Sunday, 23 December 2007

All because the generals prefer their shiny toys

It was a coincidence that The Sunday Telegraph should have featured in its news pages the sad account of the aftermath of the death of Corporal Alex Hawkins, late of the 1st Bn Royal Anglian Regiment.

For it is he that was the first (that we know of) soldiers who was killed by a roadside bomb in the scandalously unprotected Pinzgauer Vector, featured in the same edition of the paper in the Booker column.

The news piece, headed, "A season muted by loss for soldiers, families", by Sean Rayment and Jasper Copping, in intended to bring home the human cost of war. It also features Colour Sargeant Keith Nieves who escaped death, but nonetheless suffered serious injuries, after his Viking armoured personnel carrier struck a Taliban landmine.

Booker, however, is pointing out that so many of the deaths and injuries have been unnecessary, and rails against "one of the most chilling blunders made by our senior generals in Iraq and Afghanistan" – the decision to send our troops into insurgency wars equipped with patrol vehicles that give no protection against mines and roadside bombs.

In so doing, he freely quotes this blog and, while both of us fully appreciate that, death and injury is an inescapable consequence of war, both of us are of a of a mind that all possible measures should be taken to reduce the toll.

We had therefore, both of us, previously focused on the Snatch Land Rovers and latterly the WIMIK, but the column this time concentrates on the "equally unprotected Pinzgauer Vectors, ordered by the Army's top brass for use in Afghanistan."

What is particularly chilling about this vehicle is that, before it had even been introduced into theatre, it was obvious that – in one of the most heavily mined countries in the world – Vectors were going to be a killer of men, so much so that in June last year we were calling them "coffins on wheels".

But, far from the MoD responding to this obvious and unnecessary weakness, Booker was subject to protracted complaints from the manufacturers, who referred his column to the Press Complaints Commission.

Since then, in July, October and again this month, we know of three British soldiers have been killed in Vectors (and many more seriously injured), by explosions that would have left them unharmed in mine-protected vehicles (here, here and here).

Cumulatively, over both theatres – Iraq and Afghanistan – if we take the absurdly ill-protected "Snatch" Land Rovers (and some ordinary Land Rovers), plus the WIMIKs, the Vikings, the Vectors and sundry other vehicles, we can estimate that perhaps as many as fifty soliders have been unnecessarily killed by mine strikes and IEDs, who would have survived had they been provided with more suitable equipment.

And to that one must add the untold numbers who have been seriously injured – many losing their legs – a toll that the MoD consistently refuses to reveal.

Fortunately, as Booker notes, the MoD has seen sense and has at last overruled the generals by supplying our soldiers with properly mine-protected Mastiffs, which have already saved many lives, including several more reported from Basra last Friday.

But, as we move to the new year, high up on the list of the Army's priorities is the purchase of the absurdly expensive medium-weight FRES armoured vehicles, none of which will be able to deliver the degree of protection afforded by the current range of mine protected vehicles which the MoD is now buying – at a fraction of the cost.

The point about FRES, of course, is that it is being procured to fight a mythical "future war", the nature of which, its location and even the identity of the enemy, no one can even begin to describe.

But it is that "future war" which has dominated military thinking and planning, to the exclusion of dealing with the actual wars that our Services are actually having to fight. And, to justify the extraordinary expense, Service chiefs are still maintaining that these vehicles are dual-purpose, being equally suitable for fighting "high-end" wars as well as counterinsurgency.

Yet, as we have discussed for often on this blog, not only is there little overlap between the two types of equipment required, the design principles on which "high end" and counter-insugency vehicles are based are mutally incompatible. If the design is right, however – as our sequence of photographs show, illustrating a mine-protected Buffalo (and an RG-31, bottom right) – the vehicles can take extraordinary large explosions and still protect their crews. (The first of the Buffalo pictures, incidentally, shows the countermeasures used against passive infra-red triggered IEDs - extreme left of picture - the like of which we have not seen on British vehicles).

What is emerging from vibrant discussion and debate in the US, therefore, is that counter-insurgency is not simply a "big war" scaled down, but an entirely different form of warfare, with its own special and specific needs and doctrines, entirely distinct from the "high end" wars which our Army would prefer to fight.

As yet, there is not real evidence that our military are engaging in this debate – or, at least, not in the public domain – which suggests that there is still no fundamental thinking as to what sort of equipment is required. Thus, while we are seeing more appropriate equipment dribbling into theatre, this seems to represent more of a "stop-gap" mentality rather than evidence of fundamental rethinking of requirements.

And so it is that, in the coming year, we are likely to see more unnecessary deaths and terrible injuries, all because the generals prefer their shiny toys.