The National Health Service – a suitable case for treatment?

The National Health Service came into existence in 1948 as part of the Labour government’s decision to ensure that the entire population of the UK received free health care at the basic level (general practitioner) and the more complex level (hospital). Whatever its political causes and ramifications, this decision was altogether commendable at the social and humanitarian levels, and was also good for the country in yielding the significant economic advantages of a working population less afflicted by diseases which caused people to miss work but were readily treatable.

Yet since that time the NHS, in its current form as one element for each of the four political components of the UK, has grown steadily and remorselessly to swallow an increasing proportion of the nation’s annual budget. We have now reached the stage at which the current level of spending is no longer readily sustainable, and future increases in spending on the NHS are essentially impossible (except, of course, in the minds of politicians more concerned with garnering pro-NHS ‘brownie points’ for the next election than with the reality of the situation). Moreover, this is not in itself an issue that can be divided along party lines, despite the perception of large elements of the voting public, spurred on by the public utterances of politicians, that the Labour party is ‘pro-NHS’ and the Conservative party, now abetted by its Liberal Democrat coalition partners, is ‘anti-NHS’.

Whatever the causes, and no matter how high-flown the statements of politicians and pundits, it is an inescapable fact that the NHS has ballooned, indeed mushroomed, in the period since 1948 into a bloated, shapeless and unaffordable monster that is committed to achieving too much for too many. In the process the NHS falls increasingly short in a number of important aspects of its work. If the NHS had an unlimited budget to build, and also to train and employ staff, there would be no problem. But any such suggestion could never be anything but a venture into an impossible ‘cloud cuckoo land’. Instead the NHS is faced with the prospect of very real cuts in its budget, with consequent fears that so-called ‘front-line services’ will have to be trimmed.

What almost everyone ignores is that the the UK can no longer afford the type of NHS that people have come to believe is theirs by right. It is inescapable that if the country is to live within its means, then the NHS must be cut back to a more manageable size and at the same time adjusted in its proportions and priorities. This is a process that will hurt both the NHS’s employees, at every level, and also what the NHS now likes to call its ‘clients’ or ‘customers’. This last is, of course, part of the problem, for the original emphasis on the care of the patient, in the sense of one who is ill or injured, has long disappeared with the loss of carefully planned structures to ensure speedy and effective cures.

There is no single answer to the NHS’s malaise (I use the word advisedly), although major amputation of necrotic material is essential and, I hope, inevitable. An organisation as large, complex and costly as a modern hospital clearly needs the backing of a capable administrative structure so that the medical staff can concentrate on patient care.

Here a major improvement could be made by eliminating some vertical tiers and/or lateral positions in the management structure. This would inevitably place greater emphasis on the skills and commitment of those who remain, but this could be compensated by the payment of higher salaries. In this respect, I would urge, the greater salaries would not be a matter of annual right, but gained only through manifest and provable improvement in performance. I also believe that a greater focus could be given to the work of administrative personnel by making them personally liable at levels that would range from the financial, via loss of position, to criminal prosecution for the worst cases in which lives were lost or materially affected. The same regimen could also be applied, with changes, to members of the ‘front-line’ medical staff.

This is only tinkering round the edges of the problem, however, and we have now reached the stage at which a radical reconsideration of NHS priorities is needed. Much of what the NHS now does is very far removed from the fundamental level of medical care that was initially envisaged as its remit. We have to return to something like this level, and here I suggest the removal of many types of NHS service. To take just one minor example, is it right that the taxpaying public should pay, via the NHS, for people to receive cosmetic surgery for anything but essential reasons? Here I am thinking of matters such as breast enlargement and/or reduction for reasons merely of supposed ‘self-esteem’. Matters are altogether different when cosmetic surgery is required to remove or at least reduce disfigurements resulting from accidents or assault.

