11 December 2016
Except that the purveyors of that piece of pseudo-intellectual toilet paper might have noticed that a lot of this diatribe might have been culled from their own pages. In fact, the smugness and frequent childish sarcasm of Page made me think the name was no more than a pseudonym for their own John Ronson. Especially in the realms of clearly having some facts, but abusing them and missing many of the real points. Ah, rather better than Ronson. At least there are some verifiable facts (try reading “The Men Who Stare at Goats” before contradicting that). And of course, you can’t recall whether the WW1 “Lions led by donkeys” quote was used here before the historian responsible for it admitted that he made it up.
In general, like the Guardian, it will appeal to the ignorant who think they’re knowledgeable.
Now, like me, you may want to be sure the technical details are right when it comes to the systems about which Page makes his points. However, within the first 60 pages of this volume we see two examples that will make you question everything else presented as a fact. Firstly, the rifle. Certainly, there have been many issues with the SA80. However, it’s unusual to find a derogatory opinion expressed by someone who’s actually handled a rifle of any kind; an article in the previously-mentioned “newspaper” a few years ago appeared to be describing a completely different rifle. Page does not so badly there, but repeatedly praises the M-16 which, fine rifle though it is today, was originally considered as more dangerous to the US Army than were the Vietnamese due to its jamming and fragility. Sound familiar? It took a long time for the M16 to become fit for issue, too. Ammunition was only part of the story. He then describes tank cannon (actually, a gun: in English, cannons are very different, unless you accept the 4.5” gun on a Type 23 or 45 as cannon), and tells us they’re all smoothbore. Wrong. The UK armed forces whom Page seeks so passionately to trash so frequently, have never fielded a smoothbore gun-equipped Main Battle Tank, preferring to rely on the greater versatility of the rifled gun and its ability to fire a useful secondary HE round, making the whole vehicle much more versatile in its destructiveness and contradicting some of Page’s points. That’s odd, because only the tiniest amount of actual research would have revealed a story here a knowledgeable observer could skew to support his thesis, actually potentially better than most of his examples, and possibly with an element of truth to it.
Oh, and if you did respect our armed forces and want better for them, you wouldn’t refer to “the airhead brigade” now, would you? Even if you put a note at the bottom of the page; about as honest as a tabloid’s apology hidden in a minor page.
Taking things almost in the order found, there’s an interesting thing about security. Like many a journalist, it’s hard to know if Page is himself ignorant, or relying on his readers’ ignorance. However, the fact is that when you’re effectively asked to confirm something classified that might have leaked into the public domain, the rule is that of course you do not confirm it. Page either expects people to do so, making one wonder if he’s ever been in the Defence system at all, or abuses his audience’s ignorance and begs them to expect you to do so. His claimed background says he should know better. Maybe a bit of “Yes Minister” plagiarism creeping in, or an early crossover into full-on journalist mode.
However, there is a good point to be made in this book, because the whole of our public sector seems to be full of waste, controlled by and for the benefit of internal vested interests and perhaps supporting chosen external suppliers. Had you a digital version of the book, then with a “find and replace” exercise, such as “doctor” for “officer”, “consultant” for “general” and a few more, you could probably get an equally (in)accurate tome on the NHS, or Education, or…..
There is a big story to be told here. The armed forces have been let down. Often. As has the taxpayer. The Defence Industry have been flipped between sometimes unreasonable support from HMG and active sabotage, including the buying of equipment from abroad that would not be accepted if supplied by UK industry. As well as officials succumbing to foreign bribery and a desperate failure for decades to invest properly in Defence Technology. Allowable profit margins are controlled down to levels most well-known manufacturing companies would run a mile from. Look at BAE Systems’ share price over 25 years if you think this is some hyper-lucrative gravy train. Before the export opportunities are pointed out, you need to know that UK equipment is usually desperately over-specified and UK specific. Therefore expensive by design and often not sensibly exportable. Indeed, a common theme for the UK is to specify something unachievable, then buy foreign product that wouldn’t have met the spec anyway. Not for nothing is the French Air Force referred to as the Dassault Sales Team.
Of course, this chap so very full of himself didn’t get that high: Naval Lieutenant. If he benefited from the rank inflation he describes so accurately, he would be the real expert, wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t he? Little autobiographical detail is presented, but searching the internet seems to confirm his career in the Navy, so you do want to believe in him. Maybe the troubling characteristics are simply those required of a journalist. Maybe it’s just the very narrow field and low level of his Navy service and an inability to research properly.
