Thursday 28 May 2009

A failure of supervision

As the publication of the book draws near - now scheduled for next Thursday, the same day as the euro-elections - we are beginning the largely thankless task of getting media attention for the launch. To that effect, the first of many press releases have hit the street, couched in terms that may interest the media.

Our first is entitled "Failure of supervision by MPs 'caused deaths of soldiers'". It makes the case - which we have so often made before - that Parliament, and especially the Defence Committee, owes a special duty of care to members of the Armed Forces, to which effect we rightly (in our view) hold MPs responsible for some of our soldiers' deaths - where they could have intervened to save them.

Such a charge is the mirror-image of the "expenses" scandal, where the argument is that, while MPs have been enriching themselves at the taxpayers' expense, soldiers have been dying becuase they have not done their jobs properly. It is difficult sometimes to make a link between the comfortable, well-appointed committee rooms in Westminister and the arid deserts of Helmand, but link there is. This is what we are telling the media:

Failures by a powerful MPs' watchdog committee killed at least five soldiers with many more being badly injured, claims Richard North, author of a hard hitting book on the Iraq war entitled Ministry of Defeat.

The five soldiers included Sergeant Lee "Jonno" Johnson who was killed in December 2007 when his vehicle was hit by a mine, and Major Alexis Roberts of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who had mentored Prince William during his time training at Sandhurst military academy.

They and the others were killed in a dangerously vulnerable "protected patrol vehicle" called the Pinzgauer Vector which should never have been ordered, says North. Yet in 2006 the vehicle order was "welcomed" by MPs in the Defence Committee, chaired by James Arbuthnot, who has since been criticised for claiming expenses for "swimming pool maintenance".(1)

Although MPs were been diligent in claiming their tax-free expenses, when it came to watching over the safety of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, they did not pick up fatal flaws in the machines, which offered no protection to mines and roadside bombs, claims North.

The Ministry of Defence first ordered Vectors on June 2006 at a cost of cost £437,000 each, to replace the the Snatch Land Rovers* costing £60,000, in which 37 soldiers have been killed. But so poor was their design that it was incapable of protecting drivers and passengers from more than hand grenades, yet they were being earmarked for Afghanistan where 7.5 kg anti-tank mines were common.(2)

Even when David Gould, deputy chief executive of the Defence Procurement Agency, sitting alongside the then defence secretary Des Browne, warned the committee on 11 July 2006 that they would "actually provide not a great deal more in terms of protection than Snatch", MPs failed to respond.

The choice of the vehicle was not examined again until December last year, but committee chairman James Arbuthnot – himself a former defence minister – only asked a question about its ability to operate on rough terrain. He did not query the deaths and injuries.

Only in April of this year did Arbuthnot finally question defence secretary John Hutton about the safety of the machine, when he was told that the Vector had been the "least successful" of the armoured vehicles purchased by the MoD and that "Mistakes were probably made". On 1 May, three years after the vehicles had been ordered, the MoD officially announced that they were to be withdrawn because they were "too vulnerable" to roadside bombs. Military vehicles often have a service life of 20-30 years.

Bizarrely, the Vectors are being replaced by "uparmoured" Snatch Land Rovers, the very vehicles they were intended to replace. The MoD has spent nearly £50 million on purchasing Vectors so far, and has been forced to spend another £5 million on upgrading the Land Rovers to take their place.

Says Dr North, had the MoD deliberately sought out a design to maximise deaths and injuries, the Army, in selecting the Vector, could not have made a better choice. If Mr Arbuthnot perhaps had been more concerned about soldiers' lives than his swimming pool maintenance, five soldiers might now be alive and many more would not have been injured. He says the design defects were obvious before the vehicles were even bought.(3)

Other MPs warned about the dangers – including the retiring MP Ann Winterton in April 2007, before the vehicles had been deployed, in a debate attended by Mr Arbuthnot and other defence committee members – but the warnings were ignored. (4)

Conservative leader David Cameron has called for reforms to the select committee system, including banning former ministers from being chairmen.


Notes for editors.

1. Defence Committee Report on Defence Procurement 2006, 28 November 2006.

2. The manufacturer's specification cites protection from "two NATO L2A2 hand grenades detonating simultaneously only 150mm below the floor pan" – 350g of high explosive. This vehicle was to be deployed into one of the heaviest mined countries in the world, up against Russian anti-tank mines housing 7.5 Kg of high explosive.

3. The Vector has a "cab forward" layout, with the driver and the front seat passenger sat over the wheel arches. If a mine detonated under a wheel, either the driver or the passenger would be directly in the so-called "cone of destruction", exposed to the full force of the blast. The Snatch has an "engine forward" layout and there is some distance between the front wheels and the occupants of the cab, allowing, as some have, soldiers to escape the full force of a mine and survive.

4. During his tenure as defence procurement minister, James Arbuthnot was responsible for giving the go-ahead to the Phoenix UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) for the Army. With an original planned in-service date of 1989 and despite having even then failed to perform, production was approved in the summer of 1996.

Unable to cope with the heat of Iraqi summers, it was withdrawn from operation service in May 2006, leaving the Army without a vital capability. Phoenix was formally retired in March 2008 - at an overall cost of £345 million - after less than seven years of operational service. Mr Arbuthnot was also the minister who ordered the ill-fated HC2 Chinook helicopters at an original cost of £259 million and have since cost £422 million for eight aircraft which have yet to fly.

Other projects for which Mr Arbuthnot was responsible - in whole of part - were the Nimrod MR4 project, the Future Large Aircraft (Airbus A400M) which has now been seriously delayed, and he masterminded the privatisation of Armed Forces married quarters.
Perhaps it is unfair to single out one man - but there again, if this is not done, where does the buck actually stop?