Saturday, 24 April 2010

In the name of the ancient God Neptune

Russia is a major nuclear power and has long been engaged in a war with the Chechyna, This is not some internal terrorist action but war. The major power is not known for lack of commitment in enforcing discipline and did not have a lot of success. The rebels took over a school and many children died when the Russian military stormed it. There was an incident where the took hostages in a cinema and this was settled with robust but non-nuclear attack. Remember also the Cuban missile crisis where Russia had to make a humilating withdrawal. Russia has many Trident-type resources but these were neither used or even threatened.

America is another nucleur super power and not known for timidity or lack of robust and forthright action. They were soundly defeated in Vietnam. They were unable to prevent a few terrorists from destroying the WTC and seriously damaging the Pentagon. Internal strife destroyed a building and many people in Oklahoma. Here, just as in the Russian case, nuclear assetts were never considered.

Our own significant event was possibly the Underground bombings. Our Tridents and air-craft carriers were as nought in dissuading the terrorists or of any use in what followed a week later. We had a situation in Sierra Leone where troops were taken hostage. That was resolved by the use of well trained and resourced SAS-type troops. Shed loads of Tridents and armadas of ships and submarines were of no use at all.

The potential of Trident is set out in a Grauniad article. This also sets out the limits we would find on any 'independent' weapon system. We are being asked to mortgage a considerable chunk of scarce money for something we do not own. They are the reification of a fantasy: a fantasy that the United Kingdom is still a defining world power and that our enemies present an existential threat. As usual, the government is preparing for the last war,

The attitude of those who cling to the need for Trident UK is understandable. They argue from the position that we have to update and renew an existing weapons system. This precludes any going back to basics; why did we get it in the first place? It replaced an earlier missile system and, given the state of East/West relations then, I doubt if any real decision-making system was applied to it's predecessor anyway. I argue from the stand-point of 'why do anything?' I think I would have supported the Trident-type munition in the past but if it were put to me now – well, you have read this far and know my answer.

Someone will question why lookfor a saving on Trident when there are so many other areas where savings could be made. I agree. The main target for the alternatives is the NHS. As might be epected, I have a view on that also. The NHS if left unchallenged would use every penny of our GDP – and more. And want more on top of that. Where we now expect premature babies of 24 weeks at birth to survive, the mums and doctors will look to save the infant at 23 weeks. When that is achieved, they will seek even better results. Where women have for whatever reason gone childless past their fertility period, we spend much money allowing them to get with child at an advanced age. NHS and clients will want to ratchet that age upwards at even greater cost. There was an excellent fly on wall type programme from Great Ormond Street hospital for sick children. We saw kids being admitted in really desperate straits. Birth defects, illnesses and infections and all at death's door. The cameras were allowed to be present where the medical staff discussed these patients. They seemed not to consider anything as beyond solution; the most radical procedures were thought up and discussed. One would involve the child being in intensive care for a whole year. In a number of cases they had to tell the parents that the solution was more than a child could suffer or was so remote of success that it could not be supported by the medical team. They then went into the procedure of getting the child well enough to go home – not to live on but so that the parents could spend time with their offspring as it faded and died.

This examplified to me a problem with the NHS. Cost did not figure in any debate as to what might be done. The professionals did not have to establish costs and there was no one in control of the budget – if there even was a budget. That way disaster lies and that is an area where I see possible savings – after we have got rid of the managerial and administrative personnel who have swarmed in like sperm seeking a warm uterus. We have NICE that rules whether some life-prolonging or enhancing drug may be supplied so the idea of money entering into matters of, literally, life an death is not new.

In my prime I controlled a budget of just under £10 million. Some 20% was fixed charges such as rent and rates on a number of office premises. I was required to write a new budget every year starting from scratch and outline budgets were required for five years in advance. The company was engaged in engineering and we were not able to say what new work might come in during any budget pediod where office alterations were needed. Supplementary bids could be submitted for such unforeseen expenditure but I was expected to offer up savings from the approved budget. It took me two years of brain-storming with our in-house Treasurery people to learn how to do this but it worked and I was happy that I was in control of my Budget. I appreciate that the NHS budget is many millions times what I had but there are more NHS Controllers than just one beginner; what I had to learn and apply would surely work there.

