Wednesday 5 September 2007

The story behind the story

Heat exhaustion in hot climes is always a problem, but no more so than for our troops who have to man armoured vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan, when temperatures during the day can climb to intolerable levels.

Modern vehicles, like the Mastiff, do of course have air conditioning and this is much appreciated by the troops. But some of the older vehicles, like the Scimitar armoured reconnaissance vehicle (a light tank in all but name), not only have no such provision, but are so aged and crammed with additional equipment, that they cannot even be fitted with air conditioning.

Undaunted, the some of the 3,463 clever chaps and chapesses from Defence Science and Technology (Dstl) (with a combined salary bill of £141.7 million) have laboured long and hard – all of six months – to come up with an innovative solution.

And what is now being fitted to the Scimitars is a system of floppy rubber tubes and a pump that suck in hot desert air from outside their vehicles. The driver and crew are then supposed to stick the other end up their trouser legs or down their shirts, which reduce the peak in-vehicle temperature from 70C down to a still blistering 58C.

Rightly, The Daily Mail has castigated the MoD for such a basic provision, noting that American GIs patrol Afghanistan's hot spots "in liquid-cooled body-suits and drive air-conditioned Humvee vehicles".

However, the record that the MoD defended its system, saying: "This is an innovative solution to the problem of fitting a cooling system to a vehicle that won't take conventional air-conditioning."

What the newspaper didn't ask, of course, was why a vehicle, which was first introduced in 1971 – and is so antiquated that it cannot be fitted with air conditioning – is still in service. Therein lies the real story.

In fact, the MoD started work on replacing vehicles of the Scimitar family in the 1980s, with a grandiose project known as the Future Family of Light Armoured Vehicles (FFLAV) programme.

For reasons lost in the mists of time, however, that project did not get off the ground, but the idea of a Scimitar replacement was not abandoned. Instead, in 1996, the then Conservative government teamed up with the United States on a joint project known (on this side of the Atlantic) as TRACER (Tactical Reconnaissance Armoured Combat Equipment Requirement), about which we wrote in 2005.

This survived the change of government and, in 1998, the new Labour government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the US, to produce a new, tracked battlefield reconnaissance vehicle, with a target date for operational introduction in 2007. This is the year, therefore, that the Scimitar was supposed to have been replaced.

However, in 2001, with demonstrator vehicles already having been produced (such as the Sika – pictured above: modern, fast and air conditioned) the British government pulled out of the project, having already spent £131 million – for no benefit. It then put its money into a consortium with Germany and Holland to produce the Multi Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV), a version of which would fulfil the reconnaissance requirement. However, in 2003, the UK also pulled out of this project, with a loss of (at least) £48 million, again with nothing to show for its money.

With the Scorpion now becoming distinctly aged and with no replacement in sight, the MoD embarked on an "Extension of Life" programmes at a further cost of £75 million. Meanwhile, as a potential replacement, it linked into the Future Command and Liaison Vehicle programme, ordering 401 Italian-made "Panther" vehicles in November 2003, at a cost of £166 million – a sum which, incidentally, did not include radios or any of the other equipment needed.

Since then, several problems have been reported and the MoD has since confirmed that the vehicle is not to deployed either to Iraq or Afghanistan – where it would be too dangerous to use. At present, therefore, there are some 400 brand new but otherwise unusable vehicles lying idle in store somewhere in the UK.

Writing to The Financial Times in April, Nick Prest, former chief executive of Alvis until its acquisition by BAE Systems in 2004, could not have put it better. He wrote:

These mishandled programmes have left the British Army "under-armoured" in Iraq and Afghanistan and emergency buys from overseas suppliers have been needed to put vehicles into the field with an adequate degree of, in particular, mine protection.
At least £300 million has been spent on a Scimitar replacement and, despite that phenomenal amount of money, there is now not even anything on the drawing board. So we end up with troops putting flexible hoses up their trouser legs in a vain attempt to keep cool in their 35-year-old vehicles.