Sunday, April 1, 2012

New armed forces body promises review of Afghan conflict

Armed-Forces-Day-parade-i-006 One of the armed forces' most senior officers is to oversee a wholesale review of the decade-long campaign in Afghanistan to help prepare the military for future conflicts. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach will look at tactics and strategy – good and bad – as part of his role as the head of the new 30,000-strong Joint Forces Command (JFC), which "stands up" on Monday.

The formation of the JFC marks one of the most significant structural changes in the British military since the second world war. The new department will be at the core of intelligence gathering and contingency planning for any future campaigns.

It is thought the JFC, which was a key proposal in Lord Levene's report on defence reforms, is already helping the chief of the defence staff, Sir David Richards, consider how the UK might be affected by, and potentially contribute to, any conflict between the west and Iran.

Inevitably, much of the work undertaken by the JFC will be top secret.

In an interview with the Guardian, Peach, 55, said the JFC would "be the glue that helps bind together" the navy, airforce and army. It will also ensure that lessons from campaigns such as Afghanistan are learned quickly.

It will also oversee the development of weapons for cyberwarfare, and recommend new "smart" equipment that might make the difference in future campaigns.

"One of key ways to exploit this new command is to make sure that lessons are applied into education and training, so that our soldiers, sailors and airmen are better prepared. We want to build on the way we have prepared forces for current operations."

On Afghanistan, he said: "All campaigns evolve over time. The threat has evolved into these improvised explosive devices. We have a very important role in understanding countermeasures and techniques to defeat those devices. It is one of the key lessons we have identified."

Peach said his aim was to "bring lessons more quickly from current operations into future operations" – which could entail new training, as well as changes in tactics and procedures.

Peach said he didn't want to "imply it was all rubbish before", but said the JFC would bring proper focus to certain areas that needed to be championed to give the best possible advantage to troops fighting in the front line.

He also denied the JFC was, in effect, a fourth service. "No, it's definitely not a fourth service. We are not creating new uniforms or anything of that sort. We are complementary to three single services. We have a close relationship."

Nevertheless, the remit of the JFC is huge, and Peach is now one of the most significant players in the British military. His command includes responsibility for counterterrorist training teams, the directorate of special forces, defence intelligence, the surgeon general's headquarters, and the defence cyber-operations group.

With a core staff of 150 to support him, Peach also sits over the Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood, Middlesex, which has operational control for campaigns abroad, including Afghanistan, and last year in Libya.

"The JFC is not about ships, aircraft and tanks. It is about command, control, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and cyber. They are vital in current operations but you cannot reach out and touch them. Sometimes they can lose priority in a resource constrained world. We are the champions of the things you cannot see."

He added: "We are joining up that which we have learned, sometimes the hard way, with that which we need to provide in both equipment and support … we are about joining up the dots."

Peach said the JFC would be looking to experiment with "new and small capabilities", as well as building up a better picture of potential threats through surveillance and reconnaissance.

The US military used to have a JFC, but it has been disbanded to cut costs, raising questions about whether the UK really needs one of its own.

Peach says the British JFC cannot be compared to the American model because they are undertaking different roles. He also insisted the army, navy and air force were behind the new body, even though Lord Levene's report made clear the three services were riven by parochial self-interest, and were highly suspicious of each other – particularly at senior levels.

"Actually we have a generation of young men and women (who) understand that we need to work together. They understand the army, navy and airforce are better together than apart. There is a hunger to enable joint operations to provide foundation capabilities we are better together. It's not just a question of a slogan of working together."

Peach would not be drawn on the kinds of cyber-capabilities the UK will be looking to develop, and said the UK needed to better understand the threat.

"We need a single point of authority within defence to provide appropriate focus. That focus is within Joint Forces Command. There is lots of speculation about threat, and obviously [we are] trying to understand the threat and what we do about it. The threat is real. Defining it, codifying it, and understanding it are important."

Peach said the JFC would be a success "when the young men and women on operations realise that those operations are more effective because of what we have done".

Though he also admitted that looking ahead could also be an inexact science. "All predictions of the future are invariably wrong," he said.

The Guardian

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