Another facet of the NHS’s work which should be re-examined carefully results from what I would regard as ‘self-inflicted wounds’. Among these, I would suggest, are:

  • lung cancer resulting from smoking, etc
  • hard and soft drug overdoses and their consequent problems
  • excessive alcohol consumption (alcohol poisoning, cirrhosis and physical damage resulting from resultant car crashes or brawling)
  • involvement in hazardous pursuits
  • criminal activities

I concede that it would be difficult at times to decide whether or not an incoming patient was suffering from a ‘self-inflicted wound’ of this type, but a measure of life-saving care could be provided until the situation has been made clear, by the police for example. A reduction in tobacco and alcohol taxes could (a pious hope) allow smokers and drinkers to take out specific medical insurance in the knowledge that the NHS would no longer be at their beck and call. Those who pursue lifestyles likely to lead such ‘self-inflicted wounds’ should be taught by their parents and schools that the NHS would no longer provide anything but initial life-saving care, and that they should assume full responsibility for their own physical welfare either by avoiding dangerous life styles or by taking out the appropriate insurance to pay for further care in private or NHS hospitals.

I readily allow that any such change in the NHS would be extraordinarily difficult to plan and execute, and that changes would probably be required in the nature of National Insurance contributions. But I am just as convinced that changes of this type, and more, are the way forward. For too long we British have accustomed ourselves to the idea of universal health care ‘free at the point of delivery’, but this is plainly impossible from this time on even if it was feasible at any earlier time, not least in view of the fact that any planning of the NHS’s future must now consider how it is to cope with the medical demands of an ageing population with what seems to be ever larger levels of dementia.

Bomber command – a time to reconsider?

I am second to none in my admiration for the courage, endurance and dedication of the men who flew the night bombing aircraft of RAF Bomber Command in World War II, and of the skills of the ground crews who supported them. Under conditions of steadily improving German anti-aircraft and night-fighter defences, and often in adverse nocturnal conditions, the crews pushed their aircraft through to their targets, bombed them with steadily more impressive accuracy, and then faced the long haul back to the great bases of East Anglia and Yorkshire in aircraft that had often been badly damaged, had suffered the loss of one or more engines, and carried home their dead and wounded comrades.

Moreover, I have absolutely no qualms about the morality of the British night bombing effort in World War II. The world had already entered the arena of total war, in which the civilian worker and everything which supported him was just as important to the war effort as the soldier, sailor and airmen in or just behind the front line. It was German aggression that had launched the concept of indiscriminate bombing of urban centres in World War I, albeit on a small scale with airships and bombers, and then pressed forward with the concept on a larger scale in World War II with the bombing (‘terror’ or otherwise) of Warsaw in September 1939, Rotterdam in May 1940, London and other British cities between the autumn of 1940 and the spring of 1941, and Belgrade in April 1941. A British response in kind was inevitable and, I believe, need not be questioned within the military context of World War II or, indeed, within its civilian context. The bombing campaign against Germany was a psychological weapon that boosted British civilian morale by showing that the UK was still in the war and indeed taking it to the German homeland.

Having failed in the first part of the war, when daylight attacks by light and medium bombers suffered heavily from the attentions of German fighters and AA defences, the British bombing effort was radically changed in its focus. Day bombing of point targets gave way to night bombing in which area rather than point targets were attacked as the navigational and bombing accuracy of the period was poor; and the twin-engined medium bomber was steadily replaced by the four-engined heavy bomber carrying markedly greater bomb loads to more distant targets.

As the night bombing campaign against Germany’s cities continued, tactics were improved, better navigation was ensured by the introduction of radio and radar aids, and greater bombing accuracy resulted from the introduction of H2S navigation and bombing radar as well as special pathfinder units to mark targets with coloured pyrotechnic bombs on whose visual cues the bombers of the main force then homed and attacked.

