Sunday 29 June 2008

No celebrations yet

The Sunday Telegraph headline "Snatch Land Rover to be scrapped by the British Army" should be a moment of triumph. But, even at a time when a coroner has at last questioned the safety of the "Snatch", over the death of Marine Gary Wright (picture below right), one is left curiously flat.

Perhaps it is the self-regarding tone of the article which, in a style typical of the newspaper, reports: "Defence chiefs have ordered an emergency review of the Army's controversial "Snatch" Land Rover after the deaths of four soldiers in Afghanistan, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose."

Another irritant is that the writer, Sean Rayment puffs the paper's favourite military renta-a-quote, telling us that "The pressure on the military to scrap the Snatch Land Rover was further raised by, Patrick Mercer the Tory MP and former infantry commander, who described the vehicle as a 'death trap', during a debate in the House of Commons."

This was the debate on 19 June, to which we referred, when for the very first time – as far as we are aware – Mercer raised the issue in the House, having been silent for the many years that this scandal has continued. There is something particularly loathesome about bandwagon jumpers, and something unsavoury about newspapers which give them space.

If any one politician should be given credit for putting pressure on the MoD, it is Lord Astor of Hever, who first raised the vulnerability of the vehicle on 12 June 2006, telling Lord Drayson, the then procurement minister, that the Snatch Land Rover was "not remotely adequate for patrolling areas where insurgents use landmines."

He asked Drayson for an assurance that the government would "provide our soldiers with equipment that is fit for this role", getting a brush off which we recorded shortly thereafter when we launched our campaign for its replacement. It was then that Drayson told the House:

I do not accept that Snatch Land Rovers are not appropriate for the role. We must recognise the difference between protection and survivability. It is important that we have the trade-offs that we need for mobility. The Snatch Land Rover provides us with the mobility and level of protection that we need.
We were joined in our campaign by Christopher Booker and, a week later by The Sunday Times which ran two pieces (on on the front page and the other as a Focus piece), which had a powerful effect.

Lord Astor persevered and was joined, in the "other place" by the Conservative front bench defence team – which for once got its act together. With the insistent pressure from backbencher Ann Winterton – who persists to this day – and Owen Paterson (who asked a number of pointed written Parliamentary Questions), plus sundry others, it all came together.

Aside from a torrent of written questions, there was one debate, then another and then another. With continual posts on this blog and a further piece from Christopher Booker, the pressure became too great. By 26 July 2006, the then relatively new Secretary of State, Des Browne, was announcing the procurement of a new armoured vehicle which came to be known as the Mastiff – which was to save lives again and again.

Damningly, some of the greatest opposition to the new vehicles came from Mercer's pals in the Army and we were later able to disclose, their preference was for the lightly protected Pinzgauer Vector, which was to be instrumental in killing many more men.

What perhaps also rankles is that it has taken the death of a woman, Cpl Sarah Bryant finally to put the nail in the coffin of this dangerously vulnerable machine. The fact that at least 30 men (this is all the Army will admit to) have been killed riding in Snatches – and many more injured – does not seem to have been so important.

Certainly, there were no signs otherwise that the MoD was considering removing the Snatch from theatre – witness this photograph (right). With 45 Commando rumoured for deployment in the winter rotation, we have been watching a steady build-up of these vehicles as they pass through Arbroath on their way to the local barracks, together with a large number of Vectors on low loaders. Our sources tell us that they are (or were) destined for Afghanistan.

The decision taken – if indeed it has been – must have been very sudden. We are told by The Sunday Telegraph that "Commanders have been told to establish whether the vehicle, which was designed for operations in Northern Ireland almost 20 years ago, is critical to the Afghan mission."

The review, we are also told, was ordered by Des Browne, the Defence Secretary. At a meeting of senior Army officers in London last Wednesday. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Lt Gen Andrew Figgures, the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (equipment capability), and Lt Gen Nick Houghton, the Chief of Joint Operations, all agreed that the vehicle's suitability should be reassessed.

Once again, it seems, the pressure is coming from the politicians rather than the Army, with commanders in Afghanistan to be asked if there is a requirement for a light patrol vehicle and, if so, whether the "Snatch" is of the standard required. If not, the military will search for something more suitable, "which could take several months".

Already, Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, forces commander in Helmand, has admitted that Snatches are "not safe for use in high-risk areas." Asked if he would rather not have to use the Snatch Land Rover in Helmand, the brigadier said: "It's not a vehicle of last resort but it's clearly not a vehicle of first choice."

The brigadier also says that the "mine" which destroyed the Snatch and killed four of his soldiers had contained more than 220lb of explosives and would have defeated the armour of any but the heaviest vehicle. However, given that this Cougar took 300lb of explosive – and the crew walked away – a more heavily armoured Mastiff may well have kept Sarah Bryant and her team alive.

It seems that the Army will in future be relying on the Mastiff and the Ridgebacks, which are shortly to come into service, although – as always – the MoD is being somewhat disingenuous in claiming, "Through investment in Mastiff and Ridgeback we are already reducing the number of patrolling roles in which we use the Snatch" – when the Ridgeback is not yet in service.

However, both are far heavier than the Snatch and it may well be that there is a need for a lighter vehicle. There have been hints of something else, apart from the 24 Bushmasters, which we now know to have been procured for the Special Forces. Ironically, had they come earlier, Sarah Bryant – apparently on a secret mission could well have been in one of these vehicles.

For others to come though, there are still the Vectors, the Land Rover WIMIKs, the Jackals – of which the MoD has decided to buy 72 more - and it is still committed to FRES.

That is what is perhaps removing the gloss from what should have been that moment of triumph. The Army is not really doing anything other than moving slowly, and reluctantly towards safer vehicles, in response to public and political pressure. There is no "sea change". When that happens, then we will be able to celebrate.