SAS or SS?

Last week’s BBC Panorama programme “SAS Death Squads Exposed” raised some serious questions about the exploits of Britain’s elite special forces in Afghanistan in 2010-11. Apparently some four years in the making, the programme took a measured and appropriately inquisitive look at how Britain’s best-known special forces outfit operated and how it might have transgressed the normal laws of war during that conflict.

Predictably it has led to an out burst of spluttering from the usual Bufton-Tuftons who spend most of their days in the leather armchairs of various London clubs, whose consensus view seems to be that it is an outrage that the reputation of Britain’s elite warriors has been smeared in this way. On the other side of the fence, various leftie journalists and commentators have already called for the immediate disbandment of the SAS and the arrest and trial of all those allegedly involved in the killings.

I am in neither camp but somewhere in-between. However I do agree with the band of assorted senior retired military officers that the allegations are serious enough to warrant some sort of independent inquiry. And by independent I mean truly independent; the Royal Military Police, God bless’em, come under the army chain of command and cannot be described as independent by any stretch of the imagination. No, it needs to be carried out by someone or some organisation with no military links whatsoever. The favourite tabloid phrase “judge-led” springs to mind.

But let’s look at the allegations which have been made. Briefly, the Panorama programme suggested that the SAS, and their little brothers the SBS, were basically a law unto themselves in Afghanistan, operating outside the in-theatre chain of command. The most serious charge is that they summarily executed unarmed Afghan boys and men of fighting age, some of whom had already been restrained and rendered helpless, in some macabre competition between units over who could achieve the highest number of kills. To compound matters, it is claimed that they then planted weapons on the dead to justify their actions.

If proven, such charges are quite clearly illegal and totally at variance with the laws of armed conflict, and the perpetrators are essentially war criminals who should face justice. The question then arises as to how this could happen. How could a disciplined military unit “go rogue” like this and become an outlier in the British military? There may be several reasons for this.

The SAS was a relatively obscure and unheralded outfit until they burst into the public conscience at the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980. Their famous assault, abseiling from the roof and blowing out window frames, was carried on live television to an incredulous audience and became one of the defining moments of both Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership and British military history. The unit was lionised by the media and politicians alike and became globally famous.

Through this and subsequent actions the unit developed a guid’ conceit o’ itsel’, much of it undoubtedly deserved. As an officially sanctioned “elite” organisation, senior officers became wary of interfering with their modus operandi and became increasingly hands-off, maybe too much hands-off. The SAS famously has a relaxed attitude to such things as rank and dress, both staples of most armies’ ethos, but in their case it perhaps was allowed to go too far and morphed into a kind of canteen culture where the tail began to wag the dog?

As the old army adage has it, there are no bad regiments just bad commanding officers. Time and again when discussing the Panorama report with my ex-military friends the same question is asked; what were the officers doing during all of this? The commanding officer usually sets the tone and culture for the regiment he commands, and this is followed by his junior officers right down to the lowest level and sets the tone of the whole regiment.

How, therefore, might this have gone so badly wrong in one squadron (at least) of the SAS in Afghanistan in 2010-11? The answer might be that the leadership was weak and the canteen culture flourished. And the junior officers, who one would expect to intervene when it appeared that things were not quite right, may have come to regard themselves as more “one of the lads” than representatives of authority, and just rolled over and let their men get on with it. To be clear, this is all conjecture, but there may be an element of truth in it.

The worst result, though, is that the British army may have lost the moral high ground in its defence of British interests and betrayed the values and standards which we should hold dear. Look what happened to the Americans when details of extraordinary rendition, black sites, and Guantanamo Bay emerged. They lost the moral high ground comprehensively and have struggled to regain it ever since. When you lose the moral high ground you have lost the war.

In Andy McNab’s book Bravo Two Zero, his account of the disastrous insertion of an SAS patrol into Iraq in the first Gulf War, he recounts how at one point they were discovered in their hiding place by a shepherd boy. The militarily sensible thing to have done would have been to eliminate the threat, but after discussion he and his fellows decided that they were the SAS, not the SS, and the boy lived and went free.

Would the squadron in Afghanistan have come to same conclusion? We need a full and independent inquiry into the allegations made in the Panorama programme so that either the Regiment can clear its name or the criminals in its ranks can be brought to justice.