By 1943, therefore, Bomber Command was making its capabilities felt ever more strongly over increasingly large areas of Germany with ‘thousand-bomber raids’ and the devastation of cities such as Hamburg; in the first half of 1944 the combined British night and US day offensives ordered by the ‘Pointblank’ directive of June 1943 continued to target Germany’s major fighter, U-boat, industrial, transport and energy-producing capabilities in a largely successful undertaking to savage Germany’s ability to manufacture and deliver weapons and move military manpower; in the second half of 1944 the programme was continued with the decimation of Germany’s air arm, transport capability within northern Europe and ability to manufacture the synthetic rubber and fuels on which she was now largely reliant; and finally in the first months of 1945 the British bombers were increasingly able to operate by day for the destruction of what was left of Germany’s war-making capability.

Between the start of 1940 and the end of March 1945, British industry delivered 13,710 four-engined heavy bombers, starting with a total of just 41 in 1940, peaking at 5,507 in 1944, and ending with 1,073 in the first quarter of 1945. This was a huge industrial undertaking demanding a large workforce as well as a host of associated efforts to build and equip the factories, train the workforce, procure the relevant materials (often from overseas) and deliver them to the factories, and make the engines, instruments and guns to equip the new aircraft. The last had to be tested as they emerged from the production lines and then delivered to training and operational units. The bomber programme demanded vast quantities of fuel for training and operations, as well the creation of trained flight and ground personnel, and the manufacture, delivery and storage of a vast weight of bombs and machine gun ammunition. Bomber Command absorbed much of the RAF’s personnel strength, which began the war at 193,000, peaked at 1,002,000 in June 1944 and thereafter started to fall, reaching 970,000 at the end of March 1945. From these totals, in the war against Germany, the RAF lost 66,080 killed, 5,404 missing, 21,761 wounded and 9,727 taken prisoner. These totals are for the whole of the RAF in the war with Germany, and within these the figures for Bomber Command aircrew were 5,582 killed, 41,548 presumed dead, 138 dead as prisoners of war, 2,868 missing but then known to be safe, 9,784 missing and then known to be prisoners of war, and 4,299 wounded on operational sorties, as well as 8,090 killed, 4,203 wounded, 215 died of other causes, 83 missing but then known to be safe, and 54 taken prisoner and then known to be safe on non-operational sorties. Over the same period, Bomber Command flew 297,663 night and 67,181 day sorties at the cost of 7,448 and 876 aircraft respectively.

This was a truly vast effort, and achieved much. This was particularly true from the beginning of 1943 to the end of 1944. Was it cost-effective, however, in overall terms? As a historian I have come to doubt that it was, and therefore that the size of Bomber Command’s effort could have been scaled back from the great size of the night raids typical of the autumn of 1943.

From an early stage of the war the authorities had realised that the British army lacked adequate manpower resources and numbers of modern weapons. The former were always a problem, and became increasingly acute as the war progressed, while the latter were less so after the introduction of Lend-Lease. This provided the British army with large numbers of US weapons, but these were not always ideally suited to British war-fighting concepts and, of course, had an eventual monetary cost. By the middle of 1944 the British army was fighting in North-West Europe and Italy, had other European commitments in Greece and the Aegean, and involvements in several other parts of the world including, most notably, Burma. Yet the British had exhausted their resources of suitable manpower, and at the time the future shape of Europe was being decided on European battlefields, found itself having to disband existing battlefield divisions to keep others up to strength. This meant that the British army, and by extension the UK, played a steadily decreasing part in the land campaign, and inevitably this had psychological as well as physical consequences in the establishment of post-1945 Europe.

My feeling, therefore, is that it might have been better to limit the size and scope of Bomber Command, especially in its night bombing campaign, from the middle of 1943. This may seem perverse to say of the period at which Bomber Command was beginning to emerge as a weapon of strategic significance, but would have allowed the development of a force still able to exercise a strategic effect albeit with smaller numbers of better aircraft exploiting the capabilities now offered by the increasingly sophisticated electronic aids that were being developed at the time.

