Wednesday 26 November 2008

Informed comment?

The above is from the Sky website.

The television station is reviewing a book called, "Changing The Dinosaur's Spots - The Battle To Reform UK Defence Acquisition." Written by Bill Kincaid, a retired brigadier who until recently was in charge of operational requirements for the MoD, it claims that the rising UK military death toll in Helmand is partly caused by waste and delay in providing better equipment.

Lives are lost in poorly-protected vehicles like the Snatch Land Rover - over which an SAS commander recently resigned - because money to replace them is squandered elsewhere, says Kincaid, who warns it may take a major defeat on the battlefield before the problem is put right.

Kincaid, of course, is blowing smoke. We have already suffered a "major defeat on the battlefield" – it's called Iraq. Look to the story of al Amarah, about which we hope to publish today. Any which way you cut it, this was a major defeat for the British Army - through no fault of the men on the gound, who performed heroically. The response was simply to "spin" the defeat as a victory – with the media rolling over and buying the line.

But, if you expect any sensible or informed comment from the media, look at the pic posted by Sky and then the caption. That is as good as it gets. The problem is that this sort of superficial, lacklustre coverage typifies the media in general, right across the board. Nothing you read can be relied upon and nothing they say can be trusted. This is the world of "newspeak".


Saturday 22 November 2008

Would you send used Land Rovers into this?

I have been working on an idea for a book on the "Snatch" Land Rover. If anyone is interested, the draft of the second chapter is posted here.

This deals with the four months from the end of May 2003, when hostilities officially ended, to the beginning of September when the situation had clearly deteriorated and the decision have been made to send in "Snatch" Land Rovers to assist the troops. Given that the vehicle was intended for patrolling in low risk environment, the question is asked whether they should have been sent at all.

The segement is long (8,500 words), but comments and any additional information would be appreciated.


Thursday 20 November 2008

Let loose the dogs of chores

So far, reported only by one obscure (to me, anyway) online business site, the MoD has at last given some more details of its new £700 million armoured vehicle package announced by John Hutton last month.

This is the Tactical Support Vehicle (TSV) range – all given names from the canine genus, as has become customary in British Army armoured vehicle nomenclature. These, though, are to be the workhorses, doing the fetching and carrying and other chores, rather than fighting.

At the heavy end – very much as expected – we see the Force Protection Inc nominated at the preferred bidder with the Cougar flatbed. The MoD offers a photograph (above), which includes the vehicle being dressed up with the characteristic Barracuda Mobile Camouflage System (MCS) which we see adorning the Snatch Land Rovers and Vectors, so one might think that this is the final form, without bar or additional side armour.

However, once the wonks back home get at it, we could see it come out in a very different form. The MoD is, in fact, saying that it will be "up-armoured and integrated with UK specific equipment such as communications systems and protection measures in a similar way to Mastiff."

Less impressive is the nomination for the Husky – the "medium" vehicle. The preferred bidder is Navistar Defence with a vehicle based on the International MXT-MVA (pictured). As a cargo truck, it will have a four-man cab and a cargo capacity in excess of 1.5 tons. It will, however, come as three variants: utility, ambulance and command post.

This vehicle does not come with rave reviews. It is not a proper MRAP, with the classic v-shaped hull, but is a conversion built on an International MXT 4x4 pick-up chassis, with appliqué armour.

The last thing the Army needs is yet another truck type on its inventory. An alternative is the cargo version of the Bushmaster called the Copperhead. With the Bushmaster about to enter service with the special forces, there would be some commonality but, it appears, this is not to be.

The third and least satisfactory of them all is the Coyote TSV (Light) which is to be a 6x6 derivative of the Jackal designed by Supacat Ltd. We are told that it will also have a cargo capacity in excess of 1.5 tons and a four-man crew.

The MoD does not offer a photograph of this, but it may well be similar to the Supacat "Extenda" seen in Paris earlier this year (pictured). There are no indications, as yet, as to whether this will be armoured in the same way as the Jackal but, if it is not, soldiers would be better protected going to war on bicycles.

The best thing that can be said of this vehicle is that it will share the same degree of vulnerability as its smaller cousin. Frankly, if the extreme mobility for which this vehicle is famed is really needed in the supply role, then the best option would not be a ground vehicle at all, but a helicopter or even – as was adopted by the LRDG in World War II - light aircraft (spool down to fifth picture).

Of this new package, John Hutton tells us the vehicles "will give the troops in Afghanistan the additional bite they need in the fight against the enemy. They do a formidable job and deserve nothing but the best." Despite these fine words, it is by no means clear that they (the troops) are about to get what they deserve.


Tuesday 18 November 2008

That's politics for you

One of the most bizarre aspects of the war in Afghanistan is that, despite almost universal agreement that more helicopters are needed in theatre, the British government seems entirely unable to fill this urgent capacity shortfall.

Not so the Canadian government which, faced with a similar shortfall, is doing something about the problem, as with other aspects of its procurement policy – purchasing RG-31s when the British were patrolling in lightly armoured WIMIKs and "Snatch" Land Rovers and providing mine clearance sets, including the Husky and Buffalo, when the British were investing in hand-held mine detectors.

Their response was actually announced in July by our own defence secretary, the details recorded on this blog, including – as was then stated – purchasing six additional Chinooks and eight Griffin helicopters. In the interim, we were told, while fitting out those Chinooks for deployment, the Canadians were to lease eight Mi-17s (aka Mi-8MTV).

There were some queries about the details and it seems that the Griffins, far from being newly purchased, were to be upgraded from the existing military inventory. And neither, it seems, is the Canadian government to lease eight Mi-17s. But, if that is the bad news, the good news is that it is still leasing Mi-17s, although the number is to be six.

This we glean from the Canadian Press website, its story headed, "Canadians to use civilian helicopters in Afghanistan in stopgap measure".

Until they get their own helicopters next year, the report reads, Canadian troops in Afghanistan will have access to six civilian choppers to lessen the risk of coming under insurgent attack while moving along the country's notoriously dangerous roads. The Mi-8 helicopters are being contracted from Toronto-based SkyLink as a stopgap measure. The first flight of the aircraft took place at Kandahar Airfield on Monday.

Says Col. Christopher Coates, air wing commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan: "As a task force, it allows us to transport with the Mi-8's cargo and with the Chinook's personnel, with a view to try and get Canadians off the roads here in Afghanistan where they are exposed to all the dangers of this country - ambushes and IEDs and the other things that all Canadians are aware of."

The decision to contract the Mi-8s, which will be flown by civilian pilots, is the result of a recommendation from the Manley report last spring, officially entitled the "Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan". This recommended that Canada should have some air capabilities for its operations in Afghanistan. In particular, during its investigations, it heard that:

… the safety and effectiveness of Canadian Forces in Kandahar would be markedly increased by the acquisition and deployment of new equipment. In particular, added helicopter airlift capacity and advanced unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles are needed now. No equipment can perfectly protect Canadian soldiers against improvised explosive devices. But helicopters can save lives by reducing reliance on transporting troops by road, and aerial surveillance can more effectively track insurgent movements.
So seriously did the Panel take this evidence that, in its report, it also recommended that, "if the necessary equipment is not procured, the Government should give appropriate notice to the Afghan and allied governments of its intention to transfer responsibility for security in Kandahar."