In any case, what we look like needing to save is not an either or situation. We will need all the savings we can find. There is little point in increasing personal and corporate tax up front only to have it slither away at the back door.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Dr Strangelove gets redundency papers

As the former head of the International Atomic Energy Authority Mohamed ElBaradei put it: "It is very hard to preach the virtues of non-smoking when you have a cigarette dangling from your lips and you are about to buy a new pack"

That short extract from today's letter in the Times is possibly the most relevant in the whole missive from four senior Army officers who question the future of our Trident missile armaments. Their concern is
"It is to be welcomed that all the leading political parties are committed to conducting a comprehensive strategic defence review after the election. This clearly must follow a detailed evaluation of the threats that this country faces today and in the future.

However, it is of deep concern that the question of the Trident replacement programme is at present excluded from this process. With an estimated lifetime cost of more than £80 billion, replacing Trident will be one of the most expensive weapons programmes this country has seen. Going ahead will clearly have long-term consequences for the military and the defence equipment budget that need to be carefully examined."
The Editorial in the same issue of the paper includes "The irreversible alternative to continuing Trident would be for Britain to abandon its nuclear capability and expertise. Trident has become the fulcrum in the national debate of how to reduce the deficit. Wilder and wilder figures for its lifetime cost are being bandied around, with the state of public finances cited as a pretext for scrapping it. The truth is that Trident represents -- at most -- 5 per cent of current defence spending."

But the debate about Trident is not really about cost - any saving would most likely be transferred to another project - the Generals have a number of suggestions as to who and what should benefit - "It may well be that money spent on new nuclear weapons will be money that is not available to support our front line troops, or for crucial counter-terrorism work; money not available for buying helicopters, armoured vehicles, frigates or even for paying for more manpower"

The question should not be whether we should replace Trident but taken right to the basic - if we were offered Trident for the first time today, do we see a case for buying it? Even with the recent agreement between Russia and America to reduce their nuclear holdings, we still have enough capability to destroy the planet and all on it many times over. Why add to that? Any confrontation likely to involve nuclear armaments must surely involve either or both of these nations at some time and they pull far more rank than Britain in it's parlous financial state or ranking as a military power following neglect under Brown's ministry.

Why would we need one? - just think back over our recent escapades that have not involved either of the two major powers. Rescuing military hostages in some dark African Nation comes to mind. We solved that with the good old military boot Mk I - Trident'ing there would have laid waste to the whole job lot including our guys and would have drawn universal condemnation.

The other thing is that it is not 'ours' A Commons Defence committee asked "How could the software stop a Trident launch? General restrictions. Preventing the use in all circumstance except tests, or preventing the missiles from being fired Westward, towards the US from the normal patrol areas, should be possible." There were other scenario but the final conclusion says it all really - "The only way that Britain can guarantee that the Trident software has not been modified would be to produce it all ourselves. But we do not currently have the expertise to do this" The nonsense of having inadequate equipment was illustrated in the procurement of the SF helicopters.

We saw how this coding can be used in the Falklands when Mrs Thatcher hand-bagged the French into divulging the software for missiles they had sold to Argentina.

So it seems that any discussion of Trident replacement and up-dating will start from the standpoint of can we afford it. The precedent of having it has been set and it will be hard to overturn that fact. Already, within hours of the letter appearing we have the imputations that it is all part of some inter-service plot to hold onto budgets and this will just muddy the waters. Personally speaking, I would not lose any sleep worrying about us doing without it. British Army stores sheds used to have all sorts of items 'just in case'. They rationalised this situation. Someone needs to apply the 'just in case' test to Trident.

Under a starry sky

I read this in an article that was written out of the saga of The Ash Clouds.
"My girlfriend and I recently set out to circumnavigate the globe without the aid of any aircraft. Along the way, we took the Trans-Siberian Railway across the wilds of Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, and drove a car through the empty doomlands of the Australian outback. These journeys take less than half a day if you go by plane. Each lasts nearly a week when you stick to the ground. But taking to the air means simply boarding, enduring the flight and getting off at another airport. Going our way meant sharing bread and cheese with kindly Russians in a shared train cabin, and drinking beers with Australian jackaroos (we'd call them cowboys) at a lonely desert roadhouse. These are warm, vivid memories that will stay with us forever.

