When is the wrong vehicle the right vehicle?

June 26, 2009

Patrick Hennessey-Patrick Hennessey is the author of “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars.” The opinions expressed are his own.-

In the same week in which Major Sean Birchall became the 169th British service person to die in Afghanistan since the start of operations in 2001 (and perhaps more significantly, as is often unmentioned, the 164th serviceperson to die since the British moved into Helmand Province only three years ago), four families announced that they were planning to sue the Ministry of Defence over the deaths of loved ones in the lightly armoured “Snatch” Land Rover in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Major Birchall was on patrol in the Jackal, a vehicle with less protection than the Snatch but much more mobility and firepower. The 10th person to die in the vehicle it seems that similar concerns are being raised over the suitability of the Jackal as have been being voiced for some time now over the Snatch.

As someone who spent months on patrol in Iraq in the Snatch and even longer driving both on and off road around Afghanistan in the even more vulnerable WMIK (the topless Land Rover largely unchanged since the Long Range Desert Group charged around North Africa in it in the Second World War and the vehicle the Jackal was brought in to replace) the public concern over military vehicles is at once understandable, praiseworthy and a little disconcerting.

Understandable because grief is a terrible thing and grieving families will always want to try and understand why they have lost husbands, sons and brothers and praiseworthy because it is only right that societies should try and ensure that the men and women sent to fight on their behalf are equipped as well as can be, but disconcerting because the argument always seems to lose sight of certain considerations; the devil, as always, is in the detail.

Consider, for a moment, a Snatch Land Rover driving down the Strand. A few people will no doubt stop and look, some will point and a few will know what it is and wonder why it is there, but it will likely go mostly unremarked, dwarfed by the buses and (no doubt) mostly stationary in traffic.

If the exercise were repeated with a Mastiff, one of the better protected vehicles in Afghanistan, or one of the Warriors which have done such sterling work in Iraq, or even the British Army’s most heavily protected vehicle, the Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, then traffic would grind to a standstill as people dropped their shopping and either ran or stared.

Protection, although important, is only one of many consideration for a commander, be it a junior one like I was, planning local area patrols, or a senior General working out what assets to use where. For all its vulnerability I preferred the WMIK because liked being able to see and hear and interact with people as we drove around, I know many who have a similar opinion of the Jackal and admire its all terrain ability. Soldiers also value being able to keep a low profile, a soft posture, something not exactly feasible in a tank.

We would be better protected if we went out in more heavily armoured vehicles but then we would be better protected if we simply stayed in our bases and never patrolled. In fact, the men and women serving in Afghanistan would be best protected of all if they weren’t there and we brought them all home: sometimes a degree of protection is rightly sacrificed for operational effectiveness.

And laudable though public concern is, the only people who can make the call of what is and isn’t operationally effective are the commanders on the ground. I applaud the efforts of all those who seek to secure the best for the military and would agree with those who argue that politicians have not always honoured their side of the bargain by sending troops to war ill-equipped and under-funded, but I remain wary of tactical decision being made in the Courts at home and will watch the development of these cases with interest.

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