In other words, it was saying to the government, either pull the troops out of Afghanistan or provide more helicopters. It was as blunt as that and, in the face of strong public pressure to withdraw, the government knew it had to do one or the other. It chose the latter.

The British government could, of course, have done the same and the option of leasing Mi-8 aircraft has been available since before British troops first deployed in Afghanistan, at a fraction of the cost of operating military helicopters.

This we have rehearsed many times on this blog, for instance, here, here and here. But, to be fair to the government, while it has in certain quarters energetically pursued this idea, it has been totally frustrated by a total lack of enthusiasm from the military, a wall of indifference verging on hostility from the media, and the overt opposition from the Conservative defence team.

The biggest concern is the possibility of the loss of one of these helicopters packed with troops. Indeed, one SkyLink Mi-8 was shot down in Afghanistan in 21 April 2005, with the loss of 11 lives, so the fear is very real. The bigger political problem, though, would be the ensuing outcry from the media – and opposition – charging that "Our Boys" had been palmed off with "substandard" Russian helicopters, which had led to their death. You can just imagine The Sun in full flow on this, complete with "outraged" comments from the Tory defence team.

However, instead of sitting on their backsides whining about the lack of helicopters, the ever resourceful Canadians have come up with a solution to this problem.

They are going to pool these helicopters under the Joint Task Force Afghanistan command. Thus, when they need to move troops, they will be able to call upon fully equipped British Chinooks, in return for which they will transport British cargo which would otherwise have been moved by the RAF aircraft.

Given that the British forces have a massive requirement for moving cargo – and sometimes we see precious Chinooks used just for delivering the mail – there was and never has been any reason why we could not have acquired Mi-8s for cargo moving. Not only is this option safer, it acts as a force multiplier reducing the need for expensive and manpower intensive resupply convoys.

Of course, this issue is not about politics, in the minds of the chatterati except when it suits them to complain about under-resourcing but, in fact, this is the very meat and drink of politics.

Had the opposition put its weight behind this issue, I have very good reasons for believing that we would have been seeing Mi-8s in the British sector some long time ago, saving money and possibly lives, as well as significantly enhancing our capabilities.

But then, they have some many other important things to do, like trying to get the ridiculously expensive and generally inadequate Future Lynx in service earlier, pushing complaints about “delays” into the media. It ain’t going to happen but, despite assertions by a certain MP, there are other games in town which will help resolve – albeit less than satisfactorily – the tactical helicopter shortage in Afghanistan.

The solution will be found, but without the intervention of the opposition. But, if we can't get rid – in the longer term – of this overpriced white elephant – at least, it seems, FRES is going to be allowed to wither on the vine. What a tale there is to tell there – the battle of FRES, that the chatterati didn't even realise was happening.

Funny that - the most interesting stories never appear in the papers. And that, dear reader, is politics for you!


Monday 17 November 2008

History repeats itself

The news which emerged yesterday of the second Gurkha soldier to be killed within a month in Afghanistan has disturbing implications. Unlike his comrade-in-arms, Rifleman Yubraj Rai who died of a gunshot wound after a firefight south of Musa Qala on 4 November, this as yet unnamed Gurkha was riding in a Warrior MICV (pictured).

According to The Daily Mail (online edition) – which was the first to identify the vehicle involved - the Gurkha was killed "after a massive roadside bomb tore through his 25-ton Warrior fighting vehicle." A number of other soldiers onboard were, according to its report, "seriously injured".

It is the first time, says the paper, a soldier has been killed inside a Warrior in Afghanistan, "and proof that the Taliban are turning to bigger and deadlier bombs targeted at British troops."

The paper adds that, until recently the Warriors were largely considered "mine proof" but then it tells us that at least three Warriors have been damaged "beyond repair" in the last eight months "as the Taleban bomb makers set ever bigger charges in British soldiers' paths." In addition, there was an early attack in February of this year.

When the Warriors arrived in Afghanistan in mid-August 2007 (see this video report), we applauded the deployment of these fighting vehicles which, very quickly had a decisive effect on the conduct of ongoing operations.

But, in this current instance, the Warrior was not being used for the purpose for which it had been designed – as an armoured assault vehicle. Instead, as part of a company of Warriors, it had been based outside Musa Qala, in Forward Operating Base Edinburgh. Together with Mastiffs, the Daily Mail reports, the vehicles have been used "to ferry soldiers to and from the outposts, which ring the volatile town." As The Independent puts it, "they are often used as armoured buses to move soldiers to and from outposts … because they used to be considered 'mine-proof'".

Any such assumption is entirely unjustified. The Warrior is not and never has been "mine-proof". The Army, therefore, is misusing these vehicles (whether to are forced to, or not because of kit shortages is another matter), for a job for which they are not designed and for which the Mastiffs, working alongside them, are superb.

In all, there have now been 22 deaths of British soldiers in Warrior-related incidents in both Iraq and Afghanistan since the formal end of hostilities in May 2003. By no means all of these resulted from IED attacks but many did, including the horrific incident on 5 April 2007 outside Basra, which resulted in the death of Second Lieutenant Joanna Dyer, and three of her comrades.

As remarked at the time, the underbelly of the Warrior is relatively lightly armoured and, even though they have been fitted with enhanced armour (pictured), their flat-bottomed profile makes them difficult to protect and limits their resistance to IEDs.

What may be happening here, though – in a manner similar to the way the Jackal has been treated - is that the Taleban have been "trying out" the Warrior and, having already written off a number of these vehicles, have evidently worked out a way to destroy them.

We saw something of what appears to be a similar dynamic in Iraq. Initially, the insurgents concentrated their fire on the more vulnerable "Snatch" Land Rovers, firstly in al Amarah and, when the "Snatches" were taken off the streets there and replaced by Warriors, the attacks moved to Basra where these vehicles were still being used for routine patrols.

When the use there of "Snatches" was limited – and many of the patrols were conducted by Mastiffs, which were arriving in ever-greater numbers - we saw attention focusing on the more vulnerable Warriors. In the latter stages of 2006 and in early 2007 there were a number of serious attacks, details of which were suppressed because of the Army's concern for morale and the effect of a public (and Parliamentary) hue and cry.

Thus, when Sergeant Graham Hesketh was killed on 28 December 2006 as a result of an IED attack on a Warrior, followed by the death of Private Michael Tench in January of the following year, these were seen as isolated incidents and not for what they were – part of a sustained assault by the insurgents on this vehicle type.

It was not until April of that year with the death of Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer that the Warrior came to public notice but even then, the incident was seen largely in isolation, with the media focus largely on the deaths of two women soldiers.

Even after that, the deaths from IED attacks on Warriors were to continue, the last known fatal attack recorded on 31 July 2007 when Corporal Steve Edwards was killed.

By that time, however, Mastiffs (pictured left) were being fielded in some numbers replacing both "Snatch" and Warrior and successfully resisting attacks on them. The Army pulled out of the last but one peripheral base, the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre (PJCC) in Basra, and – as rumour had it, only subsequently to be confirmed - British commanders struck a deal with leaders of Moqtada al-Sadr's 17,000-strong Mahdi Army to ensure the safe departure of troops from Basra Palace.

By early September the Army had retreated from Basra Palace and hunkered down in its new increasingly fortified base at the former Basra International Airport, leaving perimeter security largely to the Iraqi Army.

The limited sallies outside the wire were increasingly made in Mastiffs, which continued to resist attacks and, with no more Warrior deaths being reported, another publicity storm over inadequate equipment had been averted.

