Author Archives: Tony Skinner

Staying peerless on the battlefield

Shephard Media has suddenly become a lot more acquainted with the world of military special forces following our acquisition of Special Operations Forces (SOF) magazine.

As if the critical role that SOF operators play in current campaigns was not obvious enough, opening the recent AFCEA West exhibition, a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe was clear about the need for ‘peerless special forces’.

ADM James G. Stavridis, US Navy (retired), placed an unrivalled SOF capability alongside advances in cyber and unmanned systems as essential for US forces to meet current and emerging threats.

‘You are going to see some changes to that traditional force, which I would argue for the navy, for example, ought to be around 340 ships. But you are going to need better cyber capability; we are going to need bet­ter unmanned platforms, including those operating in the maritime space and the overhead; and we are going to need peerless Special Forces,’ ADM Stavridis told the gathered delegates.

He cited the example of US Navy SEAL Michael Murphy who lost his life in Afghanistan in 2005 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during Operation Red Wings.

‘Today he is memorialised in the destroyer USS Michael Murphy. We need peerless special forces like Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL, but also he represents in my mind all of the wonderful volunteers in the services who stand on the wall at night and protect us.’

One crucial element in the Pentagon’s security strategy is the role SOF units are playing in building partner nations SF capacity, which is a central theme to our second issue of 2017.

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In a comprehensive commentary, Lt Gen Ken Tovo and Lt Col Duane Mosier outline the ways in which members of US SOF continue to develop effective partner forces in countries around the world, helping them to win against determined enemies.

Providing examples from Afghanistan, Colombia and Iraq, the US Army Special Operations Com­mand (USASOC) leadership outlines how US SOF has ‘built, trained and developed effective partner forces through persistent and deliberate engagement’.

Elsewhere in the issue, we speak to the head of Special Operations Command in Spain about the new command’s success in coordinating the country’s Army, Air Force and Navy SOF.

Brig Gen Jaime Íñiguez Andrade explains that, in line with the creation of joint commands in other Western countries, the development of the new command and increased resources Madrid has allocated to SOF activities is a recognition of the importance of SF in light of current threats.

We also look at the development of SOF units across Latin America, frequently in partnership with the US, as well as the introduction of new technologies to make working within an interna­tional coalition easier and more effective.

Current operations are demanding more and more from the SOF community, forcing operators to seek new force-multiplying technologies across a widening spectrum of mission sets.

This is most prevalent across the Middle East – particularly the partnering missions with Iraqi and Kurdish forces against Daesh – and Eastern Europe, where coalitions of SOF units are central to ongoing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns.

U.S. Army Soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group prepare to fast-rope out of a UH-60 Blackhawk during Fast Rope Insertion and Extraction training as part of Emerald Warrior at Hurlburt Field, Fla., April 22, 2015. Emerald Warrior is the Department of Defense's only irregular warfare exercise, allowing joint and combined partners to train together and prepare for real world contingency operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenneth W. Norman/Released)

US Army Soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group prepare to fast-rope out of a UH-60 Blackhawk.

From Russia’s electronic warfare capability to the (increasingly armed) airborne ISR assets developed by Daesh, emerging new threats will require SOF units to work ever harder to remain ‘peerless’ on the battlefield.

Dear Poland – you’ve changed

Okay Poland, now you’re just being silly. I understand you’ve fallen out with Airbus Helicopters, I really do – but your actions since reneging on your deal to purchase those brand-new Caracals are starting to look a little erratic.

I know things got a little heated when you cancelled the $3.5 billion deal to buy 50 H225Ms after a year of complex negotiations, an agreement which would have given Poland the capacity to produce aircraft of its own for the export market.

But that’s no reason to post mean comments online about why the break-up was not your fault and was completely down to the action of your former partner. Telling the world that “they did not meet the criteria of economic interest” was not very classy and should have been left as a private matter.

As for your deputy defence minister’s claim that Paris’ reaction to the slight could be explained by the fact that Poland taught the French how to use forks ‘a couple of centuries ago’, that’s really raking through old coals.

In fact, we had to turn to the AFP to learn that this may have been a reference to France’s King Henry III, who had previously been elected king of Poland and introduced the fork to France in the 16th Century.

This was also picked up by social media, so you should reflect on that fact that when you’ve become a meme, you’ve definitely lost the moral high ground.

And any break-up is hard but did you have to rush so quickly into the arms of another?

What you loved about the Caracal was its ability to cover a range of missions, with all the benefits of commonality that brings.

But according to your recent public statements, you now plan to not only reopen the competition but also buy Black Hawks for your special forces, purchase additional helicopters from PZL Świdnik, and in the middle of all this develop your own indigenous helicopter design.

What next – the creation of Poland’s first Death Star? Oh wait, someone has already beaten me to it…


Presenting, the Mosquito Killer Robot (!!)

