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Publishing • Production • Communications
  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column

Forces need to talk to one another

A breakdown in communication has often been the catalyst for armed conflict but, as the Iraq War demonstrated, it is also the biggest killer.

The footage of BBC journalist John Simpson diving for cover from an American laser-guided bomb demonstrated that the weakest link in armed conflict will always be a lack of effective communication, regardless of the sophistication of the technology.

The American forces featured regularly among those guilty of firing on coalition forces, firing on civilians at roadblocks, or simply taking a wrong turn and getting captured or killed.

The Americans sent their troops into Iraq knowing only a few basic words in Arabic, collected their intelligence using many sources, and expected a digital battlefield to maintain effective communications between the many branches and sub-branches of their Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, CIA, NSA and Special Forces - not to forget the other members of the coalition of the willing.

It is no surprise that the British and Australian forces suffered fewer "blue on blue" (friendly fire) incidents. The British and Australian knew their capabilities and prepared themselves accordingly.

The Australian forces set themselves specific tasks at which their SAS troops worked in conditions for which they were trained, and they were supported by combat pilots with whom they were familiar. The result? No problems, mate.

The British preparation suffered several setbacks from a couple of helicopter collisions, a handful of troops finding themselves accidentally behind enemy lines, and one British tank reportedly firing on another. These incidents were ultimately the result of a lack of communication among a few.

The British were, however, trained to rely not only on technology but on their instincts. Pilots could withdraw from firing on a target if civilians were nearby.

In stark contrast, an American A-10 pilot flew past a tank clearly identified as British, then returned to fire on the British column, apparently relying on technology rather than his own eyes.

The British demonstrated a more effective co-ordinated effort in their part of the Iraq operation. They had had more experience with urban guerilla warfare and they made a considerable effort to prepare for interaction with the Iraqi people.

Just after capturing the southern Iraqi ports, the British quickly set about hiring locals to run them.

The Operation Market Garden debacle at Arnhem in World War II taught the British how impotent armed forces are without working communications systems. The operation failed because the intelligence was flawed, radios did not work and the Army and Air Force did not have much experience of working together.

The British have since adopted a defence strategy of integrating the combat and transport capabilities of all branches of their armed forces. The Harrier programme of the 1950s integrated the combat capability of the Navy with close ground support for the Army.

Armoured vehicles can be deployed by truck, train, ship, hovercraft, helicopter or transport aircraft. The new HMS Ocean-class ships have a full-length flight deck that can launch combat and transport, rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, a hangar deck that can be used as a mobile hospital or to transport humanitarian aid, and an amphibious dock to launch hovercraft or engineering barges.

The British forces train together so that the overall potency and manoeuvrability of their forces are optimal. The taxpayer saves a lot of money as well.

The Joint Strike Fighter programme, a project between Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems, will replace the ageing Harriers, Tornadoes and other combat aircraft with a short-takeoff vertical landing, supersonic stealth fighter-bomber. Its cost is a fraction of the Eurofighter programme that achieved only a fraction of the Joint Strike Fighter capabilities.

The Australians and British contrast starkly with the fragmented and factioned New Zealand Defence Force.

In Britain, the Army does not lobby for new tanks at the expense of the Air Force and the Navy. In Australia, the SAS trains with combat pilots so the troops can identify ground targets deep within enemy territory for the pilots to eliminate. The Australians demonstrated in Iraq that a few SAS troops supported by a few combat aircraft are more potent than several battalions of tanks or troops - cheaper, too.

The decision by New Zealand to scrap its air combat arm, buy LAVIII armoured vehicles and civilian-style ships will cost more money and lives.

Our SAS troops are being exposed to working with foreign forces they have not trained with; other armed forces will be fixing and transporting our armoured vehicles; and other armed forces will need to protect our defenceless ships.

If New Zealand improved its communications with all of our traditional allies and within our own Defence Force, so much more could be achieved with the least cost - both economically and, more importantly, in the saving of lives.

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