In turn, this would probably have freed manpower for diversion to the army, and also freed industrial resources for the larger-scale development and manufacture of British weapons. These could not have been accomplished in a programme of reconsideration launched only in 1945, but could have been considered and indeed prepared from 1941 with a view to implementation at a later stage.

Unemployable youth: value for money?

Know hopeWe all know the problem, either directly from seeing them in our towns and cities, or indirectly from reports on TV. Street corners in run-down urban areas are littered with groups of young men or women (why are these groups seldom of the ‘equal-opportunity’ type?) with nothing constructive to do except lounge about smoking, drinking and apparently awaiting only the fall of darkness to provide greater scope for mischief-making at best and steadily worsening criminal behaviour at worst.

Political correctness would have us believe that the responsibility for this anti-social behaviour lies with us, in the form of society in general, which has failed these youths by offering them no proper education, no real chance to develop useful skills, no opportunity for diverting themselves in some constructive (or at least non-destructive) manner, and no hope for a better future for themselves and, when they have them, their families.

There is more than a grain of truth in this – as a society we have indeed failed, but the failure is not directly of these increasingly disaffected youths, but of their predecessors in the period after the end of World War II in 1945. For a host of reasons both self-inflicted by the victims on the one hand and the woolly-minded thinking inherent in public and official practices on the other, there has been allowed to develop a self-perpetuating underclass of low-achievers who are unemployed and, worse than that, entirely unemployable for lack of motivation and skills stemming from widespread semi-literacy and semi-numeracy. These low achievers have become steadily more dependent on the welfare system and, at the same time, increasingly ghettoised in high-rise blocks of flats and soulless housing estates. The tragedy of this situation lies in the fact that it has bred a vicious circle of dependency and associated despondency (all too often manifested in unreasoning anger), declining self-respect and increasing lack of respect for the values and property of others.

This downward spiral has produced pockets of social, financial, moral and health inequality characterised by urban and metropolitan ‘estates’ in which there is no respect for anything but sportsmen, celebrities, criminals, and the mindless and tasteless display of arrogant wealth as reflected in the tabloid press and much of modern TV programming. In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that groups of youths, drawing ‘courage’ from the numbers of their gang, pick on anything that is different from themselves, be it someone with mental problems, an elderly and/or infirm person, or those making the effort to improve their lot by tidying their garden to a level that differentiates from the litter-strewn wilderness of neighbouring properties.

Vast sums of public money, considerable charitable enterprise and acres of newsprint have been lavished on the problem. All have failed spectacularly and, in my belief, even exacerbated the problem. The situation at present is that we, as a society, are expending considerable money to maintain and, increasingly, to police persons who want merely to exploit our willingness to ‘help’ (i.e. provide their benefits) yet despise our society and are neither willing nor able to make any contribution to it.

A radical solution much be found and implemented in an effort to break the cycle of multi-generational unemployment and disaffection with society as a whole. Such a solution will not and indeed cannot be easy of attainment, and several efforts may perhaps be required before we find one which is truly effective.

A starting point can be found, I would argue, in breaking the generational dependence on a welfare system that provides much (but never as much as its recipients would like) yet demands almost nothing. It has often been suggested that a form of national service would provide benefits for society, but this concept has almost invariable fallen foul of its inevitable cost and the objections of the pro-benefits and anti-responsibility lobbies, who say that it would infringe ‘rights’. Yet in a way we are as much at war, albeit among ourselves, as we were in World Wars I and II, when the idea of conscription for national service was accepted over only limited objections. The war in which we are currently involved is for the longer-term survival of our society, a war in which the balance between provider (taxpayer) and recipient (benefits receiver) has become increasingly skewed toward the latter. By this I do not mean to imply that all or even the majority of benefit recipients are in any way scroungers, but a swelling minority are just that, especially when they are the descendants of parents and grandparents who have never worked.

Generally brought up in a family situation in which there is no real structure or moral authority, unwilling to attend school, and all to eager to embrace the lowest possible standards demanded by a feckless peer group, many of today’s young are unemployed (and indeed unemployable) and not desirous of any gainful employment that would remove them from the comfort zone of the benefits system.