Sometimes too, you feel that the military cannot do anything right in Page’s eyes. Since one nominally armoured regiment spends only half their time in the tanks he knows are useless on the modern battlefield (despite being key to victory in the Iraq conflicts, oddly), Page knows they’re a waste of space. However, by this time you suspect that if they spent all their time in the tanks, they’d be wasting resources in his view; obviously a no-win situation. But then they are Cavalry, ripe for the attacks perhaps born of inverted snobbery from someone so barely successful in the “Senior Service”.
From this point on, Page seems to dedicate a chapter to describing the organisation, role and equipment of sections of the armed forces and trashing them.
Artillery- nothing I could dispute on organisation, but descriptions of role and technology not worthy of a factual book.
Helicopters. Well, while you already worry about his detailed knowledge of the forces, you have to add at this point that no one claiming an Engineering degree should describe a gas turbine as a jet engine unless openly over-simplifying for the layman (or relying on “Airwolf” for your knowledge of the helicopter). Helicopter descriptions- well, again, not up to the standard of someone who’s been around any or even read around the subject a bit. The description of Apache programme costs is as skewed as that used by that arch-saboteur Dennis Healey to get TSR2 cancelled along with every other aircraft programme he could, thus effectively ending the independent British aircraft industry. Oh, and Page completely ignores the origins of the attack helicopter. Perhaps we need to downgrade his target rag from Grauniad to Mirror. The Merlin helicopter he so keenly trashes is so awful that it’s only been bought by 12 other countries. What could they possibly know that someone who can’t distinguish between a jet engine and a gas turbine doesn’t? You understand by now I’m only pointing out the really big howlers, as there’s not room to point out all the faults.
Seriously, again like Ronson, you can’t tell if he really is this ignorant, or whether he’s relying on the ignorance of the reader. Either way, it wrecks his point to anyone with any knowledge whatsoever. By page 100, if you have prior knowledge or the slightest tendency to check facts, you will know that anything presented as fact within the pages of this book needs to be independently verified. Or more realistically contradicted.
So, onto Naval missiles. He roundly trashes the Sea Dart’s Falklands performance, but neglects to inform the audience that later on, it was credited with the first ever interception of a missile by another missile. Throughout the Falklands War, there were left-leaning journalists rubbishing our servicemen and their kit, frequently for not doing things others’ kit couldn’t do either, as well as much of the Labour Party opposing the recovery of the Falklands anyway, so perhaps it’s not too surprising.
On to fixed wing aircraft, missing an excellent target for his bile, Page trashes Tornado without revealing any hint about its development history, or the various roles of the broad class of aircraft called fighters.
Realising this is getting a bit lengthy, I’m trying hard to mention only the biggest whoppers between the covers.
Let’s look at our authority’s views on the use of Air Power. Well, it may come as a surprise to you and a few others that strategic bombing achieved little or nothing in WWII or any recent conflict. However, you can temper this with the fact that in looking at modern weapons, we are told laughably erroneous figures for the cost and range of Stormshadow and nothing about its unique capabilities that differentiate it from Tomahawk, part of the BAE input. In following his theme, Mr P wants us to believe that the US Marines don’t have Apache because they don’t want attack helos. Not so; they were refused funding for Apache, so keep up with variants of the AH1 Cobra series. And apparently Eurofighter “cannot do air to ground at all”. Spelling at risk here due to laughter (though I am reading a few years on, while air-ground roles for Eurofighter were planned 20 years ago). I guess also that revealing France’s fleet of Hercules aircraft might damage his tirade against the A400M.
It is, sinking towards Mr P’s own low level, obvious to the worst of simpletons that not having a Defence Industry puts a nation seriously at risk, yet at every turn, this is what he seeks. Look up recent conflicts to see how our forces have been disadvantaged by industrial capabilities we have given up. However, with the narrow viewpoint of such a junior and specialised serviceman, that level of ignorance may be forgivable, provided you don’t try to inflict in on everyone else. I will, however agree that the focus on the Cold War has negative implications today, but unlike Mr P, I wouldn’t say that was a conspiracy against our military capability.