The Laser Movable Mosquito Killer Robot

Among the glistening military hardware on display at the MSPO arms fair in Kielce, Poland, what was the most impressive thing on display? I give you six words: ‘the Laser Movable Mosquito Killer Robot’.

Hidden among the vast array of armoured vehicles, air defence systems and air-launched weapons was this display by Chinese company LeiShen Intelligent, which literally screamed about its ‘Mosquito Killer Robot!!’

After a tip-off from a trusted contact, I went to hunt out the Shenzhen-based company, who were more than happy to chat about their product.

They’ve essentially taken their 2D LIDAR technology, commonly seen on home cleaning robots, integrated it on a small UGV and stuck a mosquito killing laser on the top.

A LeiShen Intelligent representative said while they had yet to make a sale, the company was pitching the idea to hospitals, schools or other public buildings in areas blighted by diseases such as malaria or zika.

In addition to the movable version, the system is available as a fixed installation.

Through an object recognition and tracking algorithm, the killer robot recognises a mosquito and ‘instantly’ lasers it. The company claims the laser is capable of killing an impressive ’30 to 40 mosquitoes in one second’, a fact I double-checked had not been mistranslated.

While the spokesperson was not able to name the actual laser used as part of the system, the company’s website lists several eye-safe laser products and the Mosquito Killer Robot apparently has ‘multi-protection for human beings’.

As well as being an impressive integration of several technologies, the aim of getting the systems in the hands of institutions such as hospitals is clearly an admirable one.

But as company literature reveals, in humanity’s fight against the mosquito, the Chinese have been playing the long game:

‘In the past thousands of years that are written in history, human’s [sic] fight against mosquitoes have never ended with our victory. But with the invention and later-application of these laser mosquito killer products, history is there to be changed. Diseases like malaria, dengue fever and zika that [are] caused by mosquito bites will get controlled a great deal.’

Poor blighter didn’t stand a chance

Book review: Apache Over Libya

Apache Over Libya by Will Laidlaw

With US Marine Corps AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters currently striking targets around the Libyan city of Sirte, the pilots involved will be keenly aware of the British experience of five years ago.

The sophistication of the air defence threat that faced coalition forces in Libya in 2011 – and just how close pro-Gaddafi forces came to shooting down a UK Apache helicopter – has been laid bare in a new memoir.

In his story of the involvement of Apaches from 656 Squadron, Army Air Corps (AAC), Will Laidlaw has produced a remarkably detailed and yet gripping account, outlining how the Apache was rerolled for ship-borne operations and thrown into the Libyan conflict.

Apache 2

While the involvement of HMS Ocean and her embarked Apache attack helicopter crews was widely covered by the general media at the time, the story soon moved on with the fall of Gaddafi forces.

Five years later, it is certainly worth revisiting the wider story of the Apache’s involvement and how the crews training in the Mediterranean were pulled into the Libyan civil war.

To illustrate how key 656 Squadron was to operations, throughout the campaign crews fired 99 Apaches, 4800 rounds of 30mm and 16 rockets across 48 sorties and striking 116 targets.

Nevertheless, Libya’s air defence threat was vastly more sophisticated that what AAC Apache crews had become accustomed to facing in Afghanistan – the campaign that had become the sole focus of many within the command structure (and outlined by former 656 WO1 Ed Macy in his much more two dimensional books Apache and Hellfire).

While the number of chaff and flares fired in self-defence against incoming missiles remains classified, Laidlaw’s account of taking evasive action against radar lock-ons is unnerving.

As well as being an at-times intensely personal account – he soberly explains such aspects as the ever-present strain on the families back home, the comradery of operations, the inevitable banter in times of extreme stress, the boredom – Apache Over Libya is also a story of organisational change.

While many within the Ministry of Defence were highly sceptical of allowing the integration of the Apache for ship-borne operations, the aircraft’s sudden availability to coalition planners when they needed an asset with the ability to strike targets that had previously been able to evade attack from fast jets was ultimately too persuasive.

In many ways it is surprising the MoD has allowed the account to be published. As well as the operational details the book reveals, Laidlaw does not hide his contempt for an organisation that initially stood in the way of ship-borne processes being developed, and then later became too risk adverse to allow further operations to be launched from HMS Ocean.

But given the huge contribution the book makes in our understanding of 656’s role in the defeat of pro-Gaddafi forces in 2011, it would have been a travesty if publication had been stymied in any way.

All proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to SSAFA and Combat Stress.

Updated: NATO nervously looks east

Next week the international defence establishment will gather in Paris for Eurosatory, the biennial arms extravaganza.

One subject that is likely to be high on the agenda is NATO’s options for dealing with a newly-belligerent Russia, which since the last exhibition has annexed the Crimea region and helped spread instability in eastern Ukraine and Syria.

