Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Is this the answer?

While the MoD is still dickering about buying the next batch of mine protected vehicles, the United States is forging ahead with the second generation of what it calls Mine Resistant and Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.

This promises to be a huge defence contract, with a potential order for some 20,500 units. With testing, spare parts and logistics support, this could turn out to be one of the largest land contracts of a generation.

One of the front runners in the competition is our very own BAE Systems which is only one of two contractors selected to develop and produce prototypes for the next generation vehicle, with the award of a $5.7 million contract.

Within the contract are two categories of vehicle. One is the so-called Category I, which will support operations in urban environments and other restricted/confined spaces, including mounted patrols, reconnaissance, communications, and command and control. The other is the Category II vehicle, which provide a "reconfigurable vehicle that can support multi-mission operations such as convoy lead, troop transport, explosive ordnance disposal, ambulance, and route clearance."

The Category I test vehicles will be based on the BAE System's Caiman 6x6 design, morphed into a 4x4 design (pictured above), while the Category II will be based on the company's RG-33 6x6 vehicle (right), itself a development of the ground-breaking RG-31.

In view of the controversy over the British WIMIK Land Rover, versus the Mastiff, the Cat I vehicle is of special interest. Its intended role most closely approximates that of the WIMIK, offering – in the words of the manufacturer – "the right balance of payload capability, automotive performance, and blast protection", complete with all-important "mobility upgrades". It also has the advantage of being based on the well-proven Stewart and Stevenson FMTV in widespread use in the US Army, with 85 percent parts commonality.

In the protection department, the Caiman certainly presses all the buttons. It has the classic v-shaped hull and a conformation which gives it a central armoured cell, with the front and rear axles outside the cell, offering maximum protection against mine strikes. But, at 14 tons, a very high profile and car-type doors which do not permit rapid dismount under fire, it is hard to see that this would be accepted as a WIMIK replacement in the British Army.

While Defense Update discusses the broader issues, however, we learn that another Canadian LAV has succumbed to a mine blast in Afghanistan, this one the Coyote - the reconnaissance version of the wheeled APCs chosen by the Canadian Army – with the death of a soldier.

This is the third Coyote to have been involved in a fatal incident (illustrated: see here), on top of several other LAVs, compared with only two (to our knowledge) RG-31s, underlining the vulnerability of conventional armoured vehicles in asymmetric warfare. It also raises further questions about FRES, as the LAV is based on the Piranha, one of the types submitted for the FRES competition.

Against this background, we see US defence secretary Gates argue in the LA Times that most of the European Nato forces in Afghanistan are not trained in counterinsurgency. "They were trained for the Fulda Gap," he said, referring to the German region where a Soviet invasion of Western Europe had been deemed most likely.

Training apart, their armies are certainly equipped for the Fulda Gap, and they are going to have to look hard at the MRAP II project to see is this can deliver vehicles more suitable to the needs of Afghanistan. But, from the look of the Caiman, it would seem we are a long way from seeing a light, armoured tactical vehicle which would fit British requirements.