(First published in the Scotsman in July 2022)

SAS death squads exposed? We need an independent judge-led inquiry into serious allegations about SAS in Afghanistan – Lt Col Stuart Crawford | The Scotsman

Quality or Quantity? The MBT Conundrum

If the Ukraine war has taught us anything about high tempo conventional warfare between peer adversaries it is that numbers matter. That Russia has been able to continue its assault despite significant losses in men and materiel speaks to the value of having a large inventory, particularly of replacement armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs).

However, the West seems to have focussed on fewer, higher-spec AFVs. The UK, for example, currently plans to be able to field only 148 Challenger 3 main battle tanks (MBTs) by 2030, although surely this figure will be upped after recent events in eastern Europe. Pure numbers aside, it’s clear that the USA and its NATO allies have also plumped for large, increasingly complex, and expensive MBTs, topping 70 tonnes or more when prepared to what is sometimes referred to as “theatre entry standard”.

Just look at the most recent iterations of the M1A2 and Leopard 2A7, both remarkable for the myriad of bolt-on bits of kit deemed necessary to meet the threats. I do wonder, though, if the West is going in the right direction here, and for a number of reasons. The first, and most basic one, is cost. With a modern western MBT costing up to £8.3 million ($10 million) depending on its final fit, does it really make sense to invest so much in a vehicle that might be destroyed or disabled by a next generation light anti-tank weapon (NLAW) which costs around £33,400 ($40,000)? Or even by an adapted commercial drone available for much less than that? I don’t think so.

Whisper it softly, but at the present time most western MBTs would fare little better against the Ukraine’s hand-held anti-tank weaponry than the Russians have. Yes, there are systems available to counter the drone/top attack missiles threat – the Israeli Trophy kit being perhaps the best known so far – but no NATO nation yet has them in general service. And, again, currently the UK plans to procure only 60 systems for its pathetically small planned fleet of 148 Challenger 3s. There are already cannons and ammunition optimised in the anti-drone role and possibly even laser weapons in the fullness of time, but they’re still some way down the road.

I also have concerns about the vulnerability of western MBTs and AFVs to less sophisticated threats. As technology has evolved to meet the defensive and offensive needs of modern vehicles, various add-ons – like active protective systems (APS), remote weapons systems (RWS), thermal imaging (TI) sights and the like – have been applied retrospectively to existing designs. However, the vast majority of these upgrades have been added on top of, not integrated with, the vehicles’ basic armour protection.

The end result has been that many modern MBTs look like tinkers’ caravans with all the bits and pieces that have been added, and these additions look extremely vulnerable to such mundane things as artillery shrapnel and small arms fire. Damage to these extra-armour appendages may severely restrict a vehicle’s operational capabilities, if not render it incapacitated altogether.

The last aspect I wish to deal with here, although there are many others, is that of size and weight. An important aspect of any AFV’s survivability on the battlefield is its ability not to be detected, and if detected, not to be targeted and hit. Agility plays a part too, of course, but if we look at the size of current western MBT fleets the vehicles are all large and bulky and therefore are essentially big targets. Plus their physical size limits the ways in which they can be transported, with the height/width/weight tolerances of road and railway bridges and tunnels being one example.

Large size comes hand in hand with increased weight, topping 70 tonnes in some cases as previously mentioned. This combination of excessive size and weight has a significant impact on strategic, operational, and tactical mobility. Studies have shown that the “trafficability” of an MBT (its ability to use the European road network) declines as the cube of its weight. In other words, doubling its weight will reduce its trafficability by a factor of eight.

It follows, therefore, that lighter MBTs and AFVs, which may not grossly exceed the weight limits set for commercial vehicles, can utilise a far higher proportion of the modern European road network than can the current 70 tonne plus MBTs which equip NATO armies. Clearly this influences the options for movement and manoeuvre. Interestingly Russian MBTs, which have performed badly in Ukraine for a number of reasons well covered elsewhere, have a much better trafficability.

