Wednesday 10 January 2007

Neither here nor there

I had intended to do a long piece on Somalia – which will have to wait until later today. I simply could not miss the opportunity of noting a huge irony – one that, without our intervention, would probably have escaped any comment at all.

The irony stems initially from our seeing on television the ultimate ignominy of the Estonian Army turning up for a firefight in Afghanistan alongside the British Army – and better equipped, having purchased the Mambas which the MoD so carelessly and cheaply discarded.

But today, the irony is complete. With 148 already delivered to the US military in 2005, another 94 having been ordered last year, we learn that the US Army Tank Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) has just announced a $76.5 million order to General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada to provide another 169 RG-31 Mk5 Mine Protected Vehicles, with an option for nine additional vehicles - bringing the total to well over 400.

These vehicles will be built in the British-owned OMC Land Systems factory in South Africa and finished in Canada's GD factory for delivery commencing June of this year.

But this is far more than just another "toy" story. With the expected announcement today by president Bush of a massive "surge" in the number of troops deployed in Iraq – and the start of a delicious political battle between the president and the newly emboldened Democrats over whether he has to power to do so – this order for RG-31 is a (belated) recognition by the US military of the tactical realities of the Iraqi and the Afghanistan theatres.

And what it also does, of course, is reinforce the very point made by the appearance of the Estonian Mambas – that the British Ministry of Defence and the Army hierarchy are still wedded to tactical doctrines which bear no relationship to the demands of the modern, non-linear battlefield.

On that modern battlefield, soldiers can be fighting for their lives in a largely conventional battle one moment, be pursuing a "hearts and minds" agenda the next, handing sweets to children and the like, and seconds later be the target of suicide or roadside bombing.

The British hierarchy, however, seems to be relying on the so-called "WIMIK" Land Rovers as fighting vehicles, equipment which has a linear and spiritual relationship with the jeeps operated by David Stirling's SAS in the western deserts of North Africa during the Second World War. (In the picture, the jeep even mounts the same machine gun - the M2 .50 cal.)

That the equipment is, on balance, unfit for purpose, is demonstrated by the two sets of pictures we have assembled – the RG-31 "before and after" (top) and the same for the Land Rover (below). In both, the damaged vehicles had been targeted by car-borne suicide bombers but only in the RG-31 did the crew escape uninjured.

Why the British Ministry and senior officer class seems to have such great difficulty dealing with reality is one of those great mysteries. However, one could venture that, for an Army that brought us the Battle of Isandlwana, William Elphinstone's retreat from Kabul in 1842, Galipoli and the fall of Singapore - to say nothing of Market Garden - the slaughter of a few Toms in unarmoured Land Rovers is neither here nor there.

Nevertheless, when even the Iraqi Army, which has up to press been patrolling in light pick-up trucks, realises that this is not a war-winning strategy, you do begin to wonder about the British.

The Iraqi government has acquired 400 Polish-made Dzik-3 armoured personnel carriers. Dzik is Polish for "wild boar" and the vehicle is described as being "equipped with all-around armour, bullet proof windows, puncture-proof tyres and smoke launchers".

However, the MoD will no doubt say the Iraqis can be dismissed - they are only foreigners after all, and we British have soooo much more experience in fighting insurgencies, don't you know. So they can go on using unarmoured Land Rovers. Far better that, than the High Command and the politicos having to admit they got it wrong.