The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam, a review by way of opinion.
Updated 8 April 2021
By Philip Ingram MBE
It is rare when you pick up a book and one of the first names, Richard Palmer, a young officer with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, jumps off the page at you. I was there, in Iraq, running Intelligence Operations, when the report of his convoy being struck by an IED came in. Part of my team investigated the incident; I will never forget the post incident report or the autopsy report.
Simon Akam’s book starts in Canada and again brings out names and incidents I was well aware of. I flew to BATUS to be briefed on David Allfrey’s ISTAR Squadron, I had heard of the infamous lunch back in Germany with Her Majesty The Queen, which allegedly caused bad blood between Allfrey and Graham Binns, his Brigade commander, another character I had come across frequently.
The book covers the British Army post 9/11 and a malaise that led to a complete mission failure in Iraq; I had witnessed first-hand the long-handled screwdriver of ordered tactical inaction from PJHQ and Whitehall. Whilst I didn’t have first had experience of Afghanistan, I had sent enough of my soldiers there and had to keep a detailed understanding of what was going on to have a clear inside knowledge of what was happening. Akam has got the tone of what was going on just right.
I mention tactical inaction. There were a number of operations run outside the classic MoD chain of command in various theatres. Many of these were very successful but there is no way Akam would have known about them or be briefed on them; they saved lives and and that was important.
David Richards, Richard Sheriff, Chris Brown are all generals I have at various times, worked for and with. Akams’ general observation that failure is rewarded by promotion and telling the truth rewarded by side-lining, is so true. As he highlights, there is no accountability at senior levels and extrapolating this is why Defence is in such a mess today. The equipment programme, historical recruiting (yes, I know it’s got better), welfare, single living accommodation, the complaints system, women and so much more can only be described as failing or having failed in the past; where are the sackings that would happen in any accountable organisation?
This very well written and researched book is perceptive, accurate and very important. Describing incidents accurately, calling out failures in planning, command and more worrying, openness, i.e. a clear policy, official or learned behaviour, of covering things up. His description of what was presented at some of the inquests are clear examples. It is a pity I can’t elaborate more without distressing some of the families or contravening the Official Secrets Act. I know what I know.
This book is a must read and I would urge the MoD to take it as lessons identified document, as that is what it is and change as a matter of urgency. Defence needs a CDS who will drive to learn the lessons Akan has highlighted and not as continues to happen time and time again, behave like an ostrich.
Before 9/11 much of what the British Army did, worked. In Bosnia the British Bailed the Americans out as they deployed into implement the Dayton Agreement but failed in their river crossing to get troops on the ground. The British Army worked well in Kosovo, FYROM, Croatia, in Northern Ireland and in Germany during the Cold War.
Mind you the Cold War Army perfected the art of covering reality up. As an aside, my small, armoured unit, supporting an armoured brigade, would have taken the whole of the Divisions refuelling assets just to get it to its deployment location as we weren’t allocated transporters but were integral to what was called the Covering Force battle, but that is another story.
One question that needs to be asked is, ‘what was the turning point that changed the British Army from one that was successful on operations, planned by the likes of Jeremy McKenzie and Mike Walker to one of failure?’
Personally, I noticed a significant change around the period the infamous Iraq Dossier was drafted, altered and released. I was in Defence Intelligence at the time. They say the tone is set from the top and it is around then that the super tanker that is the MoD reset its course to the tone from Number 10 that started the rot. Akam has explained the consequences in a masterful way.
An outstanding book – I can’t recommend it more highly.
Addendum – Added 8th April 2021
You know a great book when you keep thinking through many of the issues it highlights. I would suggest that many of the major companies that have failed during and pre the COVID 19 pandemic have experienced the same self-misinforming impotent leadership that Akam rightly and accurately teases out. This book isn’t just a set of lessons for the Army and wider military to learn it is for all to learn, there is so much business can and should take away from what Akam has identified.
I am very much minded of the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” verse 2 ”
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
In business the 600 would ride into unemployment or removal from post by the board. In the military, in the Army it leads to death. I would argue our officer Corps sole role is to “reason why,” why didn’t any of our 4*’s or 3*s resign when the rot started as that would have been a legitimate political gesture, instead they did “not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.” To the 634, “the six hundred” who died in Afghanistan and Iraq and to the countless who have suffered life changing injuries seen and unseen, who is accountable? The sad thing is excuse book, volume’s 1-100 have been deployed to say “not me guv”. I’m sorry, but the military prides itself on being a hierarchical Chain of Command enabled organisation so the buck has to stop at the top. Would it not have been better for 600 starred officers to resign and 634 deaths? Just think that through.
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.