There are other issues that we could examine, but taking just the three aspects of cost, vulnerability, and trafficability makes me wonder whether the west should re-examine its policies on AFVs in general and MBTs in particular. It may be that we have reached the upper limit of the size/weight/cost/vulnerability/trafficability matrix and need a radical rethink. Would it perhaps not be a better policy to opt for smaller, lighter, less expensive MBTs and AFVs in larger quantities rather than putting all our eggs in a few baskets, as it were? As the probably apocryphal German saying from the Second World War has it; “One Panther is worth ten Shermans, but there’s always an eleventh one.”

There is a debate to be had here and this short article barely scratches the surface. However, more recently the demands of urban combat on MBTs has led to calls for a “support” tank for infantry operations, thereby reinventing the wheel of the British  cruiser tank/infantry tank philosophy of the 1930s. One example of that might be KMW’s RCT120 remote turret with L/44 120 mm smoothbore on Boxer and Tracked Boxer. It is not an MBT substitute, but is able to provide infantry with direct fire support and protection against unexpected tank encounters. The turret additionally has twin long-range ATGMs.

There is also the option of going down the “optionally manned” AFV route, where the crewed vehicle might control one or two “loyal wingmen”, to borrow the phrase from developments in aviation. I would anticipate such a vehicle might have a three man crew in a protected compartment with a remotely controlled turret, rather like the Russian T-14 Armata design. The consensus is that future MBTs will have autoloaders, but not of the discredited Russian carousel design but rather that of in the turret bustle with blow-off panels like the French Leclerc.

That is probably enough for now. Finally, I did write on this site recently that “the age of the tank is not yet over”[1]. I think it appropriate, therefore, to end with a quote by one of Britain’s pre-eminent inter-war military intellectuals.  “Time after time during the past 40 years the highest defence authorities have announced that the tank is dead or dying,” wrote Basil Liddell Hart, the British military theorist, in 1960. “Each time it has risen from the grave to which they have consigned it”.

(First published in the UK Defence Journal in July 2022)

[1] The age of the tank is not yet over (

The Age of the Tank is Not Yet Over

Recent conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and, more tellingly, the current war in Ukraine have brought a renewed focus on the role of the main battle tank (MBT) in modern, conventional military operations.

Unfortunately, the abiding images in the public view are of heavily armed and armoured, not to say highly expensive, armoured fighting vehicles being destroyed and neutralised wither by plucky individuals with hand-held anti-tank weapons or by cheap – relatively speaking – armed drones and the so-called “loitering” or “kamikaze” munitions. What has been widely portrayed in the popular media has led, once again, to predictions that “the age of the tank is over”.

I have heard this cry numerous times before over the past forty years and it has yet to come to pass. And it won’t come to pass this time either, not yet anyway, for reasons I shall now explain.    

First, the history of the tank in warfare since its first introduction by the British in 1916 during the Great War has been one of a see-saw battle between its protection levels and the potency of weapons designed to defeat that protection. When first deployed on the Somme the tank was proof against German machine guns (although not against artillery rounds). The enemy quickly devised and deployed ant-tank rifles which fired a bigger, heavier round to penetrate the tanks’ armour.

This competition has continued ever since. Bigger guns versus thicker armour. Then spaced or composite armour designed to defeat attack by high explosive shaped-charge warheads designed to penetrate steel plate using molten, focused metal jets. Then explosive reactive armour, placed on the outside of conventional protection, which detonates to disrupt the incoming attack. And finally active armour, which senses the incoming round or missile and intercepts it before it even reaches the MBT.

So tank protection can now be considered in the categories of passive (armour plate or composite), reactive (exploding bolt on boxes), or active (interceptor missiles, disruptive munitions, or jamming), sometimes categorised into soft-kill and hard-kill systems. The key to defeating loitering munitions and kamikaze drones lies in the latter, usually referred to as active protection systems (APS). Best known of these is perhaps the Israeli Trophy system which has saved many a tank or armoured vehicle of theirs for a good few years now, and which I understand is being procured by the British Royal Armoured Corps for Challenger 3, of which more later.

It was, however, the Soviets/Russians who developed the first active protection system between 1977 and 1982, named Drozd. This system was designed as an addition to passive or reactive armour against anti-tank weapons using shaped-charge technology. The current Russian APS is called Arena, a hard-kill system like Drozd, designed to destroy and incoming missile’s warhead through the use of munitions before it reaches the vehicle being protected.

