An article in the Telegraph this weekend from Thomas Harding looked at life in a Patrol Base in the Sangin district of Helmand.
A number of things that struck me as being notable
For the past three months, their entire existence has been confined to this dusty half-acre compound and the few hundred yards beyond it where heavily-armed patrols can venture with a reasonable prospect of making a safe return. Their mission is to help secure a stretch of Route 611, the key artery that links Sangin to Gereshk, Helmand’s economic hub – their base is one of many originally Afghan-built British forts around this fractious town to ensure that the road is free of limb-taking Taliban bombs.
Outside the base, hidden explosives may be planted anywhere, while sharpshooters hide in the trees and orchards to the west, or aim their rifles through slim “murder holes”, chiselled slits in the walls of neighbouring compounds that overlook the patrol base. The terrifying reality for the men is that, of those who first arrived there three months ago, one is now a triple amputee, another was evacuated with three gunshot wounds, a third has been lacerated by a teenage suicide bomber, and a fourth, lucky man survived being shot by a sniper.
The area outside the Patrol Base is self evidently not under any form of dominance.
Outside, they can proceed only painfully slowly: it takes 15 minutes to cover just 100 yards as they check for hidden explosives and guard against ambush, tense at all times against the danger of a sniper. In the distance, both to the north and south, you can make out the sandbagged guard posts and flags of bigger British and Afghan bases, but for the troops of this particular Patrol Base in Sangin they might be 100 miles away. The white pennants of the Taliban flutter contemptuously nearby, almost certainly booby-trapped. “It’s a joke,” says one marine over the clatter of dominoes in a nearby room. “Everyone just wants to get out with their legs intact. The population hates us around here.”
Is this COIN theory at work in the real world, the local population hate the British forces
There is little in the way of fresh food, and an occasional box of apples delivered from a larger base is regarded as a luxury. Lunch and dinner might be pasta with tuna and sweetcorn, spaghetti, or rice with tinned tomatoes. Once in a while, a few cases of soft drinks might arrive – though it is hard, with just one refrigerator on the base, to get these cold enough to be truly refreshing. “When the fridge breaks we are sometimes drinking water as hot as tea,” says Dutchy, a wiry marine.
After three months there is only an unreliable fridge and resupply with fresh rations is intermittent. One might be forgiven for saying, hold on, these are rough tough marines, why would they need cold drinks or fresh apples, aren’t grenades and bullets more important?
Of course, they are but this illustrates the fragility of the supply chain at the sharp end, a lack of helicopter lift and the dangers of vehicle movement are self evidently restraining resupply of all but the essentials.
Diesel generators provide some power, but white lights are forbidden at night and by 10pm many are turning in – a few perhaps watching a film on their laptops, taken from the base’s small selection of DVDs.
This underlines our suggestion of greater reliance of renewable energy generation because if fresh rations are a problem extra diesel certainly will be.
This next section is particularly illuminating.
Venturing out for a “lurk” at night is a nerve-racking business, but necessary if the marines are to catch the Taliban bombers who use darkness to lay their deadly explosive devices. Lying on the roof deep into the night hours, half lit by moonlight, I was with marines waiting for the shifting shadow that would reveal a Taliban bomb planter. For the third night in a row, he did not appear, but to give up on trying to catch him would be tantamount to admitting defeat. “We will catch them one of these days,” says the marine corporal.
There is no substitute for close recce, the sights, smells and sounds laid out in front of the patrol will allow a positive target identification to made and and appropriate response to be provided.
Visual, thermal and movement sensors can provide valuable early warning to a patrol, allow ambushes and counter ambushed to be set up, cue other assets and facilitate rapid follow up. These other sensors can also serve as an effective deterrent.
Once again, this illustrates a sorry tale of the UK armed forces innovating yet allowing a hard-won lead to lapse, only to be taken up by others.
Anyone familiar with operations in Northern Ireland will clearly identify the numerous watchtowers and observation posts, especially the Divis Tower, Faughil Mountain, Crosslieve and Crievekeeran, that were used to provide Army units with a wide range of intelligence, support ground dominance and serve as a visible deterrent.
These even had a makeover recently with the introduction of the ‘Super Sanger‘, described as a UOR and deployed to Afghanistan, the only real difference between the ones in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland is the addition of different sensors and a remote weapon station, the concept is the same.
Examine the picture of the Super Sanger at a UOR demonstration above with this picture at this link or the picture below of similar structures in Northern Ireland.
Look at the lifting eyes, seem familiar?