As for the situation in Afghanistan, the imminent arrival of additional Mastiffs and the Ridgeback may save the Army's bacon yet again, allowing the Warriors to be redeployed for their proper role – infantry assault. They will be safe enough in that role providing their routes to and from the battlefield are cleared by dedicated mine-clearance equipment. This the Canadians have found it necessary to do before their conventional armoured vehicles are allowed out of base. They have learnt the hard way exactly the lesson which the British forces seem intent on experiencing again in Afghanistan.

But still, the shadow of Army lethargy and MoD procurement delays hangs over the battlefield. Apart from the delay in buying the appropriate route clearing equipment such as the Buffalo - which will not be in theatre until at least 2010, when on 24 July 2006, Des Browne announced the order of 100 protected vehicles, which later turned out to be Mastiffs, he also announced the purchase of 100 additional Pinzgauer Vector vehicles (pictured right) for Afghanistan.

This, as we revealed later, had been forced on him by the Army, which had been lukewarm about the Mastiff and had effectively made its approval of the purchase conditional on the procurement of the additional Vectors. Thus, the bulk of the Mastiffs went to Iraq, while the Vectors provided the mainstay of additional "protected" vehicles for Afghanistan.

With these machines now so heavily compromised that the Army dare not use them in high-risk situations, this means that money spent on them has largely been wasted. Totalling nearly £50 million, that would have bought some 50 or so extra Mastiffs which could so easily have been ordered in July 2006.

For want of these extra machines, the Army on the ground has been forced to use the Warrior for a purpose for which it is entirely unsuited, with the result we have seen reported today. And still it seems, there are those who have not understood the lessons – a response which entirely typifies a certain cadre within the Army. History will have to repeat itself once more, before these dinosaurs are finally driven to extinction.

The problem is though that papers like The Sun, apparently lacking any corporate or institutional memory, are also reporting on this incident in terms of a "safe" tank, suggesting that the Warrior was "once thought bomb proof" – forgetting entirely the experience in Iraq.

Then we get The Guardian citing an unnamed "defence source" commenting that these latest attacks suggest the Taleban's bombs are more powerful and more sophisticated. "If a bomb is big enough, it will go through anything," this source is quoted as saying.

This will add sustenance the dinosaurs who claim that, since a "tank" can be blown up by the Taleban, it is impossible to protect lighter vehicles. In some quarters, therefore, this experience will be used as an argument against, rather than for more MRAP-type vehicles. There too, history repeats itself.


Saturday 15 November 2008

Anything goes

Political editor George Pascoe-Watson, of The Sun needs to talk urgently to the paper’s defence editor (or vice versa).

On 11 March of this year – to the evident approval of the newspaper, GP-W announced a "£40m kit boost for our heroes", telling us in an "exclusive" report that British soldiers in Afghanistan were to get "72 new Mad Max-style troop carriers in tomorrow's Budget".

Although the story had a picture of the early version (unarmoured) - with photoshopped grenade launcher - amd acaption, "Tough ... Supacat armoured vehicle", it seems that defence "editor" Tom Newton Dunn (don't they have reporters anymore?) does not agree.

In another "exclusive" – despite it having been reported elsewhere - TND complains, under the title "Sent to die in open-top 4x4" (and a report that shows an armoured Jackal) that "commanders had to send a Household Cavalry soldier out to die in an UNARMOURED vehicle after their ageing light tanks broke down."

This was Trooper James Munday, the first (officially reported) death in a Jackal, the event described by TND as "…the latest in a long line of shameful equipment shortfalls to plague Our Boys on the Helmand frontline." He adds: Last night a Household Cavalry officer fumed: "It is a disgrace young men are being exposed to these sorts of dangers simply because the Government isn't prepared to pay for anything better … It makes a mockery of everything we serve for" - despite, it seems, the £40 million "boost" that The Sun has previously reported.

This is also rather at odds with the eulogising from The Daily Mail in June 2007, when it gushed over the "The 80mph 'Mad Max' monster targeting the Taliban". Furthermore, it is totally at odds with the mad "puff" in The Sunday Mirror of last March, which described the Jackal as "four tons of pure killing machine".

This paper was competing with The Sunday Telegraph's Sean Rayment who was happily burbling about the "Pitbull", citing "senior officers" saying: "the vehicle will greatly enhance the fighting capability of their soldiers, and will save lives", adding: "The vehicle and crew are protected against mines by reinforced armour plating."

Well, for sure, it did not save the life of Trooper James Munday, nor those of Marines Neil Dunstan and Robert McKibben (and the unnamed Afghan soldier), the latest casualties, with the MoD admitting that they too were killed in a Jackal - something which The Daily Mail has also noted.

For Newton Dunn, though, the “unarmoured” truck is a poor substitute for the Scimitar, drawing this pained response from the MoD. If Newton Dunn wants another view (not that he does) he could always read this. Rather, shoehorning the facts to fit his storyline, he is more intent on offering us this tale of woe:

The elite unit's 26 Scimitar armoured reconnaissance vehicles entered service in 1971 and have suffered mechanical problems for years. But they finally packed up this summer, as almost all broke down four miles from Camp Bastion at the start of one disastrous mission.

Half the troopers from the regiment's D Squadron, Prince William’s old unit, were stuck in the base for TWO MONTHS. Barely half the Scimitars could be repaired, leaving commanders with no choice but to rapidly retrain the other half of the squadron on the new Jackal 4x4 patrol trucks.

Even the Scimitars that were fixed could only operate in early morning or evening because of the blistering Afghan summer heat. A replacement — the FRES Scout Vehicle — was drawn up years ago but is not now due in service until 2015 at best. The MoD blamed problems with the Scimitar fleet on dust and heat and said £30million had been spent on upgrades.
The reference to FRES is interesting, with TDN presumably imbibing the legend that this system was in any way going to be up to the rigours of Afghanistan.

However, this defence "editor" finishes his piece telling us that "Last week an SAS commander quit in protest after three of his soldiers died inside an unarmoured Snatch Land Rover." Thus we have an "unarmoured" Jackal and an unarmoured "Snatch Land Rover", despite both being armoured – albeit lightly.

Perhaps Newton Dunn has not caught up with the latest version of the Jackal but it is always good to see the man keeping up his high standard of reporting.

As for the Scimitar, does he really think that this type is any safer, given the fate of the Spartan recently (built on the same chassis) or of this Scimitar in Iraq?

However, given the line taken by the man on the Jackal, it would not take many more casualties in this machine for The Sun to be making the government's life very difficult indeed. When you can be so cavalier with the facts, anything goes.


Friday 14 November 2008

Welcome, but four years late

Yesterday, in a terse but informative announcement, the US armoured vehicle manufacturer, Force Protection Inc, told the world (or that small bit of it that was interested) that it had received from the United States Army "under contract W56HZV-08-C-0028" an additional order worth $15.5 million. This was for the delivery of 16 of its Buffalo A2 route-clearance vehicles - for delivery no later than the end of June 2009.

But the really interesting news followed. "In addition," Force Protection said, it had received "a Foreign Military Sales order of 14 Buffalo vehicles to be delivered to the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence." This contract, although two less than the US order, was "not to exceed $18.6 million" - we are paying $3 million more for two less vehicles.

Nevertheless, it represents "the first orders for the Buffalo vehicle for the United Kingdom." Work, including vehicle deliveries and "sustainment" is to be completed by October 2009.

