Thursday 13 November 2008

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committee, says the paper, he had said that once the replacements were in place "the more vulnerable Snatch would be withdrawn from service in Afghanistan".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 Once Vector had been deployed fully, the more vulnerable Snatch would be withdrawn from service in Afghanistan.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ordered (less those held back for pre-deployment training and development) had been delivered, the "Snatches" would be withdrawn.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.