Combat aviation’s future may lie in the past. The Philippines has become the latest country to order Embraer’s a-29 Super Tucano, a single-propeller light-attack aircraft evocative of such warbirds as the Spitfire and Mustang. Among other actual or potential operators of Super Tucanos are Afghanistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, Nigeria and Thailand – all countries for whom counter-insurgency operations are current or imaginable. “I think light attack aircraft will become more popular for militaries unlikely to face state-on-state fighting,” says Justin Bronk, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
About 1.3 million people serve in the US military and a vast network of contractors and bureaucrats operates around and within it. America’s military is bigger than some country’s populations so it’s not surprising that it has accrued some of the signifiers of a nation state, including its own broadcasting network.
The American Forces Network (AFN) began life in May 1942 as the Armed Forces Radio Service. By the end of 1943, it was broadcasting in 47 countries. It now has 25 manned stations around the world, and reaches 175 countries and territories, as well as ships, commanding unusual dedication from its unusual audience.
“In 2003,” recalls George A Smith, a public affairs officer with AFN, “a convoy of soldiers in Iraq drove for several hours through hostile territory to get an AFN decoder so they could watch NFL football.” More orthodox uses for the AFN include updates on the kinds of news events to which soldiers may have to respond, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
The AFN has had an impact beyond its remit, as well: from the 1950s to the 1980s, its programming of American music was listened to by millions of European civilians wearied of the stodgier fare available on their own channels, suggesting a dedicated military network has potential as a formidable soft-power weapon. “And thousands of Europeans in Germany, Italy and Belgium learned English through AFN,” says Smith.
It’s somewhat surprising, then, that so few other nations operate similar enterprises. The Israel Defence Forces has Army Radio, known locally as Galatz. The Russian Ministry of Defence runs Zvezda, though even by the standards of Russian news agencies, it is an especially grim sink of patriotic paranoia and conspiracy theory. Thailand’s army owns a TV station – Channel 7 – but its content is not noticeably military. And Canada closed Canada Forces Radio & Television in 2014, after broadcasting to Canadian personnel overseas for 63 years.
But the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) is still on the air. It is now under contract – and independent – from the Ministry of Defence, operated by Services Sound & Vision Corporation (SSVC), a registered charity. BFBS has radio stations on British bases in seven countries, enables the reception of British television overseas and operates Forces TV, a military-themed TV channel also available on civilian platforms.
“Forces TV was set up to broadcast to the forces,” says Simon Bucks, SSVC’s chief executive. “But that struck me as quite limited. There’s an equally important role beyond that, which is to champion the armed forces to the British public.”
Radio Forces Françaises de Berlin: For French military in West Berlin (1957-94).
Radio Wolga: Broadcast content for Soviet forces in former East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Army FM: Set up in 2016 for Ukraine’s frontline troops to combat the information war with Russia.
The US Marines have had a chilly start to the year. A contingent is training with the Lapland-based Finnish Jaeger Brigade in the art of Arctic combat and survival.
“The conditions can be quite tough with the temperature dropping to minus 30c and there being 50 to 60cm of snow and just a few hours of daylight,” says lieutenant colonel Reima Vanhanen, Jaeger Brigade’s chief of staff.
The training includes skills such as combat skiing, using snow as a building material and skinning reindeer. Soldiers also learn how to swim in ice in full combat gear and escape from it. As part of the US-Finland deal, Finnish soldiers will train in the US.