Why should not (rather than cannot) such young persons, both male and female, be obliged to work for their benefits? Here, I would suggest, is where the sharp inter-generational break should be made. Whenever a young person leaves school, and fails either to find employment or to seek the training which might lead to the chance of employment, he or she should be called into a form of national service that could also embrace young offenders. Great care would be needed to ensure, as far as is humanly possible, that such a national service system functioned effectively, fairly and without any chance of personal exploitation of any sort. The service must be carefully organised to provide a structured existence emphasising discipline, character-building and the inculcation of the work ethic and the concept of civic responsibility.

There is much that conscripted youth could do, ranging from the obvious (rural litter collection and tidying of roadsides, clearing and improvement of shorelines and the banks of rivers and canals, etc) for those entering the programme, to realistic training programmes for those willing to commit themselves to the possibility of a gainful future career. There are of course many questions that will have to be asked and answered: how and on what scale are the necessities of life to be provided, how will discipline be enforced, what provision will be made for basic and if possible further education with the aid of the private sector, at what age will the person be discharged, etc? Central establishments could be established at military bases that have been and are still being made redundant, and here health and educational problems could be assessed, training given to improve fitness and provide basic skills, and essential stores and facilities established. From these central establishments, ‘flying columns’ of the right size and composition could be despatched to undertake specific tasks.

It would be very difficult to plan and execute a programme of this sort, and there would inevitably be a host of teething problems and a spate of complaints about breaches of so-called human rights. I believe, though, that it is only through something as radical, problematic and possibly harsh as this that there lies the possibility of breaking a cycle that is clearly unsustainable by our society at both the economic and social levels.

[Photo by Simeon Eichmann]

Forward to the past?

Call it what you will – asymmetric warfare, irregular warfare, low-intensity warfare and a host of others – the primary characteristic of modern land/air warfare is radically different from that contemplated in the period up to 1989 and the effective end of the ‘Cold War’. Starting in the late 1940s, the ‘Cold War’ was based on the possibility of a large-scale land, sea and air war between the two superpower blocs, namely NATO under US leadership and the Warsaw Pact under Soviet leadership. With its focus on dominance in western and central Europe, the concept of fighting any ‘hot’ war that might develop from the ‘Cold War’ was posited on European and peripheral operations by well armed and basically similar forces using sophisticated weapons. These were largely of the conventional type, with tactical nuclear weapons held in reserve for contingency purposes.

Within this concept, therefore, the development of generations of land and air warfare weapons was focused on main battle tanks, lighter fighting vehicles for the movement and support of infantry, medium and heavy artillery firing increasingly capable ‘dumb’ and ‘smart’ munitions to increasingly lengthy ranges, and a range of ever faster and better equipped tactical warplanes. These last had generally to be capable of holding their own in the air against an enemy’s warplanes, and also of delivering tactically useful loads of ‘dumb’ and ‘smart’ ordnance to strike an enemy protected by advanced battlefield air-defence weapons ranging from small-calibre cannon, via shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and/or heavier cannon turret-mounted on armoured hulls, to surface-to-air missiles. Almost all these surface-to-air weapons were controlled, right down to all but the very smallest types, by computer-based fire-control systems using data provided by optronic or radar target-acquisition sensors together with a laser rangefinder.

To operate and to survive in the face of such air-defence complexes, attack and close support warplanes had to operate at low level and to possess the high speed that would allow them to ‘ingress’ into the target area, acquire their targets and use their increasingly longer-ranged stand-off weapons, and then ‘egress’ from the target area all in the shortest possible time. Only thus, it was reasoned, would very complex and costly warplanes be able to undertake their designated role, use their inbuilt defensive systems to confuse the enemy’s radar, thermal and optronic target-acquisition systems, and exit without suffering catastrophic damage from the enemy’s air-defence complex.