So it would appear that Russia has the technology to defeat many of the anti-tank weapons (Javelin, NLAW etc) which have been used so effectively in Ukraine against its MBTs and armoured fighting vehicles. Which begs the question why haven’t they done so? The Russians must have known that their vehicles would be attacked in this manner. It happened during the Battle of Grozny during the First Chechen War, where they lost over 200 vehicles to Chechen rebels armed with hand-held anti-tank weapons, so it’s not that they have no experience of this. Has the kit been fitted to their tanks and proven unreliable or have the Ukrainians managed to disable it in some way? I don’t know the answer here.

We also need to consider tactics. I think most people now accept that the likeliest Russian strategy adopted by them at the start of the war was to drive down the motorway to Kyiv meeting little if any resistance and replace the Ukrainian government with one of their own choosing. Hence the advanced recce groups in lightly armoured vehicles which were given a good shoeing by the courageous and competent resistance shown by the Ukrainian army and militia groups which confronted them. That must have come as a complete surprise.

The corollary of this aim was that the Russian follow-on forces, the second echelon if you like, were committed in peacetime like columns of vehicles expecting just to breeze in and intimidate and establish control over the locals. But they got stuck because the initial advances by light forces were repulsed, and they ended up stranded in long columns on roads which they were unable to leave because of the muddy conditions, in the north of the country at least.

They also outran their logistic support and, perhaps more importantly, their air defence cover. At the same time, the Russians had not been able to suppress the Ukrainian air defences nor had they been able to establish air superiority, a prerequisite of nearly every successful land operation since the Second World War. And so, stranded in long convoys on roads they could not leave and without sufficient air cover, the Russians have suffered heavy casualties.

Even those whose sum experience of la vie militaire is buying some gear from their local army surplus store would know that this is likely to lead to a hiding to nothing, and so it has proved. The lack or professionalism and competence appears to be staggering, and yet this is – at time of writing – where we find ourselves. Now, their presumed initial strategy stymied at every turn, the Russians appear to be replenishing, regrouping, and digging in for the long haul, plus focussing efforts in the south.

Back on track (no pun intended), Russians losses in tanks and armoured fighting vehicles are pretty enormous. No wonder that less well informed commentators, looking at the destruction of the invading columns by lightly armed defending infantrymen and women, are forecasting the end of the era of the MBT. But I think they’re being a bit presumptuous.

Technological innovation does not stand still, after all, and after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict everyone was looking at how best to counter the armed drones used so effectively in that confrontation. And, lo and behold, there were a variety of counter systems already available on the market, it was just that non-one up to that point had taken the threat seriously. Now, knocking down cheap drones with expensive anti-aircraft missiles can be effective but economically counterintuitive, but there is a plethora of mobile cannon systems which are up to the task.

The key is, of course, to fight in carefully coordinated combined arms groups, incorporating MBTs, infantry in IFVs, recce vehicles, engineers, artillery and, most importantly, air defence. On paper the Russians seem to have embraced this principle in the organisation and equipping of their battalion tactical groups (BTGs), but in practice appear to have been unable to put the whole thing together. They have performed rather like a large orchestra without a conductor, where brass, strings, and percussion are all following different parts of the score.

However, we need to come back to the inability of the Russians to achieve air superiority before launching their ground attack to understand why they have ground to a halt and, in some places around Kyiv, been forced to retreat. Whilst vastly outnumbered and having suffered their own losses, the Ukrainians have proved to be remarkably adept at conserving their aircraft and using them at the right place at the right time. They also appear to have dispersed their assets before the Russian assault. I suspect they are getting their intelligence from elsewhere, which may or may not explain the large numbers of NATO SIGINT aircraft buzzing around on the Ukraine borders.

Nonetheless, it appears that tactics, not technology, has defeated the Russians so far; their military is not completely stupid, and in many areas they have led military thinking over the decades. But they appear not to have applied their doctrine to the task in hand and have suffered accordingly. Plus the Ukrainian defenders have proved to be courageous and competent.

