Wednesday 27 December 2006

The "Snatch" revisited

You can see why the troops who used them in Northern Ireland - where they were first issued in 1992 - had to give them a short name. Officially, the "Snatch" Land Rover - in true Army style - is designated the "Truck utility medium (TUM) hardtop with vehicle protection kit (VPK) Land Rover 110". The current version runs to the 2A, costing the British taxpayers about £60,000 each (not including radios and electronic counter-measures).

We broached the subject of how these vehicles were dangerously vulnerable - leading directly to the death of our soliders in Iraq - formally on this blog on 18 June, having held off to tie in with the Booker column which was published the same day. We had, however, already sent full details to the opposition defence team and it was Lord Astor of Hever on 12 June who raised the issue in Parliament, asking the defence procurement minister Lord Drayson whether the "Snatch" was adequate or whether the RG-31 had a greater resilience to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Drayson (pictured here on one of his visits to the troops), replied:

My Lords, I do not accept that Snatch Land Rovers are not appropriate for the role. We must recognise the difference between protection and survivability. It is important that we have the trade-offs that we need for mobility. The Snatch Land Rover provides us with the mobility and level of protection that we need.
He then went on to say:

We have looked at the RG-31 alongside a number of alternatives for our current fleet and concluded that the size and profile did not meet our needs. Size is important in the urban environment. The RG-31 cannot access areas that Snatch Land Rovers can get to.
That the RG-31 had "a greater resilience" to IEDs was unarguable, purely in terms of the basic specifications. but the difference was illustrated graphically by both myself and Booker - respectively in the blog and The Sunday Telegraph with the now famous picture of a USMC RG-31 after it had been hit by an IED. In this instance, the crew walked away uninjured and it was clearly evident that, had this been a "Snatch" Land Rover, the crew - at the very least - would have been badly injured.

On the face of it, therefore, the issue was about "mobility" - the fact that the Land Rover could travel down the supposedly narrow streets of Basra meant that it could provide a level of protection in circumstances where the very much larger RG-31 simply could not travel. But there was also the "hearts" and minds" issue. The more aggressive-looking RG-31 would, it was felt, make it more difficult for toops to interact with the local communities. And these arguments gained support from Times defence editor Mick Smith who, in a particularly pompous and ill-informed entry on his blog agreed with the MoD that the RG-31's profile was wrong and that it was also simply "too big for Basra".

There had been some validity in the "hearts and minds" argument but it had long ceased to be the case that British troops could don soft hats and mingle easily with the crowds. So dangerous had it become that "Snatch" Land Rovers, once used as escorts, had to be escorted front and rear by tracked Warrior MICVs, themselves bigger and far more aggressive-looking than RG-31s. The two arguments simply did not stand up.

But there was a third issue - the emergence of a new and supposedly lethal form of IED, the so-called "explosively formed projectile" (EFP). This was featured by defence correspondent Sean Rayment in The Sunday Telegraph on 25 June, complete with a fanciful graphic showing the device mounted on a launch tripod. And it was Rayment's thesis, proclaimed in his headline, "The precision-made mine that has 'killed 17 British troops'" that it was this new weapon rather than the inadequate Land Rovers per se which was the cause of the problem. So deadly was this supposed to be that it could penetrate four inches of armour. We were told by an anonymous source: "If you are travelling in an armoured Land Rover which is attacked by one of these things, you are in trouble. You have a better chance of surviving if you are in a tank or an armoured vehicle but it will 'kill' the tank."

That seemed totally to contradict the line taken by Booker in the same newspaper, who argued that our troops had been put at risk by the MoD's decision in 2004 to buy a new generation of vehicles suitable for armoured patrolling. On the shortlist had been the RG-31 but, instead of buying this machine, the MoD insisted instead, as part of its "Europe-first" procurement policy, on buying 401 Italian-made Panthers, vehicles which cost nearly twice as much yet provided only a fraction of the protection.