It was in this context that the nations of both the NATO and Warsaw Pact blocs developed their attack and close support aircraft. Each side at first envisaged the use of fighters armed with specialised attack weapons, and more importantly planned and developed specialised attack and close support aircraft. On the NATO side of the putative front line, the primary emphasis was placed from about 1970 on the development of multi-role fighters such as the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon armed with guided air-to-surface weapons (laser-guided bombs and air-to-surface missiles with any of several types of guidance), although there was still scope for specialised older aircraft such as the lightweight Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, the medium-weight SEPECAT Jaguar and, later, heavyweight types such as the Panavia Tornado. There was also room for dedicated attack and close support aircraft such as the BAe Harrier close-support aeroplane and Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II tank-killer and close-support warplane. On the Warsaw Pact side of the line, emphasis was again placed on the use of fighters armed with attack weapons such as HE bombs and air-to-surface unguided rockets, and such fighters were complemented by specialised attack aircraft such as the Mikoyan-Guryevich MiG-27, Sukhoi Su-7 and Su-17, Sukhoi Su-24 and, as the analogue of the A-10, the Sukhoi Su-25.

With the exception of the highly specialised types such as the A-10 and Su-25 with their straight wings and large numbers of hardpoints for the carriage of multiple ordnance items, these aircraft were ‘high-tech’ solutions to the battlefield problem. All had swept wings and performance that was at worst transonic and at best high supersonic.

Many of these warplanes are still in service, but are they worth their continuing procurement and operating costs against an opposition altogether different from that for which they were created? The opposition in today’s asymmetric warfare battle is not the armoured fighting vehicle, artillery and advanced air-defence system, but rather the single man or small group of men armed with rocket-propelled grenades, light automatic weapons up to the medium machine gun and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. Such men travel on foot, or on motorcycles and small vehicles with four-wheel drive. They have only the smallest of logistic tails and are therefore difficult to interdict, wear no uniform, can emerge from and then melt back into the local population at a moment’s notice, and operate in terrain that is often very difficult but which they know well.

Irregular forces of this type are tactically astute, operate among generally supportive civilians, and are now encountered in combat all over the Middle East and Near East, as well as in parts of Africa, South America and the Far East. How can they be tackled by ground forces supported by what the Americans term ‘legacy’ aircraft? The answer can be ‘only very poorly’. Such aircraft are not optimised for the task, and are also maintenance-intensive and fuel-costly. Yet many of the world’s nations seem to be set on a course in which any conflicts, if they become embroiled in such, are and will continue to be of this asymmetric type. Planning for the specification, development, procurement and deployment of warplanes in the near future should reflect this fact, and the political masters of the world’s air forces should demand that their air forces look for ‘lower-tech’ warplanes for use in asymmetric warfare.

Such aircraft may lack the glamour of warplanes with the latest electronics and high supersonic performance, but are cheaper and quicker to design, evaluate, procure, maintain and operate, and most importantly are far better suited to the demands of asymmetric warfare. Aircraft of this type can be intrinsically more rugged than their high-performance counterparts, can operate successfully from smaller and less well developed airfields, and offer the combination of lower performance, greater agility and longer loiter time that makes them more capable of locating and attacking small groups of men in difficult terrain.

There are aircraft of the type already in existence, such as the EMBRAER EMB-314 armed version of the EMB-312 Tucano trainer, and T-6B and T-6C armed versions of the Raytheon T-6A Texan II trainer, but these are better suited to the counter-insurgency role than asymmetric warfare.

