Tuesday 21 July 2009

The trouble with armoured vehicles

Originally published by Defence Management
Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Several of the MoD's newest armoured vehicles already have major design flaws according to defence author Richard North. The old way of thinking has to change.

The MoD and Armed Forces are unable to learn from their mistakes or admit erroneous decisions in the design and procurement of armoured vehicles resulting in a string of inadequate vehicles being sent to the frontlines of Afghanistan and tragically as a result, large numbers of casualties, a prominent defence author has said.

The death of Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe last week in a Viking armoured vehicle brought a renewed focus to the MoD's armoured fighting vehicle strategy. Although IEDs and landmines have proven to be an effective weapon utilised by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the MoD has only been partially successful in buying better protected vehicles. .

Richard North, author of the book "Ministry of Defeat" and the editor of the Defence of the Realm blog, outlined to Defencemanagement.com a series of poor procurement decisions and strategies that have resulted in a widely ineffective fleet of armoured vehicles coming up against IEDs and landmines.

"The concept of risk has been ignored," North said in an interview. As a result this premise is "eroding the ability to field certain vehicles."

The vehicle protection problems faced by British troops today in Afghanistan can be traced back to various campaigns during the Cold War era including in Rhodesia. The effectiveness of using IEDs on vehicles became clear yet military planners in the US and Britain for the most part ignored the new threats. Heavier armoured vehicles have to be transferred by ship because they are too heavy to fly. Military planners felt that this negated the advantages that an expeditionary force would have.

Even after the use of IEDs became a prevalent tool of the insurgency in Iraq, procurement officials in Britain continued to buy the same types of vehicles for operations in Afghanistan.

The Snatch, Viking and Vector were all sent to Afghanistan in the first year of major British combat operations but are now all being withdrawn from service due to their flawed designs and a lack of adequate armour to deflect explosions. Dozens of British servicemen have died in the vehicles during operations due to poor protection even though Snatch was upgraded with additional armour and the Viking and Vector vehicles were procured in 2006.

Protection has been the primary focus of vehicle designers in an effort to overcome casualties caused by bomb attacks. While there have been some successes such as the Mastiff and Ridgeback armoured vehicles, which the Taliban have effectively given up attacking, there have been widespread concerns with other models in the new fleet of vehicles the MoD has procured under an urgent operational requirement.

The Jackal has attracted the most concerns due to its design according to North. The front seats are over the front wheels making the driver and front passenger vulnerable to any explosion. Problems with the weight distribution have made the Jackal susceptible to rollovers, and bolt on armour has proven to be ineffective and has taken away the little mobility the vehicle has.

Army commanders have also been forced to use the vehicle, originally designed for off-road reconnaissance, for fixed road reconnaissance, supply escorts and patrols.

Already ten servicemen have died in the Jackal, despite the MoD spending hundreds of millions of pounds procuring it.

But the problems do not stop there. Last year the MoD ordered 262 Husky armoured vehicles from Navistar Defence, to be used as medium sized command and support vehicle in less dangerous areas. But according to North the deal came just as it was confirmed that the Husky had failed a blast test during a US Army vehicle contract competition. US Army officials are alleged to have expressed concerns over the "basic" design of the hull bridge which resulted in the Husky failing the mine test.

Given the success of v-shaped hulls on vehicles in Afghanistan, it is not clear why the MoD is procuring a standard hulled vehicle. Word of the US Army test failure was not announced until after the MoD had signed the £150m contract with Navistar.

There are also concerns over the new Panther armoured vehicle which North calls fundamentally flawed and "stupidity beyond measure". Panther is a designated command vehicle which will allow the Taliban to target higher ranking officers and field commanders in greater numbers than ever before.

The MoD is scheduled to buy 400 of the vehicles which North describes as "a fine modern product of the Italian automobile industry, and therefore completely unsuitable for military use."

The outside of the vehicle is made from "crushable" or "deformable" materials. While the Panther is well protected, any attack by an IED or mine will cause significant damage to the vehicle resulting in it becoming non-operational.

Procurement officials spent £400,000 per vehicle but it did not come with adequate protection for the engine, no electronic counter measures equipment and it only held three people. North estimates that by the time the full upgrades are completed, the MoD could be spending up to £700,000 on a vehicle that the insurgents can destroy with £20 worth of explosives.

The MoD for its part has argued that a number of upgrades have made the Husky, Jackal and Panther better protected and more able to deal with the operational challenges in Afghanistan.

The number of vehicle design flaws is part of a wider debate on mobility v. protection. Many vehicle design experts have argued that you cannot have both. If you have an agile vehicle it is limited in how much armour it can have. If you have a heavily armoured vehicle, case in point the Mastiff, you lose the element of surprise and ability to rapidly descend on the enemy or exit an operational centre.

North disagrees.

"I think it is a false paradigm. The Army doctrine says that you optimise on mobility and for specific theatres or specific threats you add on protection. Protection is seen as a separate issue added on after the event with design parameters," North said.

The problem is that when a "mobile" vehicle needs additional protection, engineers use bolt on armour which prejudices mobility. Vehicle engineers and procurement officials in turn conclude that mobility and protection are mutually contradictory.

Bolt on armour in many cases has proven to be ineffective against IEDs and mines.

Engineers should instead be "optimising for protection and then adding mobility" in vehicles according to North. A mobile well protected vehicle is possible but it would require a different mindset throughout the MoD's project teams and within industry.

There is still a large adherence to the successes of the past, North argued. Using mobile armoured vehicles to defeat Rommel in North Africa in the 1940s is still a primary reference point for today's armoured vehicle fighting strategies even though the scope of warfare has changed dramatically since then.

As a result, of the hundreds of new vehicles the MoD is rushing into service, many are plagued with design flaws or are used the wrong way.

"They are repeating the same mistakes and are doomed to repeat them over and over again," North said. With problems and concerns already arising in the Husky, Jackal and Panther vehicles, more mistakes could be on the way.

Richard North is the author of "Ministry of Defeat" and the website Defence of the Realm.