So, what now for the MBT?  In terms of available technology, there seems to be no reason to presume that the MBT cannot protect itself against the new threat spectrums, including that from above. At the moment it seems that the pendulum has swung in favour of the new anti-tank weapons, but just as surely the pendulum will swing back again. We will all have noticed, I suspect, that the number of Russian MBTs that have suffered catastrophic destruction appears to be large, and ammunition stowage practices will no doubt have to be hastily reviewed. But those predicting the end of the MBT are being a bit previous, as they might say on East Enders.

General Haig reputedly said that “there will always be a place for the well-bred horse on the battlefield” and was proven wrong. I am not going paraphrase him and say likewise about the MBT. But its place on the modern battlefield is not over, not yet anyway.

(First published in the UK Defence Journal in March 2022)

The age of the tank is not yet over (

 Goodbye To The Royal Scots Borderers

 One of the revelations in the recently published MoD document ‘Future Soldier’ that has received relatively little publicity has been the demise of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, The Royal Scots Borderers, known as 1 SCOTS in army parlance. On December 1st this year they became the 1st Battalion, The Rangers (1 RANGERS), part of the new four battalion Ranger Regiment.

Sadly, this is yet another step in the dismantling of the historical, some would say traditional, Scottish infantry regiments, and we need to go back a few years to get a proper handle on what’s actually going on here. At the end of the twentieth century there were six regular infantry regiments in the administrative grouping known as the Scottish Division; they were the Royal Scots, the Royal Highland Fusiliers (RHF), the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), the Black Watch, The Highlanders, and the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. These were themselves in most cases the result of previous amalgamations.

In the late 1990s the idea was mooted that the Royal Scots and KOSB should amalgamate, an idea driven largely by poor recruiting figures at the time and the fact that their traditional recruiting areas were contiguous. Although this decision was temporarily rescinded, it was eventually implemented as part of the ‘Options for Change’ reforms, and on 1st August 2006 the traditional Scottish regiments were amalgamated into the amorphous Royal Regiment of Scotland. As part of that process the Royal Scots and KOSB joined and became The Royal Scots Borderers, 1st Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (RRS).

This was all driven through by the MoD and the Chief of the General Staff at the time, General Sir Mike Jackson, in the teeth of a fairly energetic and vociferous campaign to keep the traditional Scottish regiments in which I was intimately involved. In the end, aided by a fairly supine Council of Colonels Commandant of the Scottish regiments, the forces of darkness prevailed. One of our main arguments had been that it was easier, politically and emotionally, to cut one unit from a multi-battalion regiment (which the RRS became) than it was to axe one of the historic regiments.

And so it has come to pass. Only six years after the formation of the RRS, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (5 SCOTS) was reduced to single company strength – Balaklava Company – to be used for ceremonial duties in Scotland. Thus were the descendants of the famous “Thin Red Line” of Crimean War folklore and every war fought by Britain since reduced to what amounts to no more than a small support unit for VisitScotland.

Now it has happened again. The Borderers, 1 SCOTS, has become one of the four regular infantry battalions from which the new Ranger Regiment will be “seeded” as it is stood up. In time anyone from across the army can apply to join the Rangers, and if they successfully complete an eight week, two part assessment process then recruits will be posted to the new Regiment and undergo a further eight months of additional training before they are good to go.

Whether the Ranger Regiment will live up to the hype remains to be seen, but the current Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, has more or less staked his reputation on it being a success. For Scottish readers, however, a few more details of what this actually means for us should perhaps be underlined. First of all, obviously the RRS loses another battalion, down from an initial five to three plus one company. On top of this, each Ranger battalion will be only 250 strong, half that of 1 SCOTS.

Furthermore, the new battalion will, as far as I can ascertain, sport the grey beret and other accoutrements designated for it, and there would appear to be no record left of its previous “Scottishness”, subject to confirmation at time of writing. So, essentially, another Scottish infantry battalion has been lopped off the order of battle in a smoke and mirrors operation that would make any magician proud.

Does any of this matter? Well, it depends on your point of view. I have always believed that those currently serving are the custodians of the history of those who went before and the future of those who are yet to come. Our military should not be changed and re-organised at the whim of those currently in command; after all, they work for us, the electorate, not the other way around.

What is not in doubt is that the Scottish element of the British army has once again been diminished. What is also clear is that, up to this point, no politician of note from any of our political parties has said anything about it publically. Does it just not matter to them any more?