This is part of the "Talisman" project, announced at the end of last month by defence secretary John Hutton and, welcome though it is, the arrival of these life-saving vehicles by October next year will come almost four years to the day too late for one man, Sergeant Christian Ian Hickey, 1st Battalion the Coldstream Guards. He is already dead.

On Tuesday 18 October 2005, at around 23.20 local time, 30-year-old Sgt Hickey (pictured right) was in Iraq. He, with his detachment, was on patrol in a convoy of two "Snatch" Land Rovers, just short of a roundabout on the notorious "IED alley". This was not far from the centre of Basra - a straight road that runs south west out of the city from the Basra teaching hospital.

This was a handover patrol with soldiers from the new roulement on board. The vehicles were packed - six to each instead of the normal complement of four - and the atmosphere was tense.

Not only had there been a spate of bomb attacks on these vulnerable vehicles, there had recently been, in September, a major incident at the al Jameat police station and the mood in Basra had soured. Furthermore, Saddam Hussein's trial had been about to start.

Sgt Hickey had every reason to be concerned, and with only three days left in Basra before he left for home - this was his last patrol of the tour - he had asked for a helicopter to carry out "overwatch". None had been available.

That fateful night, just before midnight, he was doubly suspicious. This place was ideal for an ambush, as the convoy would have to slow to negotiate the roundabout. The spotlight on his vehicle was not working, making it difficult to see on the verges ahead, so he called to a halt the convoy he was leading.

Dismounting from his vehicle - in the words of the official report - he went forward on foot to reconnoitre a route for the patrol. With him, but slightly behind, was Sgt Andy Wilkinson, 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, and a young Lieutenant, straight out of Sandhurst.

Wilkinson described how Hickey had bent down to examine what he thought might be an IED, and at that moment there was a huge explosion where he had been standing.

Sgt Hickey was cut to pieces. He took full force of an explosively formed projectile which tore his legs off, slashed a gaping wound in his head, shattering his skull, and peppered his body with shrapnel. Infra-red activated, his body heat had probably triggered the bomb, destined for the leading "Snatch", packed with men, their lives undoubtedly saved by his heroic action.

"We did all we could for Sergeant Hickey," said Wilkinson diplomatically, "but he was dead." The lieutenant was hurled backwards by the blast and both his eardrums burst. He also had a serious eye injury and was knocked cold.

In the official report, it records that Sgt Hickey was given first aid at the scene. The rituals had been followed. His body was evacuated by ambulance and helicopter to the British Military Hospital in Shaiba. There, "despite the best efforts of all those involved in treating him," says the same report, he was declared dead on arrival.

The death of Sgt Hickey, the 97th in Iraq since the start of the campaign, invoked considerable media attention and an ongoing controversy (to which we will return). But, in none of the torrents of media reports did any commentator pick up what to us seemed so obvious that, on 23 October - five days after Sgt Hickey's violent and untimely death – we remarked on it on our blog.

Recalling that the incredibly courageous Sgt Hickey had been effectively forced to make that perilous – and ultimately fatal – journey on foot, to clear the way for his patrol, we noted:

… the "dumb Yanks" - as too many people delight in calling them - are providing a neat little (actually not so little) machine for dealing with this type of problem, and it ain't an armoured Land Rover, which provides only very limited protection.

Weighing in at 23 tons, this machine is called a Buffalo. Designed on principles developed by the South Africans, it has a 30 ft extendible arm to check out suspicious road-side packages and debris, with highly effective armour to protect its occupants if a bomb does go off.
At the time, we linked to a specialist military website, from which one can deduce that 50 such Buffaloes would have been in US service in Iraq and Afghanistan by October 2005. The site itself noted:

The heavily protected Buffalo is a central element in the US Army's counter-IED "hunter-killer" concept that protects convoys against the threat of mines and IEDs. [It] enables engineers to inspect suspected objects from safe distance, using the robotic arm and video cameras, operated from the relative safety of the protected cabin. Large windows of armored glass provide good visibility to the sides of the vehicle, to enable effective operation on route patrols and dealing with suspected IEDs.
Sgt Hickey was the twelfth soldier to die in a "Snatch" related incident in Iraq and others had died in other vehicle attacks. Had the Buffalo been available to British forces at the same time that the "Snatches" had been deployed in October 2003 – which they could have been – then many of those men would still be alive. Many more since would also have survived.

That the MoD is now buying 14 of these machines is testament to their value. We can thank in a small way the former defence secretary Des Browne for insisting that they were ordered, but it would have been so much better if Mr Geoff Hoon, defence secretary in 2003 (and now transport secretary), had been the man to sign that vital bit of paper.


Thursday 13 November 2008

Day of the Jackal

I'm not going to say "told you so" – not yet. But the news coming in today of a further two killed in Afghanistan, Royal Marines both, riding in a Jackal, does give more than some cause for concern.

The incident happened at 4.47pm local time yesterday in the Garmsir district of Southern Helmand. The Marines were operating as part of Task Force Helmand's Information Exploitation Group, responsible for gathering information to improve situational awareness and to gain an advantage over enemy forces. A third Marine was seriously injured in the blast along with an Afghan soldier who later died from his injuries.

That these deaths bring the total number of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined to 300 will be seized upon by the media, albeit that the significantly lesser number of 233 have actually been killed as a direct result of enemy action, respectively 136 in Iraq and 97 in Afghanistan. Subtracting the number of air deaths arising from enemy action and you have 213 ground forces KIA.

Now, the issue here, which I doubt will be properly explored in the immediate future, is that (by my rough count – I am still working on the data) over 100 of these deaths have occurred as a result of attacks directed at military vehicles, by far the preponderance being IED or mine incidents.

This is very close to, if not in excess of 50 percent of the total land forces casualties arising from vehicle attacks and it is arguable, with good cause, that the deaths arising in most of those were preventable. In this context, it is notable that since the Mastiff (pictured right) was introduced to theatre – and engaged in intensive operations in the highest-risk sectors – not one single casualty has been reported.

That is not to say that the Mastiff should be used for all occasions but it does clearly demonstrate that, had the right vehicles for the job been used with the appropriate level of protection, casualties would have been very significantly less than they are today. At its very most optimistic, we could today be looking at 200 dead, not 300, to say nothing of the far larger (numerically) toll of injured.

click the pic to enlargeAs to the Jackal, this is the second officially recorded lethal incident, the first being Trooper James Munday who died on 15 October 2008 while driving a Jackal. Trooper Munday was from D Squadron of The Household Cavalry and was part of a "routine patrol" in Helmand province, operating approximately 23km north of Forward Operating Base Delhi, when he was killed. Two other soldiers were also injured in the blast.

However, owing to the malign "games" which continue to be played by the MoD, we cannot be sure that only two Jackals have been involved in fatal attacks.

On 13 September 2008, patrolling as part of the screen for the Kajaki operation, Lance-Corporal Nicky Mason died as a result of a roadside bomb attack.

Neither the MoD website nor the press reports (which mainly repeat the MoD handout) mention a vehicle. But it is virtually self-evident that Mason must have been in a vehicle. The press reports of the time make constant reference to vehicle patrols, and none to foot patrols. It is highly unlikely that there were any foot patrols in this operation as both the main thrust and the decoy operation were road-borne.

