Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Rotating the troops home from HERRICK

There was a lot of coverage of the MOD announcement on Tuesday 14 May that the UK would be changing its deployment routine for the final phase of Operation HERRICK (UK ops in Afghanistan). Since the operation began, rotations of the major formations have happened on a roughly six monthly basis, with units relieving each other in country. Originally, when set against the planned timeline for withdrawal, a further three HERRICK rotations were due to occur. Under yesterdays announcement the MOD has now changed its plans slightly, with the three rotations replaced by two longer deployments. In effect each of the last two HERRICKS will be eight months long instead of six.
 
The news has been met in some quarters with allegations that the Army is too overstretched and that this announcement is a direct result of defence cuts and not other reasons. Frankly these thoughts stand up to little scrutiny. When one looks into the timetable for the next two years, it is clear that the one of the rotations was scheduled to occur during the Afghan Elections in April, a period of time which would prove challenging, and place a major burden on the Afghan Security Forces. Delaying the relief by a few weeks will ensure that UK forces are not in the process of a handover during what could be a tense time. By delaying this rotation, the follow on force, which would have relieved the formation in October, would have arrived in late December – early January – at a point in time where it would have had barely eight weeks in theatre prior to the final withdrawal of UK troops. From a common sense perspective, it seems far more sensible to extend the tours of the formations out slightly, even if this does come as an annoyance to those deployed.
 
Longer tours are nothing new – for some time now many staff officers have been deploying on nine-twelve month continuity tours in particularly key posts. This makes for a long tour, but is manageable – yesterday’s announcement though marks the first time full formations will deploy for longer.
 
Part of the problem in getting a coherent debate on what the announcement really means is that to the public the phrase Afghanistan conjures up images of troops fighting for their lives in FOBS or the Green Zone. A steady stream of publicity about the incredible bravery of troops based in Helmand has led to many in the public assuming everyone will be extending and risking their lives in similar conditions for longer. The reality is a lot different as most troops by then will be working in Kandahar and Bastion enjoying a significantly different way of life to what many in the public assume goes on in HERRICK – the text below was taken from an email written by Humphrey during his time on HERRICK as a Staff Officer working at a major NATO HQ:
 
“Posters have gone up around the camp advertising the fact that on Friday nights there will be a weekly class in Greek Folk Dancing (surely we don’t have enough plates spare to smash though?), and at the same time, the gym has now issued a set of rules setting out when ‘registered couples’ are entitled to use the steam room & sauna in our gymnasium. Personally I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that we have a steam room & sauna at a time when young British troops are living in forward bases in Helmand, under constant attack, while using plastic bags to crap in, and eating cold rations (all the time under a 30% likelihood per tour that they will lose multiple limbs or be killed to an IED), or the fact that our NATO bureaucracy decided we needed rules to regulate when said steam room & sauna could or could not be used.

In a similar vein, we’ve just had the water fountain reconnected in our lovely gardens (the ones with the giant coliseum which can be seen from space). In a country with massive water shortages… we’ve spent taxpayers money ensuring that the fountain trickles nicely while we drink a cup of coffee at lunchtime. Meanwhile, if you walk down the road to the neighbouring US base, you will walk past a communal water pump at which you’ll see young children drinking from a communal cup. The locals, here in Afghanistan’s capital, don’t have a pumped water supply, and have to share from a central pump. We in the HQ (all of 200m away) have so much water to spare that we can use it in our garden fountains...

From our perspective we are seeking to withdraw, and in doing so are surging troops into the country in an effort to secure final ‘victory’ (whatever that phrase means in this context). The problem is that for us, we’re not seeing thousands of combat troops, replete with helicopters and rifles and cool things that make big explosions turning up and swarming into the badlands to close with, and kill, the enemy. Instead we’re seeing a surge of staff officers, often very senior ones, who are told ‘you’re deploying to Kabul’, and on arrival at the HQ are told to find themselves a job. We have the situation of people turning up here with no job, no roles and told to sit in an organisation and make themselves useful. As with all bureaucracies, when given this chance, rather than streamline the HQ, they are just adding themselves into the process chain. This means that things now take twice as long to do as before as people are insisting on being involved in things, which they have no knowledge of, or remit to do – they just want to be more involved in the HQ.

Other reminders that the HQ is in a strange place is the fact that we had an Earthquake the other night. We were about 150 miles from the epicentre (6.4 on the Richter scale), but the building still shook like crazy. To add insult to injury the locals decided that it would be great fun to fire a few rockets in our direction that night as well. Naturally the only greeting one could use the next day was ‘did the earth move for you too last night darling?’

Humphrey thought about the merits of posting the above (edited) email, but felt on balance that as it has been widely shared with friends, on ARRSE and also within a wider discussion provided to the Imperial War Museum as part of their Afghan recollections project, it was appropriate to provide it as an already public document, but it must be read in the context that not all HERRICK experiences are those seen on the TV – it should be seen very much as a cry of frustration by a very tired Officer during a difficult period , but also to understand the challenges of working in a complex operation. One should not read the frustrations of an email sent home to friends during this time as being any implicit criticism of policy by HM Govt or NATO as a whole, more as a sense of ‘letting off steam’ in the same way as we all do from time to time.

But, moving on from this, the points made above highlight that as we move towards transition, and away from combat operations, this sort of experience will be increasingly the norm for UK forces. Their roles will be far more about providing distant support and training to the Afghan Security Forces, or to assist with the preparation for withdrawal, which is a major logistical feat by itself. So, while it is inevitably frustrating for those troops who are deployed to find they will be away for longer, we do need to keep a sense of balance about what they will be doing, and the relative level of risk compared to earlier HERRICKS.
 