Submarines: well, the Russian threat Mr P declares to be over has, 10 years on, resurfaced, and been supplemented by other nations. Plenty of factual data supports the threat of diesel-electric boats, and why he doubles the number of submarines put to sea by Argentina in the Falklands war is a mystery, unless it’s to emphasise the lack of a threat therefrom in his grand strategy. His description of 2087 Sonar is one of the best aspects if this book: it’s half right. However, he restores his batting average by not noticing the Type 23’s torpedo launchers. Also, the VLSW system on Page’s roundly rubbished Type 23 would have been a godsend in the Falklands, so why does he ignore it in the body of the book? A less than wholly accurate rubbishing of SW is given in an appendix for what passes as balance, and later in the text, where Page states there are no non UK operators, rather that the reality of four. Again, as he knows more that our Navy, I suppose it’s no surprise he knows more than four others.
The chapter on the organisation and top-heaviness of our military is inarguable. But then in the chapter on Industry, he gets back into his stride. When he says “The Comet Jetliner had a nasty tendency to fall apart in mid air” with nothing further, you know he is either ignorant or being deliberately misleading. That is if you are an engineer or faintly knowledgeable about aircraft. The problems occurred because, contrary to other things implied, the boundaries of technology were being pushed. That particular insert is the most dishonest piece of journalistese so far in the book. However, there is more than a little truth in the description of BAe’s asset stripping. On the other hand, he promulgates the continuingly unproven allegations of bribery, while not mentioning the many orders lost to the UK Defence industry because they would not pay bribes. It is also rather childish for someone to describe the UK as buying “just about everything BAe has ever offered for sale”. Virtually everything the UK MOD has bought was designed specifically for them, at their request, rather than “offered for sale”. Seriously, the guy is either completely ignorant or is assuming the reader is. Of course, Page claims to be thinking about future conflicts, so can rubbish the kit being brought into service at the time of his writing. And of course, ten years on, only a cretin would suggest now as Page apparently knew then, that we would face no submarine threat. The potential is worse, not better, with increasing numbers of countries acquiring ever more sophisticated conventional submarines, which, useless though our expert claims they are, can be virtually undetectable, so better systems still will be needed, as other nations have seen. On top of which, we face a resurgent Russia. His knowledge of the UK shipbuilding industry is similarly (in)accurate. Or misleading. His knowledge of SA80 takes another trip into fantasy land here “based on a US design”. Well, one component and a shared magazine interface, anyway. Then, he discusses the concept of going to war against the USA. Why would one even bother to mention something so infantile in a book which has pretensions (but clearly not the facts) to be serious? Even the most gullible GROLIE must have been struggling here.
The book is like “The Hurt Locker”; it would take more space and time to point out what’s wrong than to read (or watch) it.
Towards the end, we do get a largely factual section on top-heaviness in the MOD and huge favours done to BAE (though BAE’s importance is rather exaggerated). However, when we return to equipment again, humour must creep in. Eurofighter is rubbish, its purpose is irrelevant and anyway, it is useless for that purpose; Page had told us this, so it must be true. However, now, it is so vital that it must not be exported: it is a critical part of the West’s superiority. “Invincible” is used as a description. Has he read his own book? Dare he criticise even politicians for inconsistency? In any case, poor as he earlier claimed it to be, surely it could not be given away?
It’s some relief when Page tells us we must check what others say. Be sure to do so. Check very carefully the claims in this book, for sure.
There is a good and important story to be told here, but the smugness, bitterness, errors and smoke and mirrors damage the point significantly, especially if you know something about the subject matter. It’s a good caution to view any journalism with serious scepticism.
There are of course many reasons to attack BAE Systems, so it’s such a shame that the specific issues attacked here are mostly misleading, or errors, or both. One might feel that it wouldn’t be uncharitable to suggest that Mr P’s apparent ignorance of military systems led him to fail the interview with BAE that so many former Service personnel pass, leading to this overlong job application to the Guardian. However, he tells us that he did work for BAE as a management trainee (well, we knew it wouldn’t be to do with Engineering), but they dispensed with his services. Like the Navy, maybe they couldn’t see much potential there, either.
A worthy target that could have been engaged so much better. For much of the tome I was determined to give it a relatively high score, as it tells a story which needs to be told. In all honesty, I cannot. This is probably the worst book purported to be factual I have ever finished- I gave up partway through “Dianetics”, and TMWSAG is rather funny (and led to an entertaining movie). Before the inevitable brickbats, I know the system is badly flawed, that vast amounts of money have been wasted. Unlike the author, however, it would appear that I know some of the facts. Worse still, if an honest and well researched book ever comes out to cover the subject, this tirade will have queered the pitch for it most nicely, in legal parlance making it impossible to get a conviction, so in the end Page may have inadvertently done all those at fault a very big favour.