Think of the trans-Atlantic flights you may have taken. Do you remember anything about them? (Turbulence, bad in-flight movies and screaming children don't count.) Because flying is an empty, soulless way to traverse the planet, the best flights are in fact the ones you forget immediately after hitting the tarmac.

Now, imagine floating across the Atlantic on a ship. Do you think you might enjoy those days of transit — the joys of a starry night in the middle of the ocean, or a round of drinks with new friends as you look out across the stern railing at the glimmering water — and hold them in your memories well after your vessel made landfall?"
I was lucky to undertake a number of sea-borne journeys such as Seth refers to. In the Army of the early 1950s the majority of troops' movement was by troop-ship. These were, in the main, retired cruise liners that had had most of the luxury fitments stripped out and replaced by utilitarian equipment designed to carry the most bodies. Families and ranks above staff-sergeant travelled cabin class but the majority were on what were known as standees - wire bunks stacked four on top of each other. I generally ended up appointed as ship's police officer and was able to sleep in an almost proper bed - albeit in the cells at the bow of the ship. As we moved through the tropics, the standee dwellers moved to the open decks.

The admixture of young wives travelling to join husbands and female soldiers combined with warm nights and starry skies meant that one had to be careful when choosing an open deck space. Romances bloomed but it was mainly sex that made the world go by. There was then a heavy drinking culture and this was catered for through most of the time by numerous bars. With the easy adaptability of Tommy Atkins, life passed very pleasantly. I was a member of the ship's Gardening Club - there was not a leaf of greenery anywhere but our meetings debated replacement of trees damaged by wind-spray and urine, what sort of bedding plants that young blond WRAC sergeant might use and what our display would be at the Chelsea Flower Show. The style of these debates might be judged from the fact that the Chairman, a RN CPO, never even got off the ship at his destination in Singapore but was diagnosed as a chronic alcoholic and returned to UK for treatment. We had a lecture from the ship's cook who - for over an hour - told us how to make very fine potato chips. As a typical Scouser, he held his audience enthralled!

Courtesy of Mr Nasser, Anthony Eden and the blocked and closed Suez Canal I had an eight week cruise to Korea. We went the long way around Capetown with visits to Mauritius, Ceylon, Singapore and Hong Kong. Shore leave was given at all these stops whilst the ship was re-stocked with food, fuel and water. We were the first troop-ship into Capetown since the 39-45 war and arrived on Christmas Eve. I set up a uniformed Military Police patrol to work with the local police and about two hours later was leaving the ship to check how they were getting on. As I went down the main gangway, a police vehicle was drawing up to the stairway used by crew. They then carried two of my patrolmen onto the ship on stretchers. Paraletic drunk. The hospitality had been building up since 1945 I suppose!

We had had a special warning about apartheid but the main contingent on board was of a Liverpool-recruited regiment and it didn't seem to stick. Two of them engaged with two of the local black prostitutes in an alleyway but were disturbed by a SA police patrol. The girls ran off but one created a diversion by biting most of one nipple off her client. Later the same evening, four of the guys were found playing poker with three local black men in the middle of the roundabout at the dock entrance.

The criminality was mainly high jinks and boredom. As we approached Mauritius the fresh water ran out and arrangements were made for a big refill. This was not a great success; the island was in the middle of a drought and their own supplies were limited. Even more so after a couple of The Lads had rolled a large rock down a steep hillside and smashed the main pipe from a diminished reservoir to the pumping station. My best efforts failed to get them released and we had to leave them behind in the local lock-up.