Further, L/Cpl Mason was a member of 2 Para, assigned to the specialist reconnaissance platoon, the Patrols Platoon. This contributes to the elite Pathfinder Platoon, which is currently equipped with Jackals. There is a possibility – we can say no more than that at this stage – that Mason was on board a Jackal at the time of his death.

We have met these MoD "games" before, with details of vehicles involved being absent from official reports. It is only with a huge amount of work, trawling through media reports, sifting details from other reports, and interviewing witnesses that we have been able to come up with the figure of 38 deaths arising from attacks on Snatches.

If there have been three, and not two, fatal incidents in Jackals, that means that we have had one incident for each of the last three months. This puts it, potentially, into the same league as the "Snatch", the WIMIK (which the Jackal is replacing) and the ill-fated Vector – to say nothing of the Viking, in the lengthening list of vehicles that have become easy meat for the jihadis.

For sure, the Jackal is (probably) better protected than the Land Rover WIMIK it replaces, witness the report on 5 October of this year in The Sunday Times. In the account offered, Sergeant Andrew Lamont, commander of one of 2 Para's fire support groups in Helmand, first operated from a WIMIK and was re-equipped with a Jackal near the end of his tour.

"It's one of the best things the government has done for us," he says. "It saved three of my boys' lives." Two weeks ago they were on patrol when an IED blew up the vehicle behind him. "I heard this huge explosion and turned around thinking the worst." Lamont adds. "All I could see was this massive wall of smoke. Then two guys started to walk towards me, the driver and the commander. The gunman (sic) had been thrown out. If we'd had the old vehicles we'd have lost all three guys."

However, what tends to happen in theatre is that, just as the users try out their new vehicle, so does the enemy. As did the Mehdi Army with the "Snatch", and the PIRA before them, the Taleban "test" a new vehicle with a series of attacks, probing for its weaknesses until they get its measure. A successful attack is then used as a template for further assault.

This was how the Iraq insurgents operated, with the information on how successfully to attack a range of different vehicles – and details as to their strengths and weaknesses – communicated by surprisingly professional training videos posted on the internet (now removed).

The Taleban "tried it on" with the Mastiff, escalating the attacks until, finally, they used no less than six stacked mines in one attack. The Mastiff shrugged it off. It was back in service after emergency repairs, within six hours – one for each mine. Since then, it appears, they have largely left the vehicle unmolested.

If, as is possible, the Taleban have got the measure of the Jackal, we can expect a spate of attacks on the vehicle in just the same way that the "Snatch" appears to have been deliberately targeted in Iraq as the vehicle most likely to succumb to an attack.

Thus, there is no justification for the comment from the MoD, conveyed via The Times which has a spokesman for the MoD saying that the latest incident "showed that, whatever level of extra protection was provided for the troops, there was still no guarantee of survival."

This smacks either of complacency – or damage limitation. What it could also show is precisely what we aver, that the Taleban have indeed got the measure of the vehicle and that the level of protection provided is insufficient.

It is also instructive to note that the Jackal – then known as the M-WIMIK - was first fielded without armour just over two years ago for use by Special Forces and the Special Force Support Group. Furthermore, the original contract for the current batch was issued with no provision for armour. That was a supplementary contract as an afterthought, the armoured vehicles suddenly appearing without any announcement or any acknowledgement that they had intended to be fielded without any protection other than strapped-on ballistic matting.

The problem, as we will no doubt continue to see, is that vehicles with armour add-ons to a basically unsound design (and this is an unsound design - see diagram left - above the pic: click the diagram to enlarge detail) never work as well as purpose-built armoured vehicles. To borrow a phrase made popular during the US presidential election, this is not a Jackal - it is a hog with lipstick.

Unfortunately, this problem is not going to go away. Referring back to Sgt Andrew Lamont - a man at the cutting edge – he says, "If anything I'd say it's getting worse. Taleban tactics are changing, using more IEDs, and they don't back down."

Now that that the Army has committed to a further 100 Jackals, on top of the 130 already ordered there is so much invested by way of money and reputation that it is going to be very hard for it to back down. We could thus have another "Snatch" controversy in the making - with all the misery that that entails.


That rarest of commodities

Today we discover that The Daily Telegraph "has learnt" that "Snatch" Land Rovers "blamed for the deaths of dozens of British soldiers should have been removed from battlefield operations a year ago, according to one of the military's most senior figures."

This is Lt Gen Nick Houghton, Chief of Joint Operations, who told the Commons defence committee in March last year that he had been assured that the vehicles would be replaced by the autumn.

In his evidence to the committee, says the paper, he had said that once the replacements were in place "the more vulnerable Snatch would be withdrawn from service in Afghanistan". In June this year, Thomas Harding, author of the piece reminds us, four Special Forces soldiers were killed while travelling in a Snatch, a vehicle they had nicknamed a "mobile coffin". The vehicles are still in use.

This gives Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, his cue. He obligingly tells Harding: "We were promised these vulnerable vehicles would be removed. They have not been and as a result people have died. Why did this happen and who is responsible?"

Well, the answer is in the part of Houghton's evidence that Harding did not use. This was delivered on 20 March 2007 when he was being questioned by the defence committee alongside Des Browne and two others. Then he was asked how many Mastiff and Vector vehicles were in Afghanistan.

Houghton answered that it was "very early on in the deployment of Mastiff and Vector." There were are only "a couple of the Mastiffs there at the moment, but the whole deployment is due to be finished by the end of the autumn, by which time then all of the Snatch vehicles will have been removed from theatre."

This was picked up by the committee and published in its 13th Report, on 3 July 2007, when it noted that:

General Houghton told us that the deployment of both Mastiff and Vector was on schedule and would be complete by autumn 2007. Once Vector had been deployed fully, the more vulnerable Snatch would be withdrawn from service in Afghanistan.
The inference of this could not be more obvious – that the Pinzgauer Vector was the "Snatch" replacement and that as soon as the 182 ordered (less those held back for pre-deployment training and development) had been delivered, the "Snatches" would be withdrawn.

But, of course, we know this did not happen, and the reason is pretty easy to surmise. As we have recorded, the Vector has proved to be more vulnerable and more dangerous than the vehicle is was supposed to be replacing. The first death recorded was almost immediately after it had been first deployed, on 25 July 2007, when Lance Corporal Alex Hawkins, 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, was killed after his vehicle hit a "Taliban roadside bomb".

Fortunately, the media barely registered the event and the few outlets that did failed yo put two and two together. But this was by no means the only incident – many more non-fatal incidents were experienced but these were not publicised. The MoD, however, knew it had a serious problem on its hands and the plans for the Vector were rapidly altered.

In the hundreds of photographs making their way out of Afghanistan over the period since the Vector deployment, you will not seen any of Vectors comprising independent patrols. They are always with or escorted by other vehicles. But you will see plenty of pictures of independent "Snatch" patrols.

Strangely though, Channel 4 News picked up the fact that one of the Army's "new" Vectors had been hit, noting that it has recently been "introduced as part of a package of measures designed to increase troops' safety in Iraq and Afghanistan." It also noted that, "The first Vectors began arriving in the country in April of this year and are being phased in, set to replace most of the Snatch vehicles by late October."

From October 2007 when the "Snatches" were supposed to be replaced, however, there was only one "Snatch" fatal incident – on 17 June 2008, killing Sarah Bryant and her colleagues – as against three fatal Vector incidents.

