Sunday 9 September 2007

Mobility, protection and mindsets

click the pic to enlargeThe piece in the Independent on Sunday has been long in the making, with a huge amount of effort and care going into the superb graphic (click to enlarge), produced by designer Richard Burgess, which sets out with the utmost clarity the problems with existing vehicles and the principles on which the design of protected vehicles should be based.

Unfortunately, the piece is tied in with the sad news of two more soldiers killed, yet another two from the 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters).

Few details are given, other than they were taking part in a "pre-planned operation to disrupt Taliban activity, south of Garmsir, southern Helmand Province, when their patrol was attacked by enemy fighters". We do not know, therefore, whether this was amounted or a foot patrol and whether lightly armoured WIMIKs were a factor in their deaths.

Returning to the Independent on Sunday, it notes that the facts that the previous deaths, of Private Ben Ford and Private Damian Wright, 23, arose after they were caught "by a landmine explosion", with an Afghan interpreter who also died, and a third soldier seriously wounded. The paper adds:

But the fact that they were in a Wimik, an open-topped variant of the Snatch Land Rover in which many British soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, has heightened controversy over the equipment they are given to carry out their missions … [an] issue [that] goes to the heart of the Military Covenant, under which soldiers are promised adequate resources in return for accepting the risk of death or disablement in the line of duty.
Then, the criticisms of this blog are rehearsed, in particular the indictment of the M-WIMIK (now renamed the Jackal).

Next, however, we get the comments of Francis Tusa, editor of Military Analysis. Although he concedes that the MoD had been slow to react against the threat of roadside bombs, he stresses that, "no vehicle is completely safe against mines." We then get something of the mantra, with Tusa opining that, "You can't just keep adding weight to vehicles to protect them. Many troops are very keen on the WIMIK. In certain areas you need mobility, and you use that and the terrain for your protection."

That then brings in my counter, that the MoD announcement that Ptes Ford and Wright were killed on a "routine patrol" north of Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, rather than in the desert expanses further south, implied that their WIMIK had been used in a role in which it was vulnerable. This brought partial agreement from Tusa, who noted that, "Once you are on roads, you need a vehicle that is more suitable, such as the new Mastiff, which has more armour. If you use the Wimik in a convoy, that is less than optimal."

But then we get an MoD spokesman telling us that the "real defence" of the M-Wimik "is its mobility and agility. It's well suited to the terrain of southern Afghanistan, where speed and manoeuvrability is required".

Therein lies the heart of the argument, one we saw rehearsed with the Snatch controversy, where Lord Drayson, as long ago as June 2006, told the House of Lords,

I do not accept that Snatch Land Rovers are not appropriate for the role. We must recognise the difference between protection and survivability. It is important that we have the trade-offs that we need for mobility. The Snatch Land Rover provides us with the mobility and level of protection that we need.
These same arguments are rehearsed in an ill-natured and sometime foul-mouthed debate on the informal Army forum, but the limitations of the mindset are betrayed most clearly by Tusa in his declaration that, "You can't just keep adding weight to vehicles to protect them".

The point, of course, is that protection comes not with weight, per se but by design, as amply illustrated by the graphic. Instead of the conventional chassis, the heart of the vehicle is a v-shaped monocoque steel hull which provides the protection and the structural base on which to mount wheels, transmission and the body. By this means, it is possible to have both mobility and protection – the two concepts are not mutually incompatible.

As to weight penalty, the larger, fully mine protected RAM-2000, which is able to mount three rather than two crew-served weapons, weighs in at 4½ tons, while the completely unprotected M-WIMIK comes in a four tons.

Tusa's mindset, however, is one-dimensional in that he is thinking on the conventional tramlines of building a vehicle first, for whatever function, and then adding protection as an afterthought.

Another issue is so-called "situational awareness", which basically means that the crew has unobstructed 360 degree vision but, as the precursor version of the RAM-2000 demonstrates (the RBY Mk 1 Armoured Car), the two attributes are not at all incompatible (see above). Even the British Army in 1939 equipped itself with an vehicle that offered armour and "situational awareness" - in the Dingo scout car (illustrated below). And, although it was highly vulnerable to mines, the point is thus proven.

Nevertheless, much of the Army forum "discussion" was focused on only one of the possible alternatives, the Mastiff, against which the M-WIMIK is far more mobile and offers the situational awareness that the larger vehicles cannot. But what is missing is any recognition that the Israeli-designed RAM-2000 is the nearer parallel and could probably perform most, if not all the functions of the M-WIMIK. Yet, it could also perform safely the routine tasks of convoy escort and routine patrols, for which the M-WIMIK is entirely unsuited and dangerously vulnerable.

If greater off-road performance is necessary, than there is room for an entirely new vehicle, but all the indications are that the MoD has not even given the idea of a protected high-mobility vehicle any thought. Instead, it sticks to the mantra of "speed and manoeuvrability", heedless of the fact that neither are any protection against a hidden mine or IED.

Thus it is that soldiers must die, and die, and die, all because the most simplest of ideas seems to elude those great "experts" who advise the MoD on their vehicle designs.