Sunday, 20 January 2008

Time to go back to basics

The big defence news of yesterday was the dire tale of the theft of a laptop holding the personal details of some 600,000 people who had expressed an interest in joining the Armed Forces.

The laptop had, apparently, been stolen from the car of a Royal Navy officer, who had left the machine in the car overnight. The MoD is taking some heat: the loss is claimed to present a security risk as the data were not encrypted. That apart, it can surely only be someone with cloth for brains that leaves such valuable property in a car overnight. These people are responsible for our defence?

In addition to that story though, the Telegraph found space for a story headed, "Kit shortages put troops' lives at risk". It tells us that thousands of troops had their lives endangered when they were sent to Afghanistan without essential equipment.

This, we are also told, was due to "government dithering", a claim relying on a document which forms part of the Board of Inquiry report into the death of paratrooper Captain James Philippson of 7 Para, Royal Horse Artillery.

He was the first soldier to be killed in southern Afghanistan and the circumstances of his death were briefly carried in The Times on 14 June 2006, its story headed, "British soldier died as he saved comrade in Taleban ambush".

As part of a quick-reaction force, Philippson had gone to the rescue of British troops who had been ambushed while on patrol in the Sangin district. The force arrived, we are told, in armoured Land Rovers to find a convoy of British vehicles pinned down by Taleban fighters who were firing from nearby buildings.

Philippson and his men jumped from their vehicles, firing their SA80 rifles as they ran to protect the convoy and to reach the wounded soldier. The injured man was successfully removed under fire, but while he was being pulled to safety a burst of Taleban gunfire hit Philippson and the other member of the quick-reaction force, killing the Captain and severely wounded the other soldier.

Returning to the Board of Inquiry document, the inference offered by The Telegraph seems to be that in some way Philippson’s death was in part attributable to the shortage of "vital kit" such as body armour, heavy machine guns, night vision goggles and ballistic matting for Land Rovers. One would like to see more of this report but, since Philippson seems to have been dismounted when he was hit, it may (or may not) be a lack of body armour that was partly responsible for his death.

This will, no doubt, come out in the inquest so we must reserve judgement and, for now, simply lament the death of a brave soldier. However, the combination of the Times account, which tells us that Land Rovers were being used, and the current Telegraph story, which reports a shortage of "ballistic matting", highlights a completely different issue.

The ballistic matting is the armour used to protect Land Rover crews from small arms fire and some would aver that it is more important to soldiers' safety than mine protection, the fire from the Teleban being regarded as the greater threat. The issue then is why Land Rovers are being used as fighting vehicles which are so unprotected that they need the addition of ballistic matting in order to improve safety.

Here, it is instructive take a historical perspective on the use of armoured vehicles in combat, which goes back over 100 years. In fact, the French lay claim to have built the first ever production armoured car - in 1905 - called the Charron (pictured top left). As with many of the designs which were to follow, it was a normal commercial vehicle to which armour had been added. With the additional of a machine gun, this made for a package which is still in use with armies to this day.

The British were relatively late on the scene, producing the Rolls Royce armoured car in 1914, a design which, with modifications, was still in use in the North African desert in 1940 (pictured left). By then, though, the concept of the armoured car had been well proven and the wartime Army was equipped with a succession of purpose-built vehicles, most notably the Humber and Daimler armoured cars, which continued in use after the war.

The Daimler (pictured right) and others were replaced in the 1950s – although the Daimler continued in use in Territorial units until the 1960s - by the heavier Saladin, equipped with a 76mm gun, and the lighter Ferret (below left). These two were then replaced by the Fox, introduced in 1973, a machine equipped with the potent 30mm Rarden cannon and a co-axial 7.62mm machine gun. It continued in service until 1993 in Territorial units.

Since then, the Army has not had a purpose designed armoured car. The roles which the armoured car fulfilled, however, remain and, to fill the gaps, the Land Rover Defender has been used. This is a light/medium utility truck which itself derives from a 1946 design but, to equip it specifically for the fighting role, a special derivant of the Defender 110 series was produced. This is known as the Weapons Mount Installation Kit (WIMIK) Land Rover.

The WIMIK has some armour on the engine bulkhead and under the floor, and is fitted with roll bars, additional stowage and mounts for a 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) and a .50 calibre M-2 heavy machine gun. To give added protection against small arms, the front compartment and the gunner's bay in the rear are now fitted with Kevlar ballistic matting.

It is a testament to the original design of the basic Land Rover, which weighs about two tons and would normally carry a payload of two tons, that – in its latest form known as the E-WIMIK ("e" for "enhanced") – it now weighs five and a half tons fully loaded. As such, it is heavier than the four-ton Ferret armoured car it replaces, with considerably less power, and only a ton and a half short of the much better armed Fox.

The central point, though, is that we seem to have gone full circle. From 1905 when armoured cars were produced by adding armour and weapons to existing commercial vehicles, we moved on to produce purpose-built vehicles and now, over a hundred years later, the British Army is back in the same territory. It is adding armour and weapons to a production vehicle to produce an armoured car in all but name.

Quite why the purpose-built armoured car should have fallen out of favour is surely a story that needs to be told, although it is now returning in a different form, called by the UK a "protected patrol vehicle" and by the Americans a "mine resistant ambush protected" (MRAP) vehicle.

What the larger of these vehicles lack, though is the essential mobility and flexibility of the vehicles like the Ferret, which has advocates of the WIMIK arguing for its superiority. Its small size allows it to be driven down the narrow streets and alleys of the Afghan villages, while its larger, better protected cousins are stranded on the outside.

Even the Americans have begun to realise this. With an extra 3,200 troops about to be sent to Afghanistan, they are to be accompanied by some 500 MRAPs. But, rather than sending the over-large Cougars, which form the basis of the British Mastiff, the US government has ordered 500 RG-31 models, cited as the lightest MRAP on the US inventory, recognising the need for more manoeuvrability.

However, press reports cite this vehicle as weighing 11.6 tons, while the current manufacturers specifications state a basic weight of seven. The mystery is explained by the latest development, the RG-31 Mark 6 (pictured right). An already large vehicle has morphed into an even larger armoured truck, adding four tons in the process. Although fitted with a turret and machine gun mount, it is very different from the armoured cars of history.

The military mind, it seems, cannot resist the temptation to take a basic concept and add weight to it, with more capability and protection. But, in so doing, they seem to lose sight of the original need for speed and manoeuvrability, resulting, bizarrely, in troops riding around in WIMIKs, less protected than any time since before the Second World War.

It is time, it seems, to go back to basics.