You would have thought that this could have been brought out in today's Telegraph but, with the Conservatives fronting the story, this is difficult. Despite the first incident and the mounting evidence of the vulnerability of the vehicle, the Tories have been politically compromised, Gerald Howarth having consistently supported this vehicle.

However, Howarth had his opportunity to recant on 10 June of this year, when Ann Winterton condemned the vehicle, saying that it "has the driver sitting right up over the front wheels and is a death trap in which lives have sadly been lost."

He actually took this opportunity, declaring :

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) is … even more right about the problem of protection on the Pinzgauer Vector - the driver sits right over the wheel, and the wheel is the part of the machine that activates the IED. The Vector has a role to play, but not in a dangerous theatre such as that which we are discussing.
Thus, there is no real reason why the Conservatives should not pursue this issue and it is essential that they should. However, what we have got is a lukewarm commitment for John Hutton, defence secretary, who said during questions to the Commons defence committee yesterday that he would be prepared to look "very seriously" at holding an inquiry into the continued use of Snatch Land Rovers on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Families of more than a dozen of the British troops killed in Snatch Land Rovers, we are told, have been demanding a public inquiry into why the vehicles are still being used on the front line even though commanders admit that they are "vulnerable".

More than a dozen families have signed up to a call for an inquiry that is being led by Sue Smith, the mother of Pte Phillip Hewett, who was killed alongside two other soldiers in Iraq in July 2005. "If Snatch was a factory machine killing people by the dozen it would have been closed," she says. "It's too late for those who have died but if we can prevent future deaths then that is important."

This is also picked up by the Guardian and The Daily Mail today, the latter of which reports: "Defence Secretary to consider inquiry into Snatch Land Rovers after mother of dead soldier demands investigation."

The request for an inquiry by solicitors representing Sue Smith, the mother of Private Phillip Hewett, was raised at the committee hearing by Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, we hear, but the bad news is that Jenkin feels "such an investigation would not necessarily have to be held in public, but it should be headed by a retired armed services chief, possibly with the support of a number of privy counsellors."

This we don't need. There has been too much swept under the carpet already, which is now bulging with the remains of shattered Vectors. "There is obviously a crisis of confidence among many in the armed forces and certainly in the public," says Jenkin. But a hole-in-the-corner inquiry will do nothing to improve that situation.

Thus does a welcome Telegraph leader say:

Mr Hutton yesterday said it was unfair to suggest the MoD had not tried to mitigate the risks. However, the contradictions between what the public is told by the MoD and what is said by the troops are so great that the case for an inquiry is compelling. Mr Hutton told the defence committee that he was prepared to look at this suggestion. It is important for the families and for public confidence in what will be a long and arduous mission that the question of whether British troops have been sent to war with inadequate protection is properly addressed.
To regain that confidence, we need answers, open, honest and clear answers – that rarest of commodities.


Wednesday 12 November 2008


The trouble is, once an obsession grips, it is very hard to focus on anything else. However, progress is being made, with many additions, especially here.

By the time the project is finished – if ever – it will be the first time the whole story has been anything like told, in one place. Hitherto, we told bits in over seventy different posts – plus more elsewhere – which make it very difficult to pick up the threads and get the complete picture of one of the murkiest tales of our time.

Nor is this an idle or academic exercise. Already, there have been calls for a public inquiry into this whole affair, of which we will hear more shortly, and at least two of the bereaved families are planning to sue the MoD for negligence. Thus, we thought it important to get all the issues into the public domain.

This may not have the immediacy of the hystérie du jour or the easy attraction of the political theatre in which it would be so easy to indulge, but, as we intimated in one of yesterday's posts, this is real politics – the long, hard, undramatic slog that gets results.

And, if you want to know why we're doing it – if you needed to ask – this and the picture - brutal in its impact - gives the answer.

That is what politics does, when it goes wrong. That is the reality, a million miles away from the vacuous theatre of the House of Commons, and the "punch and judy" of PMQs which we will see today. But that's where this started. And that's where it must finish. Those responsible must be held to account.


Tuesday 11 November 2008

Looking good

We learn from Bloomberg that Force Protection is "optimistic" about winning an initial order by early next year for their newly developed flatbed trucks, and anticipates an order for as many as 100 of the new vehicles.

This is the "Tactical Support Vehicle Heavy", or TSV - to be designated the Wolfhound in British service. And, as a testament to the private sector, it was actually designed in the past 90 days, derived from the company's Cougar troop transport.

One can imagine that, had the task been given to the MoD boffins – much as we love and appreciate them – they would still have been having discussions about the special dietary requirements for the design team and the colour of the pencils to use at the inaugural design committee.

As an aside, one wonders why one has to find out about these things from a financial news agency, when the type of equipment with which our troops are to be provided would – one would have thought – be of some concern to the media. There is, however, a Parliamentary Question in the works, seeking more information.

As another aside – an aside, aside, perhaps – we also wonder why we have to rely on a single picture of the vehicle, a video grab taken from a US news report, and heavily photoshopped to improve quality and remove wide-screen distortions. No hint of this "exciting" new product appears on the Force Protection web site, much less a photograph. Sometimes, this company is its own worst enemy.

This notwithstanding, if the MoD are moving towards the Cougar flatbed, to fulfil the TSV requirement, it is good news. The alternative mooted is the MAN truck, providing anti-tank mine protection at STANAG level 3b (8 kg TNT midsize under-truck), roughly equivalent to the US MRAP I class (pictured above). This compares with the Cougar, rated as a MRAP Class II, providing 15 kg TNT equivalent protection.

The MAN truck may have better load-carrying performance – although, unlike the Cougar, the load bed is not protected – but in a dangerous environment like Afghanistan, we take the view that the design (and thus selection) should be optimised for protection rather than load carrying.

It is better, in our view, to have more vehicles with live drivers, than bigger loads on fewer vehicles, at the cost of dead drivers.


Remember the living as well

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day, fine and noble sentiments from my co-editor over at Bruges Group blog, which I completely endorse.

The hour cometh and some were silent for the two minutes. Others, of course, will be silent for eternity, and it was those we remembered, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and those who did their duty to their country and have passed away with the passage of time. We salute them all.

But fine words and moving ceremonies are more for us than they are for the dead. Unless they are up in heaven looking down upon us, they cannot hear us and in any case our actions are of little consequence to them. Less so the living. Those who serve our country and those who in the near future and beyond are put in harms way.

Like some of their comrades before them, some will not survive the experience. That is the way of war. It is unutterably sad, but that has been the way of things since the dawn of time. But some of those, in the past, should not have died.

Their fall arose through the direct action of our enemies, but compounded by the stupidity, ignorance, laziness or even the corruption of men and women whose duty it was to care for them and minimise the risks. They should be remembered especially.

The purpose of so doing is to remind ourselves that, even in war, terrible though it is, death is not always inevitable. Even the arena of battle life should be treasured and respected.

And remembering those who have fallen, and who should have walked away alive, we remind ourselves that it is our duty – collectively as is the case in a democracy – to do our best to ensure that those who do serve now and in the future are not put needlessly at risk.

We owe that to those whom we honour now, who mount their fine parades, who willingly pose with our elected representatives (pictured, members of the Royal Irish Rangers, their mascot and Owen Paterson MP), and who then serve, and die.

And for those who say that today is not a day for politics, the answer is yes it is, ever more so. It is politics that sends young men and women to their deaths. It is politics which protects them and brings them back safe. That is the real stuff of politics – not the prattling in the chamber of theatres that has become the House of Commons.

