Saturday, 16 May 2009

Vikings in trouble

It is left to Michael Evans in The Times today to offer the most comprehensive commentary of the death of Marine Jason Mackie, killed while travelling in a Viking.

Under the heading, "Marine is blown up in vulnerable vehicle that is going to be withdrawn", Evans notes that the MoD has ordered the Viking to be withdrawn next year because "it has proved to be too vulnerable to attack by the Taleban."

The soldier was the third member of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group, which drives and operates the Vikings, to be killed in Helmand province in the past 12 months, all of which makes the earlier claims of the MoD look rather sinister.

In January 2007, while the vehicle was on its first operational tour, it published a "puff" extolling the virtues of the machine, using RM Sergeant Major Simon Williams to tell us:

It's a phenomenal piece of hardware, the most manoeuvrable vehicle in existence. Nothing matches it. We've been here three months and would've lost considerably more blokes without it. British soldiers are coming home to their sons and daughters without missing limbs and most importantly alive, thanks to the Viking.
But, writes Evans, the Viking, which was introduced into service in Afghanistan only three years ago, was found to be insufficently armoured under the driver's seat. The vehicle is used to ferry troops across dangerous terrain in Helmand.

Last year, he tells us, the MoD admitted that the Viking was not robust enough to withstand the increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs and announced that it planned to buy a new vehicle, the Warthog, but it will not be ready for operations until next year.

And there the matter will undoubtedly rest, as the media once again does not address the basic failures of the MoD/Army to select the right vehicles for the job. As with the Vector, they are allowing the Army to get away with the canard that changing circumstances, as "in increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs" are responsible for the problems, when the fault lies in selecting a vehicle that was not sufficiently protected in the first place.

This myth has been assiduously cultivated by the MoD which consistently refers to the "evolving threat", one which in May 2007 had Michael Evans reporting that "the underside of armoured vehicles deployed in Helmand has proven to be highly susceptible to mines buried by the Taleban."

So it was that the MoD was preparing to add extra armour to key vehicles, especially the "relatively new" Viking. At that time, five had been destroyed by mines.

In January of this year, the first of six modified Vikings, with added armour, were set to arrive in Helmand, by which time the vehcicles had "suffered dozens of crippling attacks" that had claimed at least five British lives. With the death of Marine Mackie, we thus see yet another avoidable and therefore unnecessary death, bringing the Viking toll to at least six.

Even back in January though it had been recognised that the "bolt-on armour" option was not going to work, and already 100 more heavily armoured Warthog vehicles were on order. Nevertheless, these are not mine or blast resistant, suggesting that more deaths are to come.

US Army Command Sgt-Maj David Puig is remarkably frank about the advice he gives to troops about to be deployed. "We don't hide the truth from them," he says. "We tell them if you are going to be killed or injured in Afghanistan, it is probably going to be by an IED."

With US forces predicting an upsurge of 50 percent in the number of IEDs placed this year, to 5,700 - up from 3,800 last year, and with IEDs and suicide bombs having killed 172 coalition forces last year – and far more Afghanis – British troops are in for a rough time. They could do without the continued inability of the Army to provide them with suitably protected vehicles.