Thursday 5 October 2006

Adding to the confusion

Tucked in to the Boy King's closing speech yesterday afternoon was this little gem:

Our armed forces are doing important work in Afghanistan and Iraq. So let the message go out from this conference, to the best armed forces in the world. You are fighting in our name, and we are proud of what you do.
In contrast with some of the other messages delivered by the Boy King, this received massive applause, demonstrating that Tory instincts are still alive and well.

The Boy had not finished though. He want the conference to send our forces a second message, "responding to the questions that our troops themselves are asking". Said the Boy, "They're asking for armoured vehicles that will actually defend them against roadside bombs…".

That is an indication of how far this issue has climbed up the political agenda, although – as you would expect – the Boy had nothing specific to offer: "…we should do more, much more for them," was all he could say, but again to prolonged applause.

According to an incoherent newspaper piece, what the "Army chiefs" actually want in Afghanistan is heavy armour.

This follows concern that the Taliban is planning to replace "human wave" attacks with a much more lethal campaign involving suicide car bombers and roadside explosives. Such a change in tactics was alluded to in July by Tory back-bencher Ann Winterton so the MoD has had plenty of time to get used to the idea.

But what is confusing is an assertion that while the MoD put in an emergency order for Pinzgauer and Cougar armoured vehicles to beef up protection, "senior officers" want heavy armour to provide protection against large car bombs driven by suicide bombers that have destroyed several Canadian vehicles over the summer. Thus the Army is looking to deploying Warriors (pictured left) or even Challenger MBTs by March next year.

Says the newspaper, the Canadians are "also planning to deploy Leopard tanks", something flagged up on this blog last month but it is perhaps unaware that the tanks are not being used primarily for "force protection". They are being deployed to provide a "direct fire capability" in areas of southern Afghanistan where Canadians have encountered resistance from entrenched forces

As the Canadians have demonstrated several times now, their RG-31 Nyalas are providing more than adequate protection against IEDs and suicide bombs and, as this dramatic footage shows (right), the real problem is lightly armoured jeep-like vehicles.

The picture shows the effects of a suicide bomber on a motorcycle who attacked a Canadian military convoy in the volatile region west of Kandahar, ramming his vehicle into a G-Wagon. Although no Canadian casualties were reported in that attack, three Afghanistan civilians were hurt and the vehicle was a write-off. Thus, after the recent spectacular demonstration of survivability, arrangements are also being made to send another 21 Nyalas to Afghanistan.

What must be of concern, therefore, is the vagueness surrounding reasons for the deployment of British equipment. Compared with the Canadian RG-31s, the "Cougars" are more heavily armoured, although we are uncertain as to precisely how many of the 100 ordered are to go to Afghanistan.

By contrast, the Pinzgauers are dangerously vulnerable, offering little more protection than a "Snatch" Land Rover or armoured G-Wagon. Yet, the Boy King's own shadow defence minister, Gerald Howarth, was recently seen praising the "superb" Pinzgauer, after he had been taken on an "exhilarating" off-road test drive – allowing himself to be photographed for publicity purposes at the wheel of one of the vehicles.

It thus does rather strike me that we need some clarity about what the Army needs. Neither the media nor, it seems, the Army itself, seems to be entirely sure about what it wants and for what purpose its armour should be used. So far, though, all the Conservatives seem to be doing is adding to the confusion.