The reality of life and death is not some abstract issue for us to watch on the television from the comfort of our living rooms, but something which – even in our small ways – we have the power to affect.

So, while we remember the dead, we must also remember the living and those about to die. We owe them that.


Monday 10 November 2008

Pain in Spain

A Spanish defence blog records the deaths in Afghanistan last Sunday of two Spanish soldiers in a BMR armoured vehicle, after an IED attack. "An outdated vehicle designed and built in the '70s for other wars," it says, "A vehicle that turns into shrapnel when it receives a blast." It continues:

"While in the UK the battle of the Snatch has unleashed, here in Spain we are struggling to equip our Armed Forces with MRAP for over a year. Unfortunately the momentum of purchasing and commissioning of MRAPs for our troops languishing between our incompetence and a brutal budget cut for 2009. In one year we have only been able to deploy 17 MLV Lince. USA has deployed in one year and a half more than 10,000 to Iraq and Afghanistan getting thereby reduce its casualties in such attacks up by 80%.

The British Snatches are called mobile coffins. Here we have our private Snatch: BMRs, VAMTAC, and Anibal. All of them obsolete vehicles inadequate to protect our troops. Known fact that unfortunately has already spread among the Spanish troops to their distrust. Indeed it is well-known for our political and military leaders. Fact that some silent because discipline and others because of their moral misery. Well here we are not going to shut up."

"MRAPs NOW! Complacency KILLS," says the blog.

Neither is this the first time Spanish peacekeeper have been killed in a BMR. In the incident pictured (below), Spanish Pundit reported a "premeditated" IED attack which "badly damaged two vehicles transporting Spanish peacekeepers from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) near the border with Israel." Six soldiers were (eventually) reported killed.

We should, of course, take note. Although the vehicle entered production in 1979, the type was upgraded in 1994, with new engines and additional armour fitted. The design concept, though, bears a general similarity to the Canadian LAV and the FRES eight-wheeled utility vehicles being considered for British forces.

However, as experience constantly demonstrates, it is not armour per se which offers the protection so much as the combination of armour and design. As we noted earlier, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates reported that crews were twice as likely to survive an IED hit in an MRAP than they were in a main battle tank. Given that even the heaviest MRAP has considerably less armour than an MBT, the influence of design is readily evident.

The Spanish government, it seems, is slow to learn the lessons. We do need to suffer the same misfortunes.


Sunday 9 November 2008

Not suitable for civvies

The Sunday Mirror is waxing indignant, with a piece about Snatch Land Rovers, under the headline (above): "Indefensible - pen-pushers banned from death-trap Land Rovers.. but they’re still OK for our heroes."

In an exclusive by Rupert Hamer, the paper's defence correspondent, the paper claims that civil servants in war zones are banned from travelling in flimsy Snatch Land Rovers... while soldiers are still dying in them.

The thrust of the story (with details from the print edition of the sister paper, The Daily Star) is that an edict was issued in November 2005 by Foreign and Commonwealth Office security manager, John Wyndham, prohibiting FCO and Department for International Development (DFID) staff from riding in Snatches. UK police and private training contractors were also prohibited from using the vehicles.

Apparently, Major General James Dutton, then commander, allied forces in south-easy Iraq had insisted on civil servants being allowed to ride in Snatches, but had been over-ruled by Wynham. Instead – or at least, so it is implied – these staff were provided with 50 "bombproof" Toyota Land Cruisers costing £3.2million.

Whether armoured Land Cruisers provide any more protection than Snatches is a moot point. Certainly, FCO staff have not fared much better than soldiers when they have been deliberately targeted. But, since there are some indications that insurgents were specifically targeting Snatches, just riding in another vehicle – any vehicle – could have made the different.

This notwithstanding, the piece adds to a growing body of evidence that the fatal vulnerabilities of the Snatch were well known at a very high level. Yet, despite that, they continued to be used and are still in use today. By our reckoning, 26 soldiers have died (of 38 in total) as a result of insurgent attacks on Snatches since November 2005.

Someone here needs to be held to account.


Saturday 8 November 2008

Playing away from home

Light blogging over this weekend, as I am working on amending and adding to this. There is method in my madness, as you will see within the next few days. Interesting moves are afoot.


Friday 7 November 2008

The battle goes on

It was on 18 Jun 2006 that Booker in his column in The Sunday Telegraph first raised the media profile of the "Snatch" Land Rover, reporting:

One reason British troops continue to be killed and injured in southern Iraq is that they are expected to patrol in lightly-armoured Land Rovers which give them no protection against roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. Meanwhile, their American counterparts walk away unscathed, even when their RG31 armoured patrol vehicles are hit by the same explosives. Yet the Ministry of Defence has not equipped the British Army with the RG31, even though it is built by a British-owned company.
By then, 21 British soldiers had already died and, to date another 15 have been killed, making 36 in all. And, with the vehicle still in use, it is too much to expect that this will be the last death.

That The Daily Telegraph is continuing to keep this issue alive is, therefore, to be welcomed, its latest offering being a report of yesterday's proceedings in The House of Lords.

There, Conservative defence spokesman, Lord Astor of Hever, took up the issue again of Quentin Davies, asking the minister to confirm that Major Morley had to use Snatch Land Rover on 17 June when Cpl. Sarah Bryant and her colleagues were killed.

Astor also wanted confirmation that there had been no other vehicle types available and then wanted an assurance that no commander in Afghanistan would again be forced to use Snatch for any operation beyond base perimeters.

He got neither the information he wanted from the defence minister, Baroness Taylor of Bolton, nor the assurance he asked for. Instead, the usual mantra was offered, that it was "for commanders on the ground to decide which vehicles are suitable for which operations." Taylor added that ministers had been told "more than once by operational commanders that they wish to retain the Snatch vehicle for use in certain circumstances".

The story in The Telegraph, however, focused on the subsequent intervention Viscount Slim, a former SAS officer and son of the World War II general Bill Slim. Slim complained that ministers had failed to support or equip British troops and their commanders properly, stating, "At this time what they need is not criticism. They need support, encouragement and being given the right kit for the right job. This is not happening."

In a reference to Quentin Davies, he asked: "Is it not wrong that those who have no battle experience and have never had their hair parted by a bullet to make assumptions about what happens in combat and in that way make criticisms and show distrust to our commanders in the field, who are the ones that are doing the fighting?"

There was not a great deal Taylor could do to answer that one, and she hardly tried. Nevertheless, it was rather "below the belt". Although Davies is considered odious by many – not least the entire Conservative tribe – the British tradition is for civilian control of the Armed Forces.

Hence ministers are constantly required to "make assumptions about what happens in combat" and, where appropriate, it is right and proper for them to "show distrust to our commanders in the field" – albeit that this is usually done in private.

Astor, in many ways, was more constructive, asking for the assurance about the future use of Snatches. He did not get it – but that assurance should be given. The battle goes on.