In line with this new interventionist strategy is Moscow’s development of so-called hybrid warfare, which blends its traditional reliance on armoured forces with new cyber capabilities.


Shephard’s land forces editor Tim Fish considers these developments as part of our Eurosatory coverage, which you can follow on our show microsite.

In addition, we have produced a comprehensive report on Russia’s new military capabilities and what this may mean for European defence chiefs.

With NATO holding its summit in Warsaw in July, the Russian question, member states defence spending commitments and the future of NATO bases in central Europe will be high on the agenda. Such issues will also cast a long shadow over Eurosatory.

View our Russian military capabilities report here.

Who has the best armoured fighting vehicle?

European armoured vehicles

One of the best features in the latest issue of Land Warfare International looks at the new generation of armoured fighting vehicles that are entering the inventories of Europe’s armies.

With a raft of new types and models entering service or under construction, we thought it would be interesting to put up a comparison the base models.

Although a vehicle’s capability will be defined by the types of systems that are fitted, it is still interesting to view the main hull and machinery characteristics of these new products.

So to help with this, we got our design team to throw together this handy reference chart (click to enlarge), outlining the basic statistics for each of the latest tracked and wheeled designs that are available.

The German Army is currently converting from the 45-year old Marder IFV to the new Puma IFV, which the manufacturer describes as the ‘most powerful IFV worldwide’.

In German service, the Puma will work alongside the 8×8 Boxer multi-role armoured vehicle, which is claimed to have the highest protection level of any vehicle in its class.

The company-funded VBCI-2 was only just unveiled by Nexter in September 2015 and that vehicle features a new all-welded aluminium hull design with a higher roof line to provide greater internal volume.

The UK’s renewal of its armoured vehicle fleet centres on the GDLS-UK Ajax tracked reconnaissance vehicle, the only new armoured vehicle in development or production for the British Army.

France, meanwhile, is developing the 6×6 Griffon Véhicule Blindé Multi-Rôles (VBMR) multirole armoured vehicle and the 6×6 Jaguar EBRC armoured reconnaissance and combat vehicle.

The General Dynamics LAV design also continues to prove popular and the latest iteration, the Piranha 5, has been chosen to replace the Danish Army’s tracked M113.

What do you think of the latest industrial offerings from Europe? Have European armies made the right choices for armour? Are there any others that should be included here? Be sure to leave your comments below.

Meanwhile, all the latest news about these vehicles and their subsystems will emerge next week at Eurosatory in Paris so be sure to keep tabs on our show news.

And to view the complete entries, as well as all other AFVs currently in service, sign up to a free trial of Shephard Plus at


Tragedy in Norway

When news first broke of a helicopter crash near the Norwegian city of Bergen on 29 April, it almost seemed an added cruel twist when it was confirmed the aircraft involved was an EC225.

While first and foremost a tragedy for the families of the 13 passengers and crew that lost their lives, the accident will have come as a massive blow to manufacturer Airbus Helicopters, given the recent history surrounding the Super Puma family.

You can read our account of the accident here but from initial accounts it seems the aircraft’s main rotor had become detached in the moments before the accident – the video that appears to show the detached rotor in flight makes chilling viewing.

H225 rotor

Following a spate of incidents with the Super Puma family in the North Sea in the past seven or eight years, it was inevitable that there would be a public outcry following this latest accident.

A petition appealing to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority to ‘remove the Super Puma from service’ has gathered 25,000 signatures at the time of writing, mirroring a similar Facebook page created after the 2013 Sumburgh crash.

For oil and gas workers who have to travel to work by helicopter on a regular basis, and who feel they have no choice but to fly on the Super Puma – whether it is the H225 or AS332 – or lose their jobs, any widespread perception the type is fundamentally unsafe clearly makes for a difficult working environment.

Nevertheless, the community needs to take stock before damning the Super Puma and Airbus Helicopters altogether.

While a design fault with the main gear box was the cause of two ditchings in 2012, this has now been rectified, and the previous crash causing fatalities – the 2013 crash at Sumburgh – was attributed to the pilots not following standard operating procedures.

This latest incident may be more closely related to the 2009 crash of a Bond AS332L2 Super Puma, which killed all 16 people aboard and the investigation found was caused by main rotor separation following a catastrophic gearbox failure.

Aligned to the lack of a common cause linking all the accidents since 2009, it should be remembered the Super Puma family has accumulated more than 5 million flight hours to date, the family racking up 240,000 flight hours in 2014 alone.

When news emerged of the crash in Norway, I was preparing a feature on the H225 Safety Partnership and maturity programme, which will examine efforts to improve safety, ease the maintenance burden and improve availability.

While this latest tragedy will undoubtedly cast a long shadow, there is no denying the safety improvements that have taken place to date and the willingness of everyone across industry to get this right.

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