The way forward, it seems to me, is to find a conceptual exemplar by looking backward into the period just after World War II, when the US Navy’s premier attack warplane was the single-seat Douglas AD (later A-1) Skyraider, later adopted by the US Air Force. Comparatively large and powered by a single very potent piston engine for a speed of slightly more than 300 mph (480 km/h), the Skyraider was enormously rugged, very versatile and had good range with a significant warload. The aeroplane was armed with four 20-mm cannon in the leading edges of its straight wing, and under this wing and the fuselage had 15 hardpoints for the carriage of a very varied external load of up to 8,000 lb (3630 kg). The Skyraider proved very successful in the Korean War of the early 1950s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Pressurisation is not required as the aeroplane will generally operate at altitudes below 15,000 ft (4570 m). High speed is not needed for the asymmetric warfare role: a speed of about 300 mph (480 km/h) gives the pilot and/or weapons system operator sufficient time to search for and acquire his target optically, line up his aeroplane and then release the selected weapons, yet provides an opposition equipped largely with small arms little time to react effectively. The use of a straight rather than swept wing allows the disposition of the hardpoints in a lateral line that avoids problems of changing longitudinal pitch trim as weapons are released. The straight wing’s large area also lowers the wing loading and thus enhances agility, and provides the greater lifting area that permits the incorporation of a considerable weight of armour protection for the crew and vital systems. Essential sensors could be derived from the light yet highly capable types created for unmanned aerial vehicles, and light yet rugged digital avionics (including a head-up display) could be developed from those used in modern lightplanes. The light attack and close support warplane of the future could be crewed by one or two persons on lightweight ejection seats, and a powerplant of one or two modern turboprop or turbofan engines would be adequate.

It would be important not to ‘gold plate’ the basic design with features not essential to the primary task, and the result could be a reliable and effective warplane of a highly cost-effective nature.

The Armed Drone – The Right Way Forward?

Better known in the popular press as the drone, the Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) has been transforming the way in which modern warfare is planned and fought. Without the need to carry a pilot and all the paraphernalia required to keep him or her alive and in the condition to fly and fight, the UAV is much simpler than the manned aeroplane. Without a cockpit, ejection seat, oxygen and air-conditioning systems, instrument displays, linkages between the cockpit and the various moving surfaces, and many other human-related equipment, the UAV is smaller and therefore very considerably cheaper to develop, to procure and also to operate than the equivalent manned aeroplane.

Moreover, as was shown by the great Douglas designer Ed Heinemann in his trimly elegant A-4 Skyhawk lightweight attack aeroplane, the saving of one pound of weight in any one part of the structure results in an overall saving of something in the order of 10 pounds, for supporting structures can be reduced in number and strength, opening the way to the use of less sturdy and therefore lighter primary structural elements, as well as a lower-power engine requiring less fuel to provide the required speed and range.

Just as important, in these times when every life is deemed of huge importance, the use of a UAV removes the pilot from danger.

Yet the UAV is nothing new, for the Ryan Firebee remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), as the UAV was then known, saw extensive US operational service during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Vietnam War. Here the Firebee in its many forms was used for reconnaissance, and also on a more limited scale, for armed attack.

Development of the RPV into the current families of UAVs continued during the later stages of the Cold War, and the size and weight of UAVs was steadily reduced as various miniaturisation technologies were applied to sensors and the airframes to carry them. Small and very economical piston engines, often designed for lightplane use, are now more than adequate to power light short- and medium-range UAVs out to the radius possible with line-of-sight radio control systems. The fuel economy of such engines also provides for tactically significant loiter times over the target area.

For service at higher operational levels, and at altitudes up to and indeed over 60,000 feet, and over ranges very considerably lengthened by enlarged fuel capacities and control via satellite communications, the USA in particular has developed increasingly more sophisticated UAVs with turbojet or even turbofan propulsion.

All of these UAVs have been designed to exploit the steady development of cybernetic and sensor technologies. Cybernetic developments have made the UAV increasingly autonomic, and therefore capable of safely flying itself, with the controller in the associated ground station more a monitor than a ‘hands-on’ pilot. The controller supervises, and is there to take decisions and execute them in the event that a mission has to be altered in the light of emerging requirements or changing threats. Miniaturisation of sensors and the communications that allow the real-time transmission of sensor data to the control station has also transformed the utility of the UAV. Small machines carry under their fuselages one of several types of gyro-stabilised turret fitted with an optronic (low-light TV camera) and/or infra-red sensor, and often a laser rangefinder that can double as a designator for laser-guided weapons. These generally low- and medium-altitude types are complemented by smaller numbers of larger machines, which can carry more advanced sensors such as radar and an electronic support system for the passive detection of electro-magnetic emissions.