Futhermore, there was another part to this scandal. On June 12, Drayson had tried to disparage the RG-31, claiming that the Army had used them in Bosnia and found them wanting. But photographic evidence had shown that this was not true. The vehicles used in Bosnia were not RG31s but an earlier and much less capable vehicle, the Mamba. Later, we were to find that these had been sold off, cut-price. Some were being used by the US security firm Blackwater, to convey US diplomats and other VIPs from Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone, and had survived at least two IED strikes.

The same day that Booker and Rayment were battling it out in the Telegraph, however, The Sunday Times pitched into the fray with a front page story, an editorial and a long "Focus" investigation. And, for this newspaper, there was no argument. Its theme was: "pay up and save lives".

It was an unfortunate coincidence that, in its focus piece, the Times chose to feature former Metropolitan police officer, Roger Bacon, whose son Matthew, 34 - then an army intelligence officer - had been killed in a "Snatch" (pictured). At 11.13am on 11 September 2005, he had been travelling from Basra Palace to Basra air base to catch a flight when an explosively formed projectile had detonated. He was killed instantly. Sitting with his back to the blast, he stood no chance as a copper projectile sliced through the vehicle and went through his chest. Three other occupants of the vehicle were seriously injured.

The image of the vehicle shows a single, clean puncture, although this may have been the exit. If this is the case, Matthew was doubly unfortunate. No only should he not have been there (he was travelling in the "Snatch" because a helicopter which was to convey him to the air base had fallen unserviceable and there was no replacement) but the projectile seems to have functioned in the manner intended. Other images (such as the one above) show more fragmentation and less penetration - suggesting that the weapon is not as potent as Rayment indicated.

In fact, we now know that to be the case. Not only does the bomb come in a wide range of sizes, the machining quality also seems to vary significantly - suggesting anything but a "precision" weapon. Performance will vary widely and may be less than theoretically possible, so much so that the Israelis - who had encountered it in Lebanon and Gaza - reported it as relatively ineffective against armoured vehicles, although "heavier versions" had caused catastrophic results in softer or lightly armoured vehicles.

Nevertheless, the prospect of this "killer weapon" overcoming all armour was enough to spark a lively (and at times ill-tempered) debate on the unofficial Army forum. A strongly argued strand was that, given the ability of the weapon to pentrate all known armour, it would be better to rely on training and tactics than to invest in new armour. But the reality was, as the Sunday Times pointed out, that the "Snatches" were highly vulnerable to attack and the terrorists had started to target them for that very reason.

Fortunately, the subtle (and not so subtle) arguments about the merits of additional armour passed by the politicians and, for once, the political process worked, forcing Des Browne first to announce a review and then the purchase of new armoured vehicles for Iraq and Afghanisan. But they were not to be RG-31s. Formally announced on 24 July, 100 heavily modified US-built Cougars were to be ordered, for deliveries to theatre to start by the end of the year. The new vehicles were to be called the Mastiff (alongside up-armoured FV-432s, which were to be called "Bulldogs"). In some respects, these were better than the RG-31s although it is arguable as to whether all the modifications improved the vehicle

Unfortunately for the troops in Afghanistan, they were not to get this equipment. Instead, it was planned to send them the Pinzgauer Vector, with little more armour than the "Snatch" Land Rover and actually less protection from mines and IEDs. Yet, this is at a time when the Taliban are stepping up attacks on road vehicles, having already destroyed three Land Rovers using suicide bombs, two of the attacks (both on "Snatch" Land Rovers) with lethal results.

That will leave British forces in Afghanistan the least well equipped of all the major contingents. The Australians have their Bushmasters, which have also been sold to the Dutch, the Canadians have RG-31s, the French have VAB armoured personnel carriers and the Germans have their Dingo IIs. And, just before Christmas, the vehicle pictured turned up in US colours - a Cougar - hitherto used for ordnance disposal officers - equipped as a patrol vehicle.

Despite the promises from Mr Browne, the Mastiffs have still not arrived in Iraq and, for want of suitable armour, soldiers are still patrolling - and dying - in "Snatch" Land Rovers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But, if it is the politicians who are ultimately responsible for the deaths of many fine young men (and women), that they were palmed off with second-hand Land Rovers in the first place was because General Jackson allowed it.