This week’s Top Gear had a very interesting segment about the British Army’s use of ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles in Afghanistan. It is a subject that has been well written about, but now that Operation Herrick is winding down, is it time to pose some questions on British military procurement? It is well known that the British Army entered the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan relying almost solely on the faithful Land Rover for patrolling. Was this a case of simply retaining equipment that had been intended to fight previous wars? Did budgetary constraints prevent proper planning?
One thing that the recent, ‘post-modern’ conflicts have brought about is a re-assesment of the traditional dichotomy of ‘armoured’ and ‘soft’ vehicles. For ‘wars amongst the peoples’, main battle tanks are clearly too big and heavy – physically it is hard to move them around villages, and psychologically they are rather intimidating. Yet the Land Rover proved to be far too lightly armoured to protect servicemen when on patrol, in particular against the roadside bombs and other forms of Improvised Explosive Devices which proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2007 – four years after the British Army went into Iraq, and a year after Britain’s commitment in Helmand province escalated to Brigade and then Divisional level, it was becoming clear that the Land Rover was no longer fit for the task in hand.
The first of the new breed of vehicles to be ordered were the Mastiff, Ridgeback and Wolfhound, which are all variants of the American-produced Cougar. Designed by Force Protection Inc – by a British team! – the British Army has in service around 400 Mastiffs, 125 Wolfhounds and 160 Ridgebacks. The original order from the MOD was for 108 vehicles at a cost of £35m. This first batch of vehicles were deployed to Iraq in late 2006, before a further batch of Mastiff’s were ordered in October 2007, at a cost of £100m. These orders came via Urgent Operational Requirements – essentially, when the troops on the ground need something yesterday, in order to make up for the accountants not letting them buy it beforehand. Further purchases have been made since then, taking the total to almost 700 Cougar-variant vehicles. The British variants seem to be heavily armoured compared to the American version.
The Warthog is actually based on a design by the Singapore-based ST Kinetics, called the Bronco. In December 2008 the MOD ordered 100 Warthogs from ST Kinetics, at a cost of £150m. Incidentially, the purchase of the Warthogs came as part of a package of £700m worth of UORs. The Warthogs replaced the lighter-armoured Viking which had been used in Afghanistan previously, but had proved vulnerable to IEDs and roadside bombs. The Vikings were being used in an environment for which they were not procured, having originally been purchased as amphibious vehicles for the Royal Marines. Post Afghanistan the Warthogs will be used by the Royal Artillery as support for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
The Jackal and Coyote were designed by the British company Supacat. The first batch of Jackals – 172 – were ordered in 2008. In 2010 another 140 were ordered. Whilst the Jackal is a 4×4 chassis, the Coyote is a 6×6 variant. Many are believed to be used in different forms by Special Forces, and have not been declared in fleet totals. The Foxhound is a light patrol vehicles, based on the Ocelot, designed by Force Protection. The Husky is produced by International Trucks.
In the space of armoured six years, the MOD has purchased over 1,000 vehicles, at a price of hundreds of millions of pounds. From a procurement point of view, it is hard to believe that Urgent Operational Requirements will ever represent value for money – the troops on the ground need it urgently, the politicans will always sign it off to avoid adverse publicity, and therefore the contractors know that they can ramp the price up. Whereas if such purchases were made in ‘peacetime’, without the rush to get them into action, a more efficient procurement exercise would probably deliver better value for money. Of course, it is difficult to predict exactly what kind of vehicles will be needed in any war, as wars don’t always tend to give us plenty of warning, and any conflict will require unique modifications for any equipment, down to climate, local cultures, and so on.
But by the same token, if we don’t know exactly what we will need, should we therefore think not about having equipment that is great in one scenario, but rather having flexibility that allows for easy modification to suit particular needs? There is only so much you can do with a Land Rover Chassis, after all. The same approach applies to air and sea assets – are giant aircraft carriers the right platforms for the wars of the next 50 years? The Type 45 Destroyers are marvellous anti-aircraft warships, but are they flexible enough to react to a range of scenarios? Whilst the Eurofighter is a finely tuned dogfighter, but was any thought given to how it might contribute to a similar range of scenarios? The British Army’s new camouflage was unveilved in the past few years, and the MOD’s policy was that it should be able to work in all environments, rather than just being excellent in one.
The MOD has recently produced a policy entitled ‘Generic Vehicles Architecture’ or GVA. The idea seems to be to create a single standard architecture for British military vehicles – sensible, given the experience of vehicles in Afghanistan. The first ‘post-Afghanistan’ British Army vehicle is the Panther – 401 of these four wheel drive, light multi-role vehicles have been ordered. The Panther is an Italian vehicles, based on the Iveco LMV. With a contract worth £160m contract, they are being assembled by BAE Systems in the UK. The Panther does appear to be a long-term procurement, and is slated to replace the CVRT series of light armoured vehicles (Scorpion et al), the FV432 and Saxon personnel carriers and the Land Rover Wolf. That the Panther is replacing light armoured vehicles and the Land Rover Wolf, suggests that it represents a shift in vehicle policy and doctrine.
Several lessons seem clear from the experience of military vehicles in Afghanistan. The first lesson seems to be that poor military procurement in peacetime – often based on the assumption of there not being a war in the forseeable future and hence money can be saved – actually ends up costing lives and even more money once war inevitably happens anyway. Secondly, it has often been thought that the British Army prepares to fight the last war. In the case of Afghanistan, it is hard to argue otherwise. The Army’s mobility was based overwhelmingly on the Land Rover – a vehicle used extensively by the Army tearing up and down thw Autobahns during the Cold War, and in Northern Ireland. After the end of the Cold War, did it occur to anyone that Britain would find herself fighting different kinds of wars, and that it was not necessarily equipped properly? Granted, it is difficult for anyone to forsee events such as 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts, but did anyone in the Army or the MOD foresee the need to be flexible, to expect the unexpected? Short term economies always seem to cost more money – and lives – in the long term.