Wednesday 12 September 2007

Spin and reality

In the previous post, on equipment spending, I remarked on how little Parliamentary scrutiny there was of smaller projects and that, once the equipment was in use, there was little or any follow-through to see how the equipment performed - even when there are real problems.

In fact, the situation is even worse than indicated for, instead of anything like an honest appraisal of the equipment so expensively purchased for the Armed Forces, all we get from the MoD is a series of public relations "puffs" telling us how wonderful the kit is.

One such is a piece posted on the MoD website today, another gushing eulogy on the Hagglunds BvS10 Viking tracked vehicle, telling us, in no uncertain terms, "Vikings' (sic) prove their worth in volatile Helmand".

"Troops on front-line duty in Afghanistan," we are solemnly told, "are trusting their lives to a vehicle which helped guarantee a bright operational future for the Royal Marines," with the piece continuing that it has become, "one of the vehicles of choice for Army soldiers".

Initially deployed last year with the arrival of 3 Commando Brigade in Afghanistan, the reality is somewhat different. Faced with a chronic lack of armoured vehicles, in the context of the infantry having routinely to mount infantry assaults against defended positions – where, in traditional doctrine, such assaults would be supported by infantry fighting vehicles and tanks – the MoD decided to retain the one and only personnel carrier with any armour, and had it over to the Army.

Not a hint of this do we get from the MoD piece though, which quotes Major Jez Hermer of the Royal Marines' Armoured Support Company, telling us the vehicle, "has proved indispensable … everyone has woken up to the success of Viking."

With no sense of irony, we are then told that the forces' inventory of armoured vehicles, "has come under serious examination in Afghanistan and Iraq" and that, "with excellent protection, an ability to operate in all weathers across all terrain, including to 'swim' in water, and to withstand a range of threats, Viking has performed well". We are also informed by Major Hermer that, "We have a 96 per cent mission success on operation Herrick which for a vehicle like this is pretty much unprecedented."

Cut now to journalist Vaughan Smith on his Front Line blog who, coincidentally, has just posted a report on the Vikings. Driving through the town of Gereshk, he writes:

Half-way through the journey we ended up towing another Viking and a Viking towing another Viking … But to save the engine, which gets very hot towing a second vehicle, the driver turned off the air-conditioning. Within 10 minutes we were soaked in our own sweat.
He then continues:

Later in the journey we too broke down and had to be towed. Fuel leak. Again, no aircon … The journey took twice as long as we had planned. The Viking vehicles have all done three times the number of operating hours that they should have done according to their proscribed maintenance schedule.

Three of them broke down and needed to be towed by other Vikings. A fourth turned over on bad ground while driving in the dark and also ended up being towed.
Smith then concludes his piece, stating:

The wear and tear on vehicles and helicopters, the expensive kit, is problematic. It is causing difficulty and aggravation. Commanders miss briefings, soldiers are late on leave and journeys like mine take longer than they should.

It is hard to estimate the cost to operational efficiency caused by a shortage of working helicopters and worn out vehicles but it is a real problem. It was not clear to me that the solution was simply, and expensively, to provide more helicopters and vehicles. Each helicopter and vehicle requires an expansion of the existing logistical support and it may be that there are ways to keep existing equipment working better.
Offered in good faith, this does paint something of a different picture from the MoD puff, although Smith does not offer a view on the combat performance of the vehicle. That, we get a taste of from one of our own experts, who tells us that, although it has been bought for the Royal Marines, he casts doubt on its suitability for other users:

Band-track wears out fast on hard surfaces. The suspension is minimal and would be trying for lengthy operations. The protection is quite limited - with an MPV you can go to 50-cal AP rounds or their equivalent. If you up the protection on the Viking you lose some of its other attributes such as swimming, the ability to traverse soft ground etc. Also - the Hagglunds are not that cheap if I recall rightly.
Thus, he concludes, it is "not a tank or indeed a front-line fighting vehicle by most estimates".

Indeed, the Vikings are not cheap. Quoted by Strategy Page at $890,000 (at 2005 prices), this is well over half a million pounds per unit, before radios and other expensive equipment is added, together with additional armour.

We also get some reservations from Daily Telegraph defence correspondent Thomas Harding and, elsewhere, in unpublished observations, we heard field commanders tasked with assaulting Taliban compounds holding off and calling in air strikes rather than commit troops in Vikings which lack sufficient protection and firepower.

It is that lack of sufficient armour and punch, more than anything, which is forcing an over-reliance on close air support and is thus, indirectly responsible for friendly fire accidents.

Now that the Warriors have arrived, the deficiency is partly remedied, although, to do a similar job to the British, Canadian Armed Forces not only have infantry fighting vehicles, they have tanks as well.

Strangely, we have has no news from the MoD on the Warrior deployment but the Ministry has spared no effort promoting the Viking.

To question to MoD, however, is not to denigrate the vehicle. Designed primarily to protect Royal Marines during amphibious operations and to give them a degree of beachhead mobility – with good cold weather performance – this expensive, specialist vehicle is being misused in Afghanistan.

Troops "are trusting their lives" to the vehicle, we are told. But it is not as if they have any choice and, in other areas, they were trusting their lives to Snatch Land Rovers. For want of something else, the Viking is better than nothing and better than much of the equipment in theatre. But that does not make it the right kit, and one really does wonder what the MoD is seeking to achieve by ramping up what is, in fact, a less than satisfactory and expensive expedient.

Possibly, its less than candid approach is meant to conceals the lack of commitment to providing the right equipment to theatre but, whatever the motives, it does not inspire either trust or confidence.