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.