It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Williams, for this debate on military vehicles. My initial involvement in defence policy came about in July 2004, following the statement made by the then Secretary of State, who is now the Secretary of State for Transport, entitled “Delivering Security in a Changing World: Future Capabilities”. My interest and concern were first sparked, as the Minister will know, by fears about the future of the Cheshire Regiment, but they then progressed to defence matters in general and protected vehicles in particular.
Although we are now in the first decade of the 21st century, the design and procurement of vehicles does not fill one with confidence. I am neither an engineer nor an expert in physics, but I understand the general principles behind the design of vehicles that reinforce the protective element in certain types of warfare, such as counter-insurgency. History is a great teacher, and it is such a tragedy that lessons that were learned the hard way in previous conflicts appear not to have been studied by those who now make decisions about procurement.
I have been unable to visit Afghanistan yet, as others have done—I know that the Minister has been on numerous occasions—but my efforts are entirely motivated by the desire that we should prevent unnecessary loss of life by keeping an open mind and using a little common sense. I sought this debate because I am totally convinced of the need to change the mindset of those at the top, including the military, the civil service and politicians, about counter-insurgency, where mine warfare and all its variants are rife. If that mindset could be changed, and if they applied certain well-proven principles, the death and injury toll could be reduced, tactical advantage could be gained, and a genuine sense of security could be given to the Afghan people.
In my debate of 10 June 2008 on counter-insurgency, the Minister said that we need to look at what has happened in the past 20 years. In fact, Ministers and the Army should look back well beyond that time frame, which is relatively short in defence terms, to the Rhodesian conflict—let us face it, that is a tragic country now—as well as to Oman and Aden, and even back to the second world war.
My theme throughout has been consistent, and is based on simple engineering and physics. I refer to the principle of blast deflection rather than of blast absorption. The V-shaped hull of the Mastiff vehicle deflects the force blast, whereas the addition of massive armour to a flat platform acts to absorb it. Interestingly, the new steel armour on the Ministry of Defence website virtually proves my point, because it has been designed with holes that will, