Labour during their thirteen years in power. The country is broke, and Defence is broker if I can put it that way. The discovery of a ten billion pound black hole in the Defence budget merely adds to the sense of disgust. But it is not feasible for an organisation to build a new structure while burdened with the costs of the old. If the new structure is to be trimmed to suit what little is left in the budget, it is doomed to start off in a state of crisis from which it may never recover. This point was not addressed in the report, despite many recommendations that have cost implications. If the coalition government is serious about Defence, it needs to ensure it is viable. Colossal sums of money were made available at the drop of a hat to bail out the financial sector, something of far less importance. Defence only needs a fraction of that amount to help it get through this crisis and it should be given that bail-out.

Which leads to my fourth concern.

Punish the guilty. No one can read the litany of incompetence and downright deceitfulness that has characterised the Labour government in general and the management of the Ministry of Defence in particular and not be angry. Yet all those involved have gone on to receive honours and accolades when, with the example of the House of Commons expenses scandal fresh in our minds, some of them should be going to jail. I would like to see another team formed to investigate every decision and assess the culpability of all those involved. It is clear, even at a cursory examination, that the best interests of the country were not being served by those appointed to positions of trust. Subverting the Defence of the Realm must still be an offence whatever the motives and the guilty should be identified and prosecuted. At the very least, contracts must be cancelled where there has been improper conduct or they have been unlawfully signed.

A lesson in accountability from America

What a contrast we see in the way the military is run in this country compared with the USA. Here, General Dannatt is being praised for his bravery in first speaking out about the abysmal housing our servicemen are expected to live in, and now for the near-poverty levels of pay for those in the lower ranks. He is holding his political masters to account. Over in America, however, the hobnailed boot is on the other foot. Secretary of Defense, Robert M Gates, has just sacked the four-star Air Force Chief of Staff and the civilian Air Force Secretary for “a pattern of poor performance” over control of nuclear weapons and parts. Last year he sacked a two-star general and the civilian Army Secretary over the shocking standards of accommodation at a top US military hospital.

Here’s what the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee had to say: “Secretary Gates’ focus on accountability is essential and has been absent from the office of the secretary of defense for too long.” Contrast that with our own part-time Secretary of State for Defence who is also the Minister of State for Scotland. Accountability is not a word he is familiar with. He has presided over a regime where increased demands on the armed forces have not been matched with increases in resources. The thin desert-pink line has been stretched to breaking point and it is no surprise that under the circumstances more and more servicemen are abandoning the armed forces.

Gates has made it clear that the American air force had suffered for years from a loss of expertise in handling nuclear materials. Is that what is in store for us? Are we going to have our own “nuclear incidents” caused by lack of experience or lack of resources? Two incidents hit the headlines in America. One happened last year when a B-52 flew across America with six armed nuclear cruise missiles, which was completely against regulations, but what’s more, the crew didn’t even know they had them on board. The more recent incident, which resulted in the sackings, was when four nose-cone fuses for Minuteman nuclear warheads were sent to Taiwan, instead of some helicopter batteries that should have been sent.

The problems in America are certainly not due to resources, they are more symptomatic of complacency. Over here we have a dedicated, motivated, and professional armed services, but which is underpaid, poorly resourced and seriously overstretched. As a consequence ours are also haemorrhaging skilled men and women. Never mind the injustices that are being done to those who serve, and let’s not even get started on how shamefully the wounded are treated, where is the political will to see defence as nothing more than a part-time job? When will we get a secretary of state for defence who will focus on his job? When will we get some accountability?