Wednesday 5 November 2008

That question

During today's PMQs, Mr Gerald Howarth asked:

Will the Minister accept that when Major Morley was forced to deploy his troops in Snatch Land Rovers, he was given no choice, contrary to all the ministerial assurances given to commanders in the field that they would have whatever equipment they required?
The prime minister, speaking from a prepared script, (as is quite normal) responded:

That was a sad incident involving the deaths of young people serving our country. However, in recent years, we have done our best to provide the necessary equipment. We have spent more than £1 billion on new vehicles for operations. In 2006, we ordered 108 Mastiffs and, in 2007, took steps to increase vehicle numbers. We ordered 150 Ridgebacks and the first Jackals as part of a constant review of capability. In June, operational commanders were asked by the Defence Minister to look again at our vehicle options. More armoured vehicles were decided upon, and last week we were able to announce the purchase of nearly 700 vehicles and an upgrade of more than 200 vehicles. That is a total of 1,200 new vehicles, and that is why the Conservative Chairman of the Defence Committee said:

"The personal equipment that our Armed Forces now have is better than it's ever been."
The reply is, as one would expect, both evasive and dishonest. It is, of course, arguable as to whether, even in recent years, the claim that "we have done our best to provide the necessary equipment," is sustainable. Certainly, the government's performance has been better than it was – but that is measured from a very low base.

A charitable construction of "best" would suggest that it is still not good enough, otherwise the troops that were slaughtered in June last would still be alive. Those less forgiving might suggest that the government's performance was very far from "our best", and represents a lamentable performance.

The additional vehicles in the package to which Brown refers is, of course, good news but the timing is not so good. Some of these will not be in service until 2010, when the need is right now.

That it took so long to get this far is entirely unacceptable and, until we have all the details of the package, we will not know whether even this is adequate. As we well know, the MoD is quite capable of buying the wrong vehicles.

The final claim, though, is reprehensible. Brown artfully uses the term "personal equipment" to include vehicles, which it does not. The term covers only such items as uniforms, boots, body armour, packs and personal weapons.

Thus, while the "Conservative Chairman of the Defence Committee", James Arbuthnot did indeed say - on 1 February 2007, "They (the troops) also have better personal equipment than they have ever had," he also said in the same speech:

Although we read in our newspapers stories of poor equipment and demoralised men and women, we have the good fortune to see the reality. There are problems - as the Secretary of State was the first to acknowledge. We on the Defence Committee consider there to be problems with strategic lift. When we were in Iraq, we experienced problems both with lift and with armoured vehicles - those that we have there are old and hot.
The reference, it will be noted, was to Iraq and, in any event, was not a full-blown appraisal of the standard of the vehicles provided – much less of those in Afghanistan.

Gerald Howarth, of course, was not allowed a come-back. Thus, the "lies" stand on the record, to be dissected (or not) another day. There are times when even we can sympathise with the Conservatives.


Bogged down in the mire

What started as a straightforward story of simple negligence is now getting hopelessly bogged down in a mire of recriminations, accusations and counter-accusations, with the point being missed completely.

According to Thomas Harding's latest report, Special Forces soldiers "tore their hair out" at being allocated "Snatch" Land Rovers, described as "flimsy vehicles", after Cpl Sarah Bryant and three of her male colleagues had been killed last June.

The source is hardly impartial, coming as it does Adam Holloway, albeit a former regular soldier but also a Conservative MP. Nevertheless, it is probably true, especially in the light of a report in The News of the World which does not seem to have been picked up by The Telegraph or the diligent Tory MPs.

This records that Major Sebastian Morley, at the centre of the current storm, was moved to resign not just by the Sarah Bryant incident but by a second attack on a "Snatch" Land Rover. This took place in September in Nadi-ali, west of Lashkar Gah. No troops were killed so the incident was not revealed by the MoD.

However, according to the NOTW account, as the four men inside struggled to get out, two with injuries, they came under fire from the Taliban. Coalition forces rushed to their rescue and another massacre was prevented. A senior military source said: "Morale was badly hit by the death of Sarah Bryant and her colleagues. But after this second incident people were asking why nothing was done."

The paper cites an "insider" saying: "The first one was tough but the second knocked everyone for six. We could have been sending home another four coffins. "Frankly, it's a miracle lives weren't lost again. It has forced Maj Morley — a good bloke well-liked by his men — to resign. He could see more lives being lost and felt he had to take a stand."

This source continues: "Time and again we've asked for better vehicles and the excuse is they aren't available. It has clearly cost lives."

Despite the current focus being on defence minister Quentin Davies, under fire from the Tories, the broader implications of this second incident, and the new timeline, adds a whole new dimension to the issue.

As we reported earlier, suitable protected vehicles had already been ordered and, had urgent steps been taken, they could have been in theatre well before June, in time to prevent Sarah Bryant and her colleagues being killed.

These were the Australian Bushmasters, the order placed in April and confirmed in May by the British High Commission in Canberra.

There is no question of these vehicles not being suitable as they are currently used by Australian Special Forces, who work in a very similar manner to their British counterparts, on whom they are modelled. The vehicles are currently in Afghanistan, with the Australian forces (pictured).

We further pointed out that, when the Dutch in Afghanistan ordered Bushmasters – which were delivered in October 2006, they negotiated to draw them from existing Australian Army stocks rather than wait for a new-build, the Australian inventory then being topped-up when the manufacturers had built what amounted to replacement vehicles.

Given that authorisation to purchase by the British government had been given in April, and the fact that the Australian Army holds large stocks of these vehicles, it seems inconceivable that, had a formal request been made, immediate supplies could not have been made available.

Even with transport (a few days by air freighter) and the fitting of radios and electronic counter-measures, there still seems no reason why these vehicles could not have been in service with British Special Forces well before the end of May, in time to protect Sarah Bryant and her escorts.

With the second incident occurring in September, it would now appear that these vehicles were not even in place on this extended timescale, which begs the question, where were they? And, for that matter, where are they now?

As to Mr Holloway's "evidence", given yesterday during questions from the Commons' Defence Committee on the state of the Armed Force to the chief MoD civil servant Sir Bill Jeffrey, we learn not only that an SAS commander was "pulling his hair out making urgent requests that they should not have to have 'Snatch' before they deployed to Afghanistan this summer," but the unit "despaired" after numerous requests were ignored with bosses telling them the Snatch was suitable for their task.

The substantive point here seems to be the identity of those "bosses", and the actions and inactions of those further up the chain of command. It is great sport, in which shadow defence minister Gerald Howarth is indulging, to pontificate that: "This is the second example in two days of commanders being denied equipment which they had requested."

However, his complaint that: "Quentin Davies has been extraordinarily cavalier about the requests that commanders have made from the field," is slightly wide of the mark - as indeed is his assertion that, "If he cannot fulfil the role of equipping them (the troops) properly then he should consider his position."

That is not in any way to defend Davies, but he was not in post when the Sarah Bryant or the second incident occurred. Furthermore, ministers may not even have been directly involved in the decisions which led to the "Snatch" Land Rovers being used. But they may have been involved in the decision to allow what seems to be a fairly relaxed timescale for the delivery of the Bushmasters, in which case we need to look elsewhere than Quentin Davies for where the fault lies.

The Tories, though, seem more concerned with gaining a ministerial "scalp" than they do with getting to the bottom of this murky affair, finding out what went wrong and why, and how best – and most expeditiously – the system should be fixed.

We did suggest earlier that defence was too important to be treated in the conventional party political manner yet it seems, once again, that Tory tribalism is taking precedence over securing a safer environment for our troops.

Ironically, if only the Tories could be more focused, the failures they identify could well be greater that those to which they have alluded. In that case, the prize could be an even bigger "scalp" than the very junior minister they are targeting.