I had about four long sea trips courtesy of HM the Queen and all had their high spots. Later in my life I was employed by a US Oil company and was entitled to first class air travel with access to the special lounges, free booze and big seats which was nice but I think my water-borne trips were better. Must have been, I met my wife on that long journey and it has stuck for over 50 years since I was King Neptune and she was my Queen at the Crossing the Line Ceremony.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Crocodiles cry for soldiers

For those with eyes like mine - the illustration is detailed here.
"The SAS is at the centre of a furious row following allegations that private money was used to equip the regiment's soldiers with body armour for Afghanistan. The Sunday Telegraph has been told that a £400,000 "contingency fund", financed by private donors, was used to purchase body armour for members of 21 SAS, one of the service's two territorial regiments, prior to their deployment to Helmand in 2008. Cash from the fund was also used to pay for operational welfare equipment, personal kit and to pay-off the mortgages of two members of 23 SAS killed in southern Afghanistan in an earlier deployment. The disclosure has been seized upon by opposition MPs and former Army commanders of proof that the Armed Forces have not been properly funded while Labour has been in power. Tory MPs described the revelation as an "outrage and a disgrace" and it has prompted calls for an investigation into private funding of the Army. Details of the row came just days after the war in Afghanistan was highlighted as an election issue when Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that troops in Helmand were under-equipped. The 21 SAS fund was created prior to the regiment's deployment to Afghanistan in 2008 and was supposed to be used to help families of soldiers who were either killed or wounded on operations. But after the regiment was mobilised in the spring of 2008, commanders feared the unit did not have access to enough equipment or body armour to properly prepare the SAS troops for their six month tour. The Sunday Telegraph understands that those individuals who contributed to the fund were asked and agreed to allow some of the money to be used to buy body armour, training and operational welfare equipment, such as computers and satellite telephones. The fund had also been used to "pay for operational welfare equipment, personal kit and to pay-off the mortgages of two members of 23 SAS killed in southern Afghanistan in an earlier deployment."

Earlier this year we had "The first woman soldier killed in Afghanistan and three SAS colleagues "would be alive today" if the Government had provided the proper equipment and training, relatives claimed last night." There is a small part of this story that resonates with me "the commander of the four soldiers had requested a replacement for their Snatch Land Rover but was refused due to equipment shortages. Soldiers also had to "acquire surreptitiously" mine detectors because they had not been issued enough." The SAS have an estimable record of not letting the Army Rules & Regulations get in the way of a mission - here they would seem to have got a result in IED detection equipment but not in a more appropriate vehicle. Major Sebastian Morley, the SAS squadron commander in Helmand, resigned accusing the government of being "cavalier at best, criminal at worst" for ill-equipping troops."

I have not seen any reports of the Regular SAS, 22 Regt, having to buy their own equipment. Frankly, if they deemed it essential they would have obtained it - from Aintworth's cupboard where he keeps his fur-lined hand-cuffs if needs be. It leaves this old soldier asking why the apparently different treatment. The TA role of SAS was not so warlike as the Regular battalion; The three regiments have different roles: the TA regiments specialise in Close Target Reconnaissance, while 22 SAS performs a wider range of tasks also including Counter Revolutionary Warfare, Counter Terrorism and acting as a Quick Reaction Force.

My concern here is that this all took place some while back and the facts have been available to anyone even remotely interested. So - what did the critics now so keen to advance with patriotic banners flying, do at the time to get a full explanation aired and any snafu sorted? Nothing - there was no political mileage in a populations where more than three quarters of the population is against the war anyway. So, the pumped up plumage of here and now is just so much cynical opportunism.

There is another matter that is being disregarded by those who seek our support in the coming hustings. The medical facilities in Afghanistan do wonders but they operate mostly as triage getting the seriously wounded stabilised so that they can be got to the specialist facilities in UK. Earlier this year, a Defence Committee found that "The Ministry of Defence is insufficiently prepared for a significant increase in military casualties, according to a cross-party committee of MPs.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) called for better contingency planning for the treatment of seriously injured soldiers should its facility at Selly Oak become full."

This complacency at facilities is continuing. The air bridge from war to UK is ruled out by the ban on flights due to the eruption of ash. This extends to Germany where the main US facility outside America is situated. It has been impossible to get anything from the MOD as to alternative arrangements other than the anodyne one size fits all answer "would be treated in coalition facilities" Just what these might be has not ben detailed. Is it such a secret? Or is the MOD response just a polite way of saying 'fuck knows'?

