Friday, 25 January 2008

Lessons to learn

The Canadians have taken another hit in Kandahar province, losing yet another soldier to an IED, once again the casualty riding in an Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV - pictured) – the same basic vehicle type as the Coyote, three of which have also been involved in fatal bomb/mine incidents.

The incident happened in western Panjwaii, a district which, only six months ago, one senior Canadian officer had described as one of the "safer areas" of Kandahar province. The district had been taken from Taliban insurgents in September 2006 during Operation Medusa but, since then, the Taleban have re-established a strong presence in parts of the district.

Furthermore, their insurgency activities seem to be focused on mounting ambushes, using mines and IEDs, rather than direct military confrontation, inflicting at least one casualty every week since 30 December.

Tragically, the LAV in this latest incident was part of a road clearance team which would, therefore – one presumes – have included Cougars, a Buffalo and a Husky mine detection/detonation vehicle. These latter vehicles being more resistant to attack, the incident invites speculation as to whether the LAV was specifically targeted as the most vulnerable vehicle in the group.

Either way, the Canadian experience offers lessons for the British in the neighbouring Helmand province who, as we recorded recently, have also been victims of mine/IED attacks on vehicles, the last three deaths having been sustained through this type of attack.

It also underlines, once again, the fragility of the LAV, and raises questions as to the survivability of the FRES vehicles, one of which – the Piranha – is very similar to the LAV and shortlisted as a candidate for the utility vehicle role.

The indications are that the Canadians are getting more attention from the Taleban than are British forces. But, as our troops establish themselves around Musa Qala and extend further south – perhaps in the new campaigning season, when 3rd Para take over from the Yorkshire Regiment - they will come under renewed attack. Then, the Paras will be equipped with the Supacat M-WIMIK (pictured - now called the Jackal), which will make them highly vulnerable to the Taleban ambush tactics.

One recommendation of a commission studying the deployment of Canadian troops in Afghanistan is the provision of more transport helicopters – of which they have pitifully few – to move troops between locations, to reduce unnecessary exposure to attack.

In that context, we learn that the Nato bureaucracy has heaved mightily and brought forward a tiny mouse, in the form of one transport helicopter on lease from civilian contractors. With an option for one more – this covering the whole of southern Afghanistan - this is barely enough to make a dent in the pressing need for more helicopter lift.

That notwithstanding, there will always be a need for considerable ground movement and, while the Canadians have responded to the mine/IED threat with the procurement of dedicated mine detection/clearance vehicles, there is no sign that the British are even beginning to respond adequately.

In fact, far from that, in the wake of the recent Board of Inquiry report on the incident when a soldier bled to death in a minefield while awaiting rescue, the MoD seems to have resorted to the time-honoured strategy of posting a propaganda puff on its website.

Thus we see a post headed, "EOD team clear the way for Helmand patrols", claiming that, "First on the ground to clear the dangerous path of landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices for British patrols throughout Helmand are the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group, based at Camp Bastion."

Clearly, that was not the case when a soldier spent five hours in a minefield bleeding to death, and nor was it the case the last three times a soldier has been killed in a vehicle, respectively two Pinzgauers and a WIMIK.

Furthermore, far from being reassuring, the post actually shows up just how ridiculously poorly equipped our people are, one photograph showing the absurdly ill-protected "Tellar" bomb disposal vehicle (above left), recently purchased at great expense for overseas deployment.

Herein lies another story, as this photograph (right) taken in Iraq shows. Notoriously a target for insurgents when they are called out to incidents (sometime with decoy bombs for just that purpose), EODs are especially at risk. So ill-protected are these unarmed vehicles that they use that they require massive infantry support just to escort them to a scene.

Thus, the scene shows of mixed convoy of Snatch Land Rovers and a Warrior MICV, the whole convoy (part unseen) comprising possibly as many as fifty troops just to escort two Tellars – trying up scarce resources wholly unnecessarily. What was that about "overstretch"?

By contrast, this picture (right) shows a US IED detection/disposal convoy. The difference is immediately evident. Leading the convoy are two RG-31s, followed by a Husky and a Buffalo, an armoured Humvee and a Cougar JERRV – the latter performing the same duties as the Tellar. The photograph, incidentally, is taken from the cab of a second Cougar, bringing up the rear of the convoy.

The point, of course, is that the vehicles are armoured and armed, a self-sustaining force with the capability to fight its way out of an ambush (and less likely to be damaged by one). Not only does the convoy need no escort, the personnel are all combat engineers, thus relieving the pressure on hard-pressed infantry.

The particular issue relevant to Afghanistan is that, as British troops recover territory from the Taleban – like Musa Qala – they revert to the routine patrols and "reassurance" missions, where their movements are known and their routes more predictable. Currently, they operate with WIMIKs and Pinzgauer 710 4x4 trucks, equipment which has been equated to the Chrysler light trucks of the LRDG and the armed jeeps of the SAS in the North African desert during World War II.

Then, and now, it is argued that the speed and mobility of these vehicles provided the necessary protection. But, in the case of the LRDG, they relied on concealment and stealth so that the Germans and Italians were unaware of their presence.

In the case of the SAS, their task was to mount raids, in which case surprise was their greatest asset. But, in both cases, their roles were analogous to guerrilla warfare against the more numerous Axis forces. In current operations, the Taleban are the "guerrillas" fighting the British who, in the security phase of the campaign, lack either stealth or surprise. They are set up as targets for the ambush which has become the main tactical weapon of the Taleban.

These circumstances strongly dictate the use of protected vehicles, and a more proactive mine detection and clearance programme. This demands far more and better equipment than is available – not lest mine protected vehicles to carry out route proving to clear the way for unarmoured vehicles like the Pinzgauer.

Ironically, we now find that BAE Systems, having acquired Pinzgauer as part of its purchase of Armor Holdings, are to relocate the manufacturing operation from Guildford to South Africa, where it will become part of OMC, the company which manufactures the RG-31.

Perhaps when the South Africans are confronted with the Pinzgauer's vulnerabilities, they will refuse to manufacture a machine which could not be better designed to kill soldiers, and prevail upon the British government to purchase their RG-31s – or other of their mine protected products. For our soldiers, this could not be a better development as South Africa (with the former Rhodesia) is the home of mine protection technology. If the British government will not learn the lessons from the Canadians, they might at least listen to the South Africans.