 
 Are Defence cuts  to blame?
The question is though, do these changes mean that defence cuts have bitten too deeply? It is hard to say yes that this is the case. Although the Army is shrinking by some 18,000, this final figure will still not be reached for many years. There is still plenty of manpower in the system to find and support this scale of deployment, and a key part of the SDSR and Future Force work was about ensuring that the UK could continue to deploy formations of up to around 7500 – 8000 personnel on an enduring basis. While an Army of 82,000 will inevitably find it harder to generate bodies than an army of 100,000, we should not for one moment assume that the UK is going to be unable to do a HERRICK in future on purely manpower grounds alone. One suspects though that over the next few years, all the decisions linked to manpower, ranging from rotations of units on OP HERRICK through to whether or not there are certain units or squadrons in flypasts or ceremonial functions as being linked to defence cuts.
 
It would also be wise to be wary of making too much of a song and dance about this extension as it may not sit well with the soldiers of allied nations. For a significant period of the US deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, US troops were deploying on 12-15 month rotations, with only two weeks off during this period. The author knows of cases where units flying home after 12 month tours were turned around in the air and returned to theatre with a six month extension in order to meet emergency surge requirements. By contrast the UK tour of eight months will be barely half that of most US troops tours in previous years, and all affected personnel have been given 12-18 months notice that its going to happen to them. While it is doubtless annoying, and frustrating for the troops and their families, we perhaps need to keep the level of extension in context.
 
Summary
In reality despite the best efforts of some media elements to make out that this is a result of defence cuts, one cannot escape the conclusion that this is actually a reasonably sensible decision to make maximum use of troops and resources and is probably safer for all concerned. Even though UK troops will be largely hands off by the end of HERRICK, there is always a risk when units rotate, as tired troops and green troops mix in a combination where mistakes can happen. It is surely better to get through a period where things may be more challenging, and work with troops who although tired, are aware of the challenges and comfortable with operating in Afghanistan.
 
Similarly, it would seem a better use of the UKs wider training regime to not spend significant time putting troops through OPTAG and the work up cycle (not to mention issuing kit that will be written off) for a tour that at best would last 8 weeks at the other end of HERRICK. Looking at the bigger picture, surely using the troops that would have theoretically done the final HERRICK to instead help regenerate the wider Army and its ability to focus on contingent, not current, operations is a much more sensible move.
 
Looking more widely, the legacy of HERRICK will be broad, and in the publics eye, they will not realise that for many of us who served there, it was about doing a job which was important (albeit at times frustrating) but where the individual risk was far less than friends and family at home thought. The challenge now may be to try and build a narrative over time which accurately records the work done, as while the heroic bravery of those who fought in the FOBs and Green Zone rightly deserves to be remembered, equally it is important to understand the work done by those who worked in the MOBs, doing training, support and logistics. It is perhaps a cruel irony that the arguably most important part of HERRICK (the final withdrawal and closedown) is the one which will enjoy the least understanding, despite it demonstrating the UKs considerable reach and capability when it comes to logistical parts of military operations.
 
Whatever happens, one must see the announcement though as a sensible decision made for the right reasons, and not as some kind of knee jerk reaction to the prospects of a smaller military to come.

10 comments:

  1. Can't let a decision go un-critiqued or used for bashing someone else with. It makes perfect sense to me. And as you say, most will be in BSN which is just like being in camp but hotter and with no booze. Most blokes won't mind except any young crows in any FP unit that has to stag on for 8 months in BSN. And when I was last out there tours were pushing 7.5 months for some with RSOI and RIP handovers.

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  2. ""Longer tours are nothing new – for some time now many staff officers have been deploying on nine-twelve month continuity tours in particularly key posts. "" - Lucky them - I would have thought that a staff officer could do two years without much problem.

    Short tours for the guys at the pointy end do have their problems - you aren't "in theatre" long enough to learn the job and operate effectively.
    But I don't suppose the pointy end guys minds.

    The newspapers( Torygraph ) also mentioned an extra £50 per day as compensation - I hope that it is tax free!

    To end with a story - drag up a sandbag!
    When we pulled out of Aden in 1967 we sailed around to Sharjah. After we had been there for a while we were asked to volunteer to extend our tours - the bribe was two weeks R & R in Cyprus, or 28 days extra leave at end of tour. No hardship there.
    But it proves the old adage - "Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance"

    But it will be very bad press for HMG if a guy on an extended tour gets killed during the extension time.

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  3. The MOD should be more open and describe which units will "suffer" from the post 2014 continuation. I suspect RLC and RMP units, alogn with some SAS/SBS teams unofficially in place to train or hunt down more insurgents.

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  4. Why would anyone care what units will 'suffer'?! Those posts affected no doubt already know and probably won't be very bothered. Phil

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    1. Why are you careless in letting information be secretive?

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    2. That made no sense.

      But why should YOU get to know? What does it matter? The longer tour will go ahead, it will get done and dusted and there'll plenty of blokes up for the extra $$ it will bring in.

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  5. Nice article Sir H,

    Seems almost surreal that it's all finally nearing to a close. Thank goodness. And good luck to all those who still have to go.

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  6. Australian Army rotations went to 8 months in June 2008. It was no big deal.

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  7. OT: remembering your post about enaging in the Far East.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hms-daring-prepares-for-pacific-deployment

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  8. Extending the tours makes a lot of sense. What I find interesting is why this was not done earlier. Extending the tours de-heats the training programme, provides greater continuity in Theatre (invaluable in a campaign where building and maintaining links with locals is critical) and allows better management of scarce training resources. The only downside is the inability of the TA to be deployed for 9 months.
    So why wasn't this step taken earlier?

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