So far, all is well and good. It has always been a truism of the military art that knowing what is on the ‘other side of the hill’ offers untold advantages. The first to exploit the reconnaissance capability of the modern UAV was Israel, which was able to complete a thorough assessment of the Syrian air-defence capability during the later 1970s and early 1980s. As a direct result, in 1982 the Israelis were able to destroy or neutralise Syrian air defences in their 1982 operations in southern Lebanon.

Now here comes the rub. If an enemy’s capability can be seen and reported by a UAV, does it not make military sense for that same UAV to carry the weapons that allow that capability’s immediate destruction? The more warfare is fought on the low-intensity or irregular warfare level, as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, the greater is the perceived utility of the armed UAV. With their heavier weapons and increasingly bulky combat kit and communications suites, more conventional ground forces are effectively limited to surface or, at best, helicopter transport for any real degree of tactical mobility. By the time UAV intelligence data have been received, analysed and used for the generation of a tactical plan, and then the relevant forces gathered, briefed and transported to the desired area, a generally more lightly armed and very considerably more mobile enemy has melted away, even if it’s only on hearing the approach of heavy ground vehicles or helicopters.

It’s so much better, the military reasons, that a target is found by a UAV and then destroyed without delay. All that is required is the real-time decision by the relevant personnel in the UAV’s ground station, and the UAV’s possession of the appropriate weapons. Carried on two or four hardpoints below the tactical UAV’s wing, these weapons are generally light air-to-surface missiles with any of several guidance options, and/or lightweight laser-guided bombs.

The advantage of this concept, so the argument goes, is that rapid response allows the target to be engaged within moments of its detection, and destroyed by an accurate weapon generating little in the way of the unpleasantly euphemistic ‘collateral damage’. The alternative, so the proponents of the armed UAV claim, is the lengthy process of calling in ground forces or an air attack, allowing the target forces to disappear and generally resulting in the use of wholly disproportionate strength. This last can result in a significantly higher level of ‘collateral damage’, which is one of the main drivers of disaffection among a population therefore still less likely than before to welcome, let alone accept, any ‘hearts and minds’ approach that is probably being made in much the same period.

I am wholly convinced that the armed UAV can and indeed does play a useful role in modern warfare, especially of the type where forces of wholly disproportionate size and capability are involved. I am just as completely sure that the poor use of the armed UAV has a negative effect far greater than any positive result that may accrue from sensible use of the UAV. So it’s of huge importance that the controllers of armed UAVs, for the most part young men and women who have often reached their adulthood via large periods in front of a monitor playing ‘shoot ‘em up’ computer games, be properly trained.

This means that they should be pilots trained but also combat-experienced in the art as well as science of ground-attack operations. Controllers without such experience can, I believe, slip into the computer gaming cast of mind in which there is no objective reality – targets are not people but merely electronically generated images without any connection with the real world, let alone humanity. In such circumstances ‘collateral damage’ is the inevitable consequence.

I also believe that the existing tendency toward the dehumanisation of any enemy should be countered by making it mandatory for UAV controllers, and pilots of warplanes and combat helicopters for that matter, to be taken periodically to see, hear and smell the real-life consequences of their work in a world which is often very harsh even under the best of conditions. Only then will these young men and women know fully that all war has desperate real-life consequences for men, women and children, together with the livestock on which they all depend. So controllers must come to appreciate, in the full depth of their unconscious as well as conscious minds, that war is not just a ‘game’ seen at a remove on a monitor in an air-conditioned control station with a soft drink to hand and a comfortable, safe bed in prospect after a hot, nourishing meal at the end of a single shift.