If I were related to a soldier serving in that waste of time situation that is our 'effort' in Afghanistan I would have a 24/7 worry as to his safety and welfare. Propaganda has said that Selly Oak was "Just Wonderful Darling" desp[ite that committee finding but not knowing just how my loved one might access it is an intolerable and unnecessary burden. Plenty of constructive ground there for political pressure in debates - bets it will arise? Pontoons and 5 card tricks only.

Watch out - Big Bruv is here

"Personal privacy: This government is too keen to catch us on camera. The citizen has the right to be able to walk the street without constantly being photographed"
'Well up to a point Lord Copper' as Private Eye might say in a mischievous manner. I cannot see the distinction between walking about with the increasing but still remote chance of being photographed and coming under scrutiny from the human eyeball Mk 1. Do those who object to mechanical scrutiny base their objections on others seeing what they do or is it the fact that their conduct - wayward or correct - is committed to some form of recording capable of being reviewed by others for some time into the future?

I have been drawn back to this long-standing personal (minor) quandary by the actions of a pair of neighbours. One has three cameras covering the rear yard and access way to his business. The access way actually belongs to a local builder and Mr 3 cameras has a right of access. The builder has installed two cameras to cover his yard and stores shed. He objects that the cameras can look into his home and has installed a eye-sore of a screen to block such 'intrusion'. They are at each other's throats. I was visited at home by the builder who wanted to enlist my support in his case against what he described as 'spy' cameras. The trader somehow learned of this and I now get the sad eye treatment every time I enter his premises.

The cameras that may point towards the home are at such an angle they will 'see' little more than the surface of the windows. They are about 60 metres away and without any zoom or telephoto lenses and, in my estimation, the screening is superfluous. My visitor took little notice when I pointed this out; his concern seemed purely that he was being watched. I then moved on to my usual Stage II argument - we are all being watched all of the time. In our homes by our family, in our workspace by colleagues and on the street by anyone else who chances to be within range. My main kitchen window overlooks the alleyway in question and I could set up there with a chair and note-book and pencil. In all three locations there will be some who go out of their way to attract the attention of others. If one can understand and accept this, why does the introduction of a camera, still, movie or tv, add to any threat or insult? I took the guy into my kitchen and showed him how my vertical louvres can be adjusted to screen those moments when my wife and I decide to get amorous over the kitchen sink.
No - that was not a solution he was prepared to consider. He was adamant that the 'sin' was in the presence of the cameras.

If I wish to engage in conduct I would prefer remains secret, it is up to me to arrange where and when I do this. There are many areas not covered by cctv. If I am not engaged in any unlawful, objectionable or illicit conduct, why the heck worry about who sees me and how? And I speak as one who has viewed many hours of recorded conduct of the most offensive content and knows just how depraved some can behave. We accept that we must be reasonably clothed. Must drive in regulated ways and speeds. Must use acceptable speech and words in public. We comply or face the consequences.

The world now is a dodgy and dangerous place and it behoves us all to be on our guard against those who bear us ill-will - individually or collectively. I have an application on my iPhone that constantly videos the view through my car windscreen in 10 minutes segments. This since Farmer Giles pulled in front of me off his land. He was reasonableness personified but could have contended I was at fault in some way. This is - to me - as appropriate a safeguard as the cameras that oversee the centre of my home village - banks and retail premises included as well as the dark little corners where drunks go to do what drunks do.

I've solved the situation anyway with a Gordian Knot answer. Once they had wakened me from my retired slumbers, I reverted to the old Solve It state. Both sets of cameras and the erector of the screen were reported by me to the Enforcement department of the local planners.

The screen was deemed totally inappropriate and marked for immediate removal. All of the cameras were ruled in contravention of planning law and have to be removed or submitted for approval with the Gypsy warning that they are not likely to get the OK even without any objections from neighbours. Beauty of this is that neither camera seeker can support their own case and attack the others at the same time.

This old dog just wants to be left alone and doesn't care who might be watching him do anything - not that he is any longer capable of anything exciting anyway!