DSEi makes me feel cheated

By Philip Ingram MBE

An audio/Podcast version of this Blog can be accessed here:

It is September 11th and I am at DSEi in London, however, another 11thSeptember and I’m in another conflict zone, this time on a reconnaissance a few weeks before deploying for over half a year. Sitting on the back of a Chinook helicopter flying into see the Italian Brigade in Multi-National Division South East (MDN SE) area of responsibility in SE Iraq. It is 2005.

There is a very distinctive feeling when the forward movement of the Chinook transitions into a hover for landing, the engine note, pitch of the rotor blades all signal a coming to the objective, the smell of burnt aviation fuel, the heat from the desert sands the quick check, rifle, helmet, day sack all secure, ready for another interesting and vital day of learning the operational area.

Then, from nowhere, a shiver, right down my spine, the hairs on the back of my neck stood out, I had one thought, phone back to Basra, the location for the Headquarters of MND (SE), phone quickly, something has happened. What a weird yet powerful feeling, I remember thinking, but I had to do it. Excusing myself to the general and chief of staff I followed the crew to the operations room to get to a phone.

Answered on its second ring, strange Andy, the officer I was replacing, was never in his office as his, my, daily routine was too busy. “Andy, this is a bit strange, but I have just had the urge to phone you, what has happened?” His reply was brief, “I can’t tell you Phil!” It was then I knew, my second day in Iraq, that it was serious.

“I’m with the new GOC and have just left him to make this phone call, I can’t tell him I’m not allowed to know, what the fuck has happened Andy!”  My tone made it very clear that he was going to have to answer, “Its Matt, he’s dead, there has been an IED, multiple casualties, the incident is still ongoing but Matt is dead,” my heart sank, my old company second in command, my Human Intelligence Officer, who I was looking forward to working with again, my mate, who was due to meet me early that evening had just been killed in a roadside bomb in Basra.

Fourteen years later to the day, and I am at the huge defence and security exhibition, DSEi, in London. Armoured vehicles, weapon systems, helicopters, warships, missiles and so many situational awareness capabilities are on display and I feel cheated.

Matt was traveling out of Basra in one of the British Army’s Snatch Landrover’s, lightly armoured, only good to protect against limited small arms fire, no good against sophisticated improvised explosive devices, designed to penetrate armour through the use of an explosively formed projectile, he was traveling because his helicopter had broken down twice and he had operational meetings to prepare for and he wanted to “get his shit together” for briefing me, his diligence was one of his strengths.

At subsequent inquests, the Snatch Landrover came in for huge criticism and blame for so many of the losses and injuries suffered in Iraq and subsequently in the early days of Afghanistan. I have no doubt they were partially to blame as their protection was inadequate for the threat.

However, if you are only relying on the armour of a vehicle for protection, then you have failed. Protection starts with the intelligence process, identifying threats from groups, on routes, to convoys. Identifying what weapons may be used and against what targets so modes of transport like “air movement only” or “Tracked vehicle escort required,” putting routes out of bounds until checked by search teams, all part of what should and must be a layered protection framework.

My first week of my full deployment in Iraq saw the operation to arrest the team that had carried out the attack on Matt’s convoy planned and executed, we got them, we disrupted an active cell, targeting British soldiers in Iraq but instead of being pleased with a successful operation, I was disturbed, very, very disturbed.

The targeting pack that was put together for the arrest operation, contained all of the relevant intelligence with associated reports, those reports were numerous, but the disturbing fact came from many that were pre 11 Sep.

With the focus provided by the incident, it was easy to see in the weeks leading up to the attack, a pattern of activity with a certain group, they had got IEDs, that pattern was around one or two locations, we had information where they were, that pattern showed their intent to attack a convoy on the route out of Basra, we had information about what they intended to do, that pattern showed the likely routes they were targeting, the road Matt used was the most likely, that pattern gave indications in the days just before 11thSeptember they were ready to carry out the attack.

We could see all of this because we had a fixed point, the attack, to work back from and piece together what happened. The information had been with the thousands and thousands of reports that were unintentionally buried in the volume of information that was coming into the intelligence cell.

It was buried as there were no tools to help the human analyst look for the very subtle patterns, that in dealing with an insurgency are vital indicators, those patterns only stood out with hindsight.

The trouble is hindsight is history and we were J2, the intelligence organisation, charged with predicting what was going to happen, to see into the future, to provide, amongst other things, that vital layer of protection outside the armour of vulnerable, lightly armoured vehicles.

The analysts were working to breaking point and beyond trying to deal with it. For every successful attack they had predicted and stopped 5, 10, 15 other attacks, the analysis were doing an amazing job under impossible circumstances.

I had a top “Tour De France” team trying to compete with a child’s bicycles and on the most part they remained competitive, a measure of the team’s human ability, but from time to time something fell off and when that happened people died and were maimed.

I didn’t have coherent databases, I didn’t have linked pattern analysis tools, I didn’t have the basic tools that enabled an intelligence operation, reliant on spotting subtleties, reliant on quickly identifying patterns, reliant on the ability to process multiple sources of information and enable the analysts to handle the volume of information, I didn’t have the tools that had existed in Northern Ireland from the early 1980, that had helped the security forces predict terrorist activity with real accuracy and disrupt them successfully, in 2005 I didn’t have those tools on operations where lives were being lost.

As I left Iraq in 2006 after a harrowing tour, with too many incidents my intelligence team had failed to predict, failed through no fault of their effort, diligence or training, failed because we were in an international race with a child’s bike level of equipment – I wrote to the Permanent Joint Headquarters in my post operational report that, “The lack of an integrated intelligence database and associated analysis tools has resulted in the deaths and injury of British and Allied service personnel and Iraqi Civilians.”  I confirmed by phone the report had been received and read and the only comment back was “Phil, you are right.”

So, as I look at all of the analysis tools available at DSEI and talk their history through with the companies displaying them, knowing we had similar capabilities in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s I feel cheated. I feel cheated for Matt, for Cpl C and the 2 Fusiliers seriously injured in the attack, for the medic who attended them, Fusilier S who I wrote up for the George Medal for is efforts that day, it was a serious incident, he got the award but is now suffering after leaving the Army, for every one of the 13 others killed and 40+ physically injured on my tour I feel cheated, they were cheated.RIP Matt.

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