Thursday, 13 November 2008

Day of the Jackal

I'm not going to say "told you so" – not yet. But the news coming in today of a further two killed in Afghanistan, Royal Marines both, riding in a Jackal, does give more than some cause for concern.

The incident happened at 4.47pm local time yesterday in the Garmsir district of Southern Helmand. The Marines were operating as part of Task Force Helmand's Information Exploitation Group, responsible for gathering information to improve situational awareness and to gain an advantage over enemy forces. A third Marine was seriously injured in the blast along with an Afghan soldier who later died from his injuries.

That these deaths bring the total number of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined to 300 will be seized upon by the media, albeit that the significantly lesser number of 233 have actually been killed as a direct result of enemy action, respectively 136 in Iraq and 97 in Afghanistan. Subtracting the number of air deaths arising from enemy action and you have 213 ground forces KIA.

Now, the issue here, which I doubt will be properly explored in the immediate future, is that (by my rough count – I am still working on the data) over 100 of these deaths have occurred as a result of attacks directed at military vehicles, by far the preponderance being IED or mine incidents.

This is very close to, if not in excess of 50 percent of the total land forces casualties arising from vehicle attacks and it is arguable, with good cause, that the deaths arising in most of those were preventable. In this context, it is notable that since the Mastiff (pictured right) was introduced to theatre – and engaged in intensive operations in the highest-risk sectors – not one single casualty has been reported.

That is not to say that the Mastiff should be used for all occasions but it does clearly demonstrate that, had the right vehicles for the job been used with the appropriate level of protection, casualties would have been very significantly less than they are today. At its very most optimistic, we could today be looking at 200 dead, not 300, to say nothing of the far larger (numerically) toll of injured.

click the pic to enlargeAs to the Jackal, this is the second officially recorded lethal incident, the first being Trooper James Munday who died on 15 October 2008 while driving a Jackal. Trooper Munday was from D Squadron of The Household Cavalry and was part of a "routine patrol" in Helmand province, operating approximately 23km north of Forward Operating Base Delhi, when he was killed. Two other soldiers were also injured in the blast.

However, owing to the malign "games" which continue to be played by the MoD, we cannot be sure that only two Jackals have been involved in fatal attacks.

On 13 September 2008, patrolling as part of the screen for the Kajaki operation, Lance-Corporal Nicky Mason died as a result of a roadside bomb attack.

Neither the MoD website nor the press reports (which mainly repeat the MoD handout) mention a vehicle. But it is virtually self-evident that Mason must have been in a vehicle. The press reports of the time make constant reference to vehicle patrols, and none to foot patrols. It is highly unlikely that there were any foot patrols in this operation as both the main thrust and the decoy operation were road-borne.

Further, L/Cpl Mason was a member of 2 Para, assigned to the specialist reconnaissance platoon, the Patrols Platoon. This contributes to the elite Pathfinder Platoon, which is currently equipped with Jackals. There is a possibility – we can say no more than that at this stage – that Mason was on board a Jackal at the time of his death.

We have met these MoD "games" before, with details of vehicles involved being absent from official reports. It is only with a huge amount of work, trawling through media reports, sifting details from other reports, and interviewing witnesses that we have been able to come up with the figure of 38 deaths arising from attacks on Snatches.

If there have been three, and not two, fatal incidents in Jackals, that means that we have had one incident for each of the last three months. This puts it, potentially, into the same league as the "Snatch", the WIMIK (which the Jackal is replacing) and the ill-fated Vector – to say nothing of the Viking, in the lengthening list of vehicles that have become easy meat for the jihadis.

For sure, the Jackal is (probably) better protected than the Land Rover WIMIK it replaces, witness the report on 5 October of this year in The Sunday Times. In the account offered, Sergeant Andrew Lamont, commander of one of 2 Para's fire support groups in Helmand, first operated from a WIMIK and was re-equipped with a Jackal near the end of his tour.

"It's one of the best things the government has done for us," he says. "It saved three of my boys' lives." Two weeks ago they were on patrol when an IED blew up the vehicle behind him. "I heard this huge explosion and turned around thinking the worst." Lamont adds. "All I could see was this massive wall of smoke. Then two guys started to walk towards me, the driver and the commander. The gunman (sic) had been thrown out. If we'd had the old vehicles we'd have lost all three guys."

However, what tends to happen in theatre is that, just as the users try out their new vehicle, so does the enemy. As did the Mehdi Army with the "Snatch", and the PIRA before them, the Taleban "test" a new vehicle with a series of attacks, probing for its weaknesses until they get its measure. A successful attack is then used as a template for further assault.

This was how the Iraq insurgents operated, with the information on how successfully to attack a range of different vehicles – and details as to their strengths and weaknesses – communicated by surprisingly professional training videos posted on the internet (now removed).

The Taleban "tried it on" with the Mastiff, escalating the attacks until, finally, they used no less than six stacked mines in one attack. The Mastiff shrugged it off. It was back in service after emergency repairs, within six hours – one for each mine. Since then, it appears, they have largely left the vehicle unmolested.

If, as is possible, the Taleban have got the measure of the Jackal, we can expect a spate of attacks on the vehicle in just the same way that the "Snatch" appears to have been deliberately targeted in Iraq as the vehicle most likely to succumb to an attack.

Thus, there is no justification for the comment from the MoD, conveyed via The Times which has a spokesman for the MoD saying that the latest incident "showed that, whatever level of extra protection was provided for the troops, there was still no guarantee of survival."

This smacks either of complacency – or damage limitation. What it could also show is precisely what we aver, that the Taleban have indeed got the measure of the vehicle and that the level of protection provided is insufficient.

It is also instructive to note that the Jackal – then known as the M-WIMIK - was first fielded without armour just over two years ago for use by Special Forces and the Special Force Support Group. Furthermore, the original contract for the current batch was issued with no provision for armour. That was a supplementary contract as an afterthought, the armoured vehicles suddenly appearing without any announcement or any acknowledgement that they had intended to be fielded without any protection other than strapped-on ballistic matting.

The problem, as we will no doubt continue to see, is that vehicles with armour add-ons to a basically unsound design (and this is an unsound design - see diagram left - above the pic: click the diagram to enlarge detail) never work as well as purpose-built armoured vehicles. To borrow a phrase made popular during the US presidential election, this is not a Jackal - it is a hog with lipstick.

Unfortunately, this problem is not going to go away. Referring back to Sgt Andrew Lamont - a man at the cutting edge – he says, "If anything I'd say it's getting worse. Taleban tactics are changing, using more IEDs, and they don't back down."

Now that that the Army has committed to a further 100 Jackals, on top of the 130 already ordered there is so much invested by way of money and reputation that it is going to be very hard for it to back down. We could thus have another "Snatch" controversy in the making - with all the misery that that entails.