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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The Snatch and the Mastiff are not comparable vehicles. A better comparison would be with an RG-32M, which would be as unremarkable as a Snatch, albeit better protected.

Hennessey thus makes the classic mistake of equating protection with bulk and weight. At seven tons, the Jackal is a monster machine – yet the equivalent (in weight) is the RG-32, which is proof against the IEDs which are destroying Jackals.

Protection and operational efficiency, therefore, are not mutually exclusive – even if the (British) Army is labouring under the impression that they are. And that is why the relatives are going to court.

Posted by Richard North | Report as abusive

You wrote;-“…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…”

That is the best advice I’ve heard for a long time. Why doesn’t our government do so? After all, they aren’t improving the situation in either Iraq or Afghanistan (or Pakistan, or Iran, where a part of the CIA’s long term aim is to destabilise Sunni Baluchistan, to achieve a covert presence among a large minority population in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran). They aren’t making the area safer for the local people. They aren’t making us safer in Britain or the US. They aren’t making profits for the oil companies, but they are making profits for the US/UK oily-military-industrial-complex. Is it worth soldiers lives just to increase the profits of Dick Cheney and Halliburton, or the ex-Etonian and ex-Sandhurst directors of the Aegis mercenary company?

Posted by farnaby | Report as abusive

I agree that our troup’s should not be in Iraq or Afghanistan I think Tony Blair tryed to do what Maggie Thatcher did with the faulkland and that was to boost her popularity at a time of disaccord with the Tory Goverment at the time. It worked for her but no for Blair and I for one think I should be brought to Justice

Posted by peter williams | Report as abusive

It’s a minor point, but the LRDG did not use Land Rovers during the Second World War. Indeed, they could not, as they were not built until 1948 onwards.

Posted by Terence John | Report as abusive

With reference to Mr North’s comments about a better comparison being between the Snatch and RG-32, I would point out that the British Army has Snatch vehicles and Mastiffs – but not the RG-32. It does have the Panther – being phased in after a lengthy and expensive upgrade to fix some major problems. That might have been a better comparison – but the Panther would not have been around in Hennessy’s time.

As far as the notion that no-one in the Army understands that “Protection and operational efficiency, therefore, are not mutually exclusive – “, I would say that this is a very clearly understood issue which has taken up a lot of thought over the last few decades. However, Mr North should be aware that vehicle designers are no longer under the direct control of the military customer and more and more equipment is effectively bought off the shelf and then modified as required.

Furthermore, increasingly onerous demands are being placed upon vehicles in terms of operational performance levels and these make it harder to create a well protected vehicle that also makes for a good “hearts and minds” street patrol unit.

I speak from some experience as I am the designer of the the Cougar, the base vehicle for the Mastiff, a vehicle which Mr North has praised n a number of occasions.

Posted by Murray Hammick | Report as abusive

With reference to Mr Murray Hammick’s comment, can I suggest that he re-read’s Mr North’s comment and the point he is trying to make. The point here is that the British Army has consistantly made the claim for the last 3 years that there is catagorically no alternative to the Snatch in terms of weight/size and impact on the “hearts and minds” versus blast protection (ie it is a choice between a vehicle the size of a Snatch or a vehicle the size of a Mastiff). This is not true as evidenced by the existance of the RG-32 which is not much larger / more impactful than a Snatch, but which is far more protected. Ie the Army could have taken the decision in 2006 to deploy RG-32s in the “light” role and Mastiffs in the “heavy” role. One suspects that the much protracted (and hugely expensive) purchase of the Panther actually had an impact on the choice to stick with the mantra that it is a Snatch or Mastiff….

Posted by Nigel Scaife | Report as abusive

With reference to Mr Scaife’s comments, I fully agree that the RG32 would be a possible compromise – however, my point was that Mr Hennessy could only be expected to deal with choices available to him at that time – that is to say, vehicles that are in service today rather than talking about another purchase. Hence my comment that Panther might also have been a candidate – but that this had not emerged from its improvement work to make it fit for service and Mr Hennessy would not have seen it out in service.

It might be of interest that the RG-32 was considered by the British Army as a candidate for its Future Command and Liaison Vehicle requirement – a contract which was awarded to the Panther (ironically). However, the point is that the RG-32 was thoroughly tested and deemed not to be the best vehicle on parade.

(In fact, there were a number of other candidate vehicles; the Dingo is one which is in service with a number of armies and which is doing very well by all accounts – and yet we never seem to hear about this or the other possible solutions.)

I agree that in the light of the Panther debacle it might have made sense to send the vehicles back to the maker and claimed the MOD’s moneys back, but in today’s litigious world it might not have been so simple.

I do not for one moment dismiss the awful truth that the Snatch has been badly hit on operations and that unnecessarily heavy casualties have been the result. I, like so many others, have good friends serving and am looking at a younger generation that is now entering the system to go and do its bit to keep us safe at home.

There are no easy answers to any of this and in many respects the prospects for peace seem as far away as ever. And there can be no doubt that whatever solution is evetually found, it will be political rather than military in nature.

Posted by Murray Hammick | Report as abusive

[…] and brave British officer in Helmand recently. I asked him if he was ashamed the British were still using the Snatch Land Rover – a lightly covered Jeep that’s been an easy target for Taliban bombs and has permitted many […]

Posted by Snowblog – America has the toys to impact Afghanistan | Report as abusive

I think the point has been missed entirely.
Nit picking about the vehicles used is not useful.
What is needed is a proper study to come up with a vehicle fit for purpose.
For example, in the days of Ian Smith in Rhodesia they had a well armoured vehicle, especially designed to withstand roadside bombs.
It had a profile like the keel of a boat underneath deflecting any blast outwards and upwards. Well armoured against rpg rounds and sporting some good guns and able to hold a lot of armed troops.
Onto the drawing board is where we will reduce casualties, not converting light-weight 4 x 4’s

Posted by Damien Handslip | Report as abusive