A year ago, the Telegraph also reported that a lack of helicopters for resupply had scuppered plans to erect a similar set of observation towers as early as 2008. Whether this would have been a sensible thing to do might be open to debate, Helmand is not Northern Ireland, but it is a reasonable proposition. Having persistent eyes on is a proven method of restricting movement, although not a panacea
Since then, the UAV has burst onto the scene but the UK, with its handful of Hermes 450 and Desert Hawks, simply cannot rival the persistence of fixed installations.
Lockheed Martin was awarded their first aerostat contract for Iraq in 2004, a large design that was used above Baghdad to provide radar and electro-optical imagery in addition to a radio rebroadcast.
The Defence of the Realm blog followed the original story up and described the US persistent surveillance and dissemination system of systems (PSDS2) from Raytheon and its follow up, the Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment RAID system that uses tethered aerostats or blimps and towers to loft a sensor payload. This payload provides a range of sensor capabilities and meshes them into a comprehensive distribution network that is not only highly effective but also manpower efficient.
The Marines Corps’ G-BOSS (Ground-Based Operational Surveillance System) version has two cameras, a radar, and a radio link to a remote ground station. The BETSS-C (Base Expeditionary Targeting and Surveillance Systems-Combined) version has one camera. Intelligent analysis algorithms mean that the system does not rely on operators watching unmoving displays for hours and hours hoping to catch a glimpse of something interesting. The system is integrated with map displays and GPS so information on items of interest can be rapidly shared and communicated to field forces.
The strapline for RAID is mobile high ground, exactly what Helmand is in short supply of.
Equipped with a ubiquitous electro-optical turret like the Wescam MX20 the field and quality of imagery is excellent, RAID systems use a FLIR Systems SAFIRE III but capabilities are comparable.
Lockheed Martin has also created a range of aerostat systems and the video below demonstrates how they might even be armed for counter mortar or rocket missions.
Aerostats and towers are complementary systems, each has advantages and disadvantages but the operation is not foolproof, see the video below!
Tower systems generally do not elevate as much as aerostats but are easier to deploy and more portable, applicable to smaller locations as depicted in the Telegraph story. Large aerostats also present an irresistible target and whilst they can easily withstand lots of small arms fire they will need repairing quite often, towers are much harder targets to hit and the US and Canadian experience is that for many locations, towers are the preferred option. Experience also points to a marked reduction in enemy activity once the systems are in place.
Even a 10-metre tower can see out to approximately 10km and the higher you go, the further one can see although obstacles and terrain can diminish the actual field of view. This is where the network capability comes into play, by being able to tap into the imagery of other towers and aerostats operators can cover a huge area and diminish the effect of blocking terrain features and buildings. Pulling all the inputs together is a software suite called TerraSight from the US company, Snaroff.
The BETSS-C was the second-highest priority US equipment programme, only behind MRAP and to date, they have spent $1.5billion to obtain several hundred systems. This is not expensive technology, the biggest cost is the sensor payload and dissemination system. The average price for a typical tactical aerostat system is approximately $1million and a tower about half that.
In this 2008 memo from the MoD to the Defence Select Committee it stated
To improve the current deployed operating base protection capability, new systems have been provided in Iraq and Afghanistan using mast and aerostat-mounted visual and electronic sensors.
One wonders to what extent these systems were/are being utilised and why more haven’t been obtained.
With the UK’s world-leading expertise in CCTV systems, one would have thought we could come up with something world-beating. Even a casual search throws up many manufacturers and system integrators that combine the undoubted world-leading experience we have in CCTV with the latest in communications technology to share the imagery.
Anyone who has ever worn green will know all about Clarke masts (why they made the PU 12m impossible to get back into the box nobody has ever understood) and there is no reason why a simple CCTV derived sensor could not be integrated with such a portable mast.
We could either simply buy into the US/Canadian BETSS programme or create something less ambitious, perhaps a tactical level to support the small PB’s and FOB’s as described in the Telegraph article at the beginning of this post.
There is an ongoing debate between the Clear Hold Build COIN strategy that makes extensive use of fixed locations versus a more mobile, smaller footprint approach but whilst we are still making use of fixed locations we should be using a combination of a lesson learned and the latest technology.
The Taleban have the initiative, they choose the time and place of attack, denying them the freedom of movement around our fixed locations changes the situation and technology can be used as part of this initiative.
This was a key lesson from Operation Banner.
Earlier I said that Helmand is not Northern Ireland but we also have to realise the benefits of technology, this is 2010, not 1970 either.
It does seem again, like too little too late.