We have procured a substantial number of protected mobility vehicles over the last 12 months and invested heavily in further improvements to their physical protection as threats have emerged. We have delivered Mastiff and Vector protected mobility vehicles to Afghanistan and they are on the streets saving lives now. We are procuring a total of more than 450 of these vehicles, which is clearly a significant investment. In addition, the Prime Minister has recently announced the procurement of 150 additional protected vehicles for operational use, which will be known as Ridgeback.
A number of constituents have expressed to me in the strongest possible words their deep concern about the number of our armed forces personnel who have died as a result of explosive devices at the roadside, and ask me whether that might be due to a lack of sufficient protective vehicles. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House today that when commanders take decisions in matching operations and vehicles, their choice of vehicle is not compromised by an absence of sufficient protected vehicles?
A number of commanders have been able to say to us quite clearly that over the last few years the equipment provided to our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has fundamentally improved. The House needs to ensure that we do not try to second-guess decisions that are quite rightly taken by commanders about which vehicle is appropriate for use on a particular operation. We need a range of vehicles; we cannot do everything from a Mastiff. Our responsibility is clearly to ensure that there are sufficient of all the different kinds of vehicle available to commanders so that they have a free choice to pick the right vehicle for the right job as they see it at the time. That is what we are seeking to do and I hope my hon. Friend would appreciate that we have done so with a substantial degree of success over the last couple of years.
I commend the Secretary of State for ordering the Ridgeback vehicles—the four-wheeled version of the Mastiffs, which have an outstanding track record in Afghanistan and are very popular with the troops. Does not the Minister accept, however, that with the arrival of the future rapid effect utility vehicles, the balance between vehicles designed for blast deflection rather than blast absorption will be tipped too much towards the latter type?
Yes, of course we have to ensure that we have the right balance in the range of vehicles available. The hon. Lady should not be under any illusion, however, that in the development process of FRES––future rapid effect system—adequate mine protection will not need to be proven and tested to destruction as appropriate. Our problem is that we are not able to expose those tests in the same way as civilian organisations because that would put our troops at risk. But we need a vehicle with a high degree of mobility, which will of course need to be set off against the essential requirement for mine protection and blast deflection to be built into the vehicle’s design.
But does not the Minister share my sense of concern and, indeed, embarrassment that those brave soldiers who willingly and enthusiastically drive those vehicles in their protective duties are paid so much less than those drivers of trucks who are currently holding the nation to ransom?