Thursday 11 June 2009

The cover-up continues

In a poorly-reported Coroner's hearing yesterday, the death of Trooper Robert Pearson from the Queen's Royal Lancers Regiment was recorded. He was killed on 21 April last year in Helmand province while driving a Viking as part of the Armoured Support Company Royal Marines. The vehicle was hit by what are believed to be two stacked anti-tank mines and Trooper Pearson died instantly.

Pearson's group was providing security for a 120-vehicle convoy which had been carrying supplies from Camp Bastion to Sangin. The convoy had stopped overnight at forward operating base Robinson and was on its way back to Bastion when the Taleban struck. Insurgents had planted the anti-tank mines next to water holes used by villagers near the Dar-E-Mandah Wadi riverbed, which the convoy had to cross.

Despite this appalling and entirely preventable tragedy (a Mastiff or other suitably protected vehicle would have shrugged off such an attack), such media reports as have been published focus on Cleethorpes coroner Paul Kelly "welcoming" the MoD's decision to replace its Viking armoured vehicles in Afghanistan. This is as reported by The Daily Mail, although it has simply pasted in unattributed Press Association copy.

This tells us that the coroner "praised the MoD for identifying a problem with the vehicle and taking steps to solve it," recording also that Lt-Col Andy Teare had told the court that the Viking would soon be replaced by "the tougher Warthog armoured carrier."

The coroner's comments represent a victory for the MoD's spin machine which has been working assiduously in the background on its damage limitation programme, all aimed at deflecting criticism from yet another of its disastrous choices of armoured vehicles, this one having killed at least six soldiers and probably more.

The "front man" in this instance was Lt-Col Teare, described as belonging to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). He has been in action before, in January, when he was spinning furiously in front of the Plymouth coroner.

Dealing with the death of Corporal Damian "Dee" Mulvihill, who was also killed in a Viking, this time on 20 February last year, Teare managed to convince the court that the MoD was on the case, telling the coroner than six modified Vikings had been flown out to Afghanistan the very day he was giving evidence, "along with armour to adapt the 50 currently being used".

Teare had told the court that the Viking had been "initially designed to defend small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades and therefore most of the armour was on the top of the vehicle," not mentioning that it was going into a theatre with a known mine threat.

However, his performance was good enough to defuse any criticism, gaining the headline in the local press of "Death blast leads to new mine armour" – thus avoiding any outcry over why such a dangerously vulnerable vehicle had been fielded in the first place. And now that the additional protection that got him off the hoop in Plymouth has failed, he is now relying on the replacement programme to get him and his employers off the hook.

What was not said was that Lt-Col Andy Teare is the MoD's, "Light Armoured Systems APC team leader", working for the Defence Equipment and Support Agency. He is therefore one of the officials responsible for selecting the range of armoured vehicles which have caused so much grief in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By no measure could Teare regarded as an independent witness – more a man with a vested interest in supporting his employer in covering up the truth. It can be no coincidence that he prefers in the court context to be described as "REME" rather than his more appropriate designation.

He is also a man happy to receive awards on behalf of DE&S, most recently for the Bulldog, which makes his current reticence all the more interesting.

As to the Daily Mail, rather than its lame "cut and paste" job, it could have made an issue of the Viking, except that it too is compromised. When the Viking was deployed to theatre in October 2006, its Sunday edition published an uncritical "puff" (pictured) and has since avoided any criticism of the machine.

Most often, like The Sun the media is content to laud the deaths of "Our Boys", but is rarely prepared to exert itself when it comes to trying to prevent further deaths.

One might have thought that, since this is the second reported failure of Army vehicles, this might be of some interest to the media. Certainly, Defence Management has been quick to point this out, but so far the bulk of the media have shown little overt interest.

Some of this, though, may be due to the strenuous efforts of the MoD to keep its own failures out of the news. The Ministry makes a considerable investment in coroners' courts, supplying "liaison officers" whose task it is to "assist" inexperienced coroners in reaching the "right" verdict, helpfully supplying MoD documents and witnesses, while ensuring that hostile evidence is kept at bay.

The MoD is also quick to employ the Defence Advisory System, first classifying information on its equipment – although much of it already in the public domain – so that it can invoke prohibitions on the publication of "design details, technical specifications and materials" that "could enable potential enemies or terrorists to devise effective counter-measures more quickly". The detail that the Viking was only built to STANAG 4569 Level 1, therefore, is unlikely to be found in any newspaper.

Then there is the whole range of rewards and sanctions which the MoD can employ, some of which we described earlier, all of which are used to ensure that the "message" is controlled.

The worst of this is that the replacement vehicle, the Warthog, although better than the Viking, is not much better. It shares the same design flaws which, as even the Cleethorpes coroner Paul Kelly notes – doubtless advised by Lt-Col Teare - "would not minimise the possible impact of double or triple-layered explosives."

That much was reported by the Grimsby Telegraph which then failed to put two and two together. By that very measure, the Warhog will fail to protect against the very type of attack which killed its own "local hero" Robert Pearson.

Cynically, an MoD official claimed yesterday said that they will "learn lessons" from Pearson's death. Unfortunately, the MoD has already learned a more profound lesson. It is easier to cover up a problem than to do something about it.