The House will be aware of widespread public concern over the thirty-seven deaths of British servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of injuries sustained while using Snatch Land Rovers. I have recently been asked to institute a public inquiry into the use of these vehicles. After very careful consideration, I have decided that a public inquiry would not be the right way to proceed. Given the level of parliamentary and public interest in this issue, I want to explain to the House the reasons for my decision. First, however, I wish to put on record my appreciation of the bravery and dedication of each of those thirty-seven people who have so tragically died in the service of their country.
I have sought comprehensive advice on whether the continued use of Snatch is necessary, particularly given the substantial investment we have made in new protected vehicles in recent years. The clear advice to me from military operational commanders, unanimously endorsed by the chiefs of staff, is that Snatch remains essential to the success of our operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the light of this authoritative assessment, I have decided that it would be inappropriate and unnecessary to conduct an inquiry. These are matters on which I must rely on the considered judgment of military commanders who have experience of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and access to specialised military engineering expertise.
It has been suggested that Snatch should be replaced by more heavily armoured vehicles, such as the Warrior or the very successful Mastiff. These are good vehicles and they have an important role to play in our operations, but they cannot be used for all purposes. Even the new Ridgback, the smaller version of Mastiff, will be three times heavier than Snatch. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the nature of the operating environment means that heavier vehicles, which are often constrained largely to main roads, are simply unable to access the places we need to be in order to deliver our objectives.
Furthermore, our tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely ones of counter-insurgency. To do this, we need to win the support and confidence of local people. This can only be done by face-to-face interaction, demonstrating to the local people that we are working in their interests. Our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven that better armoured vehicles, which tend by definition to be larger and heavier, are viewed by the local population as aggressive and intimidating. Their size and weight mean too that they can cause serious damage to roads, buildings, irrigation channels and drainage systems. All these factors can inflame local opinion against UK troops—working in favour of our enemy and actually increasing the threat levels to our people.
It is for these reasons that military commanders require a range of vehicles, from which they can choose the one best suited to the required task—and in this context, there remains a critical requirement for a Light Protected Patrol Vehicle (LPPV), such as the Snatch Land Rover. Small, mobile and agile, it is ideal for allowing engagement with the local population, often in areas which would be inaccessible to heavier vehicles.
However, Snatch itself is not the “unarmoured” vehicle which it is sometimes claimed to be; although lightly armoured, that armour has saved many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, the Snatch’s ballistic protection is derived from composite materials, rather than steel. This limits splintering when penetrated, and means that casualty rates are lower than in comparable vehicles.
It is also important to be clear that we cannot assume that if all those 37 servicemen and women had been in more heavily armoured vehicles they would have survived. We cannot make Snatch, or indeed any other vehicle, invulnerable; any vehicle can be overmatched if faced with an overwhelming attack. It is precisely for this reason that armour can only ever be one factor in the way we protect our people. We employ a layered approach to protection, of which armour is but one part, and the innermost layer. We seek first to avoid being seen by the enemy; then, if seen, to avoid being hit. In both cases, a low profile, coupled with speed and agility, are important factors which critically complement our well tested tactics, techniques and procedures. The recent introduction of the light-strike Jackal vehicle, which has proved very popular, demonstrates the importance we place on these factors, none of which are characteristic of more heavily armoured vehicles. Finally, if hit, we seek to prevent the vehicle from being penetrated. This is the sole reason for armouring our vehicles.
This is not by any means to say that nothing further can be done to protect those servicemen and women who need to operate LPPVs. The Snatch Land Rover has undergone a number of technical enhancements since its first deployment to Iraq in 2003. Most recently, we have modified the current variant, the Snatch 2A, to enhance significantly its power, mobility and protection. This effectively generates a new variant, the Snatch Vixen, especially configured for operations in Afghanistan. Some of these vehicles are already in service in Afghanistan and over the coming year we will be increasing the size of the fleet. This, together with the £700 million procurement of new vehicles which the Prime Minister announced in October, will enable us to continue reducing the scope of the Snatch 2A vehicle’s role until it is used only within our camps.
We do not believe that there is a better vehicle than Snatch Vixen currently available anywhere in the world to fulfil the LPPV requirement. But we are also looking to the future and anticipating new threats, and we have begun a programme to develop the next generation of LPPV which will in due course take the place of Snatch Vixen.