Monday 5 May 2008

Not taking it seriously

Almost a year to the day, we reported the Canadian decision to purchase five Husky mine detection sets, with supporting vehicles, to deal with the rash of IED/mine attacks which were causing so many casualties in Afghanistan.

The "sets" comprising the Husky, a Buffalo and a 6x6 Cougar – which acts as a command vehicle - sweep roadways before the arrival of combat or supply convoys, thereby seeking to ensure safer passage by vehicles which are not mine protected.

The utility of these specialist vehicles quickly became apparent and we were able report with approval that at least the Canadian military seemed capable of learning lessons born of combat experience.

And indeed, they are continuing to learn those lessons. Reported by the Canadian Press, the Commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan is set to ask his government's approval to purchase another ten sets – known by their acronym EROC, standing for "Expedient Route Opening Capability" system.

What is particularly revealing about this report though are comments from unnamed "defence sources in Ottawa" who, "acknowledge the vehicles in theatre have been beaten up, but are continuing to prove their worth every day." One adds: "They've taken a pounding, but they're designed to go out and take a pounding and clear routes and not have the LAV targeted - or so other less protected vehicles."

Here, it is the reference to the LAV which is interesting – this being the armoured personnel carrier which forms the basis of Canadian Army formations. Although armoured, it is not mine protected and it has proved dangerously vulnerable to mine/IED ambushes.

Thus, before this type of vehicle is allowed to sally forth, the way is cleared for it. What a contrast this is with the British way of doing things, which resulted in the death of Trooper Ratu Babakobau, when his Spartan ACP – armoured but not mine protected – was blown apart by a mine.

Nevertheless, the strategy adopted by Canada is by no means entirely optimal. The military would prefer to transport more men and materials by the ultimate mine protected vehicle, the helicopter – but has been hampered by a chronic shortage of these aircraft.

Yet, while the same shortage of helicopters reportedly affects British forces, and despite the Husky sets being a relatively cheap option (the ten new sets estimated at $60-million – less than the price of one new transport helicopter), there are no signs of the British Army following suit. Instead, we see this ludicrous puff on the MoD website, as the Army unveils its latest weapon in the war against mines – hand-held mine detectors.

Nor, indeed, are helicopters the only option. Reported recently by Popular Mechanics (a surprisingly good source of reliable military information) is a new technique introduced by the US forces in Afghanistan. This is the GPS-guided or "smart" parachute – known as the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS).

It can be used by high-flying transport aircraft to make precision drops of supplied to isolated outposts, reducing the need to use ambush-prone vehicle convoys and avoiding the hazards involved in helicopter re-supply. So successful has been the technique that the USAF delivered 313,824 pounds of supplies between August 2006, when the programme began, to September 2007 – keeping an estimated 500+ convoys off the roads.

In July 2007, the RAF acquired this technology, the first air force outside the US so to do, but the latest news of reduced C-130 capacity cannot assist in ensuring that maximum advantage is gained from its availability.

As a final option, the Army could, of course, ensure that troops were provided with mine-protected personnel carriers. After the first Canadian deaths attributed to IEDs, occurring outside Kabul on 2 October 2003 when a lightly protected Iltis jeep rolled over a mine, the Canadian Army procured RG-31s to protect their troops – with very great effect.

However, while belatedly the MoD is supplying mine-protected vehicles, the Army still content to send its soldiers out in ill-protected vehicles - despite more than adequate warning about Taleban intentions.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that British forces in Afghanistan still suffer from a huge capability gap. At the very least, we need mine detection vehicles, more helicopters, more transport aircraft and more mine-protected vehicles. But hey! Never mind! Harry got his medal for not being blown up in his Spartan. He was lucky not to get a state funeral.

What makes you think the government is not taking this war seriously?