Thursday, 18 August 2011

MoD's logistics shambles hides Afghan war's true costs

In what must be the most damning indictment yet of Britain's Ministry of Defence (the Department), the Committee of Public Accounts, chaired by Margaret Hodge, MP, has exposed the utter shambles of the Department's logistics operations, which have defied resolution for 25 years. In its 43rd report of this session, issued on August 19, the Committee explained that the Department had promised over the last 25 years to resolve the long-standing problems associated with its supply chain: late deliveries, missed targets and inadequate cost information. Yet the problems persist.

If all that were not enough in terms of hiding the true cost of the Afghan war, for example, and the colossal waste of hard-pressed taxpayers' money, there are also serious potential perils for the front line British troops serving n Afghanistan. The MoD accepts that historic under investment has meant that its management information systems and the underlying IT systems are not up to the task. This means that "the risk of failure of these warehouse inventory systems is extremely high and was recently rated as 'critical' by the Defence Logistics Board. If these systems fail then the result would be shortages at the front line within as little as 30 days," says the report.

In any military theatre logistics can decide the outcome of battles and even wars. As Erwin Rommel remarked: "Before the fighting proper the battle is won or lost by quartermasters." He could usefully have added: "provided the quartermasters know their art." That art cannot be efficacious without timely, accurate data on all logistics aspects and that has been lacking for all of the 10-year Afghan war. So what does this logistics shambles mean in terms of costs and were the reasons for Britain's entry into the Afghan war soundly thought through?

Lamentably, military minds, alas, are rarely original, knowing little of history and even less of logistics in a geographically challenging terrain. Sir Sherard Cooper-Coles, Britain's former ambassador to Afghanistan, remarked that the then Chief of General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, told him in the summer of 2007 that if he did not use in Afghanistan the battle groups then starting to come free from Iraq he would lose them in a future defence review. "It's use them or lose them," he said. Such a curios, if not crass, reason for justifying an Afghan combat beggars belief and ignores the potency of the Afghan terrain's impact on foreign invaders' logistics.

Sir Sherard believes that the Afghan war is costing Britain £6 billion a year. The true cost is much more than that and may well never be known because the MoD "does not know the full costs of its current activities or the cost of alternative supply options," says the report. Moreover, the £6 billion does not include the cost of supporting maimed military personnel, war widows and their children and the suicides following any wars.

The failure to collect basic data about where supplies are stored has directly contributed to the Department's accounting being qualified for three consecutive years. These qualifications are likely to continue because the MoD's promise to resolve the issues, through a major initiative called the "Future logistics information services project" is not expected to be implemented until 2014.

If an efficient supply chain can be established it would release resources for the front line. The Committee believes that the MoD must place greater emphasis on securing value for money and that there is room for it to find efficiencies in the supply chain without jeopardising operational effectiveness. This could see an end to the practice of having to cannibalize Typhoon jets and military vehicles owing to lack of supplies often caused by late deliveries. In the six months to November 2010, for example, over 40% of supplies were 30 days or more overdue.

Such efficiency improvements are worthwhile but will they make any significant impact on Britain's hemorrhaging of resources at a critical time when the Government is struggling to cut its deficit? Alas, no. To give but one example, consider the costs of prosecuting a war in a far off land where the terrain is ideally suited to guerrilla warfare and so works in the Taliban's logistics favour. The MoD spent at least £347 million in 2010-2011 on transporting supplies overseas but this does not include the cost of military supply flights. In 2010 there were 130,300 individual deliveries made to Afghanistan and 31%, in tonnage terms, went by air. The Committee's 43rd report does not give details of that tonnage nor the air freight costs but some idea, perhaps, can be obtained from what it has cost America to transport an entire brigade of 3,900 men and 15,000 tonnes of supplies by air. The cost was $14,00o a tonne, making a total of $210 million. Had the supplies gone by rail through Russia, which currently forbids munitions passing through its country, the cost would have been only $500 a tonne, a prime example of how logistics thwarts the coalition forces. If the Taliban were more effective at sealing the land routes through Pakistan then the logistics costs would soar to unacceptable levels.

Any logistician can see that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable for the coalition forces, militarily speaking, and that to remain there for several more years is just throwing more good money after bad and shamefully wasting lives, leaving a sorrowful legacy for their loved ones.
War has not always been entirely negative. People living today could not enjoy their current living standards, helped by many scientific discoveries, without the prior, painful emergence of large political groups like nation states.

Given the nature of man, such a political process could only have been forged on the anvil of war. But the world is moving into uncharted, dangerous waters in which technological progress has far outstripped man's moral progress, little changed since Stone Age times. This serious mismatch is surely the greatest challenge and threat facing mankind today. If the reptile within cannot be tamed permanently then the outlook for mankind is grim at best, if not terminal. As a famous general warned at the dawn of the Atomic Age: "It must be of the spirit if the flesh is to survive."

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