Thursday, March 15, 2012

An essay in incompetence

Triggered by the recent loss of the Warrior in Afghanistan, I have been revisiting the issue of vehicle mine protection, acquiring some additional photographs in the process. It seemed a pity to waste them as, putting these together in a sequence, even with minimal commentary they make a powerful statement about incompetence. The pictures give testimony in a way that mere words cannot.

The value of this photo essay though, is that it transcends the subject of military vehicle design. When push comes to shove, we see the problem, we see that a solution exists. And then we see the British response. Crucially though, we find that it was concocted by senior officers in the Army, devised by British industry, accepted by civil servants, authorised by ministers, approved by the Treasury, endorsed by Parliament (which has a select committee look at it), and lauded by the media.

Thus, not one but hundreds of people contributed to getting it wrong, in a very visible way. And if they can do that, when it is so visible, what about all the other decisions, where there isn't the same visibility and the consequences are not so immediate and dire?

Well, we know the answer … even if the result is not so easily illustrated … so here goes:

Mining of roads by guerrilla forces has always been problematic, but one of the early and most extensive examples stems from the Rhodesian "Bush War" of 1966 to around 1980.

During that period, there were 2,504 vehicle detonations of landmines (mainly Soviet TM46s), killing 632 people and injuring 4,410. The mining of roads increased as the war intensified; indeed the increase from 1978 (894 mines or 2.44 mines were detonated or recovered a day) by 233.7 percent in 1979 (2,089 mines or 5.72 mines a day).

A typical result is illustrated above – a Land Rover which has taken the full force of a blast, demolishing the engine compartment and front wheels. The fate of the driver and passenger(s) is not known.

As a result, the Rhodesian security forces devised a number of specialist vehicles, mainly conversions from existing vehicles, although they were almost entirely rebuilt. The example above is the Kudu light patrol vehicle, based on a Land Rover "donor" vehicle. Note the protected v-shaped armoured cell, set back, with the driver well clear of the front wheels.

So successful were the design concepts that they were adopted by the South Africans who built a range of specialist vehicles.  The one above is the RG-31, issued to US forces in Iraq - the photograph was published in a British newspaper in June 2006, illustrating the value of a mine protected vehicle, from which the crew had emerged with only very slight injuries.

The response of the Army/MoD to the outcry over inadequately protected vehicles was in August 2006 to order another hundred of these 7-ton Pinzgauer Vector "protected patrol vehicles" at a cost of £100 million, for service in Afghanistan. Officials and ministers, briefed by the Army, argued that "mobility" was more important than "protection" and that armouring against mines an IEDs would add weight and impair the performance of the vehicle.

But what we see from the picture so clearly is that the military geniuses who specified the vehicle had the driver and his mate over the front wheels, right where they were most vulnerable to blast. After five had died, and many more were injured, the vehicles were withdrawn in 2009.

Now, after the denials, obfuscations and prevarication, we now have a custom-built protected patrol vehicle, called the Foxhound, ready to be introduced into Afghanistan this year, six years after we entered in force and two years before we are due to depart. About the same weight as the Vector, they are actually cheaper (£90 million for 100), and of similar if not better performance.

Thus, more than forty years after the Rhodesians had devised a solution, after the waste of millions of pounds and the unnecessary deaths of dozens, and the serious injury of many hundreds - costing us many millions in ongoing care - we finally have an answer ... just as we are about to leave.

This is your government for you. If you allow it to do so, and are unwise enough to trust what it tells you, it will kill you. And even if it doesn't kill you, it will rob you blind.