(First published in the UK Defence Journal in December 2021)

Goodbye to the Royal Scots Borderers (

Meddling Americans are the real threat to peace in Northern Ireland – DAME ARLENE FOSTER

THIS week the people of Northern Ireland will be subjected to the most outrageous piece of grandstanding that they have witnessed for a long time, and believe me when I say that’s quite the claim!
07:32, Wed, May 25, 2022 | UPDATED: 13:11, Wed, May 25, 2022

Yes, this week on his tour around Europe to wreck what is left of community relations in Northern Ireland, Richie Neal, long-time Sinn Fein supporter will visit and tell us all that the Protocol cannot be changed and if it is then Armageddon, or something similar, will surely follow.

Now, who is Richard Neal?

Well, he has been the US Congressman for Massachusetts since 1989 and has long had an interest in “Irish” politics because he has long been an advocate for a United Ireland and hopes to see it happening in his lifetime – he is now 73 years old.

During his tenure he has worked closely with the Friends of Sinn Fein in America.

He has planted trees in memory of IRA hunger strikers and also commended their memory, despite the unalterable fact that the IRA were terrorists.

Neal also supported the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins who snubbed church leaders in Ireland by refusing to attend at interdenominational service to mark 100 years of Northern Ireland.

Hardly surprising when you know that Neal stated that Northern Ireland was not a reality but was a boundary set up by military force…

In his one of his latest offerings, Neal boasted about the changing demographics in Northern Ireland, in that there will soon, in terms of religious denominations, be more Roman Catholics than declared church going Protestants.

According to Neal’s thinking that means that a United Ireland is inevitable because more Roman Catholics means more people who want to abolish Northern Ireland.

This is just such base sectarianism and factually incorrect as there are many Roman Catholics who see their future not in some backwater of the European Union but in the fifth largest economy of the world with a strong welfare, education and healthcare system, free from bureaucracy and able to take sovereign decisions.

But of course Richie Neal along with his fellow traveller Nancy Pelosi and indeed the embattled President Biden have all bought into the Sinn Fein spin which has been so prevalent in the United States.

It seems to me Richie Neal has bought into the many lies and misrepresentations of what went on in my country during “the Troubles”.

In Sinn Fein’s skewed world, the IRA were the good guys and “the six counties” was occupied by the Brits.

I have endured many events in Washington where those of us from Northern Ireland are still treated to “Brits out” slogans at black-tie dinners, but because we are part of the problem, i.e., not Irish republicans, we just have to sit in the audience and listen to their outlandish, offensive slogans.

And let’s be honest, for too long the UK Embassy in Washington has allowed this rewriting of what happened in part of the UK, without challenge and that is so shameful and hugely damaging.

So, there you go, this is the man who is leading a cross party delegation to tell the Brits what to do.

Since 2019 Richie Neal has also been the powerful Chairman of the Ways and Means committee in Congress, second only to Speaker Pelosi in seniority, but that doesn’t prevent him from showing his partiality.

The delegation Richie Neal leads has been to Europe, simply to strengthen EU resolve against the UK proposals, (as if that were needed).

Our poor Foreign Secretary had to endure them last week and they are now in the Republic of Ireland updating their speaking notes for when they come to Northern Ireland on Thursday.

The United States, I have said before, has often been helpful In Northern Ireland, but since this Biden administration arrived it has been disastrous.

They claim they are protecting the Belfast Agreement when it is clear for all to see that they are only interested in looking after those who would seek to wipe Northern Ireland from the map.

I often wonder if those who are pronouncing on the Belfast Agreement have actually read it.

For example, we are often told that the agreement does not allow a border – where does it say that in the agreement? Spoiler alert – it doesn’t.

The reality is of course is that we do have a border. We have a different currency, VAT regime, customs system and a different legal jurisdiction to give a few examples.

The border which the Americans allude to is the militarised border which was there as a result of the IRA campaign of terrorism.

The military border was there to stop Semtex not sausages and, as I have said many times before, the issues which arose after the UK left the EU could have been dealt with by alternative arrangements if there had been a will by the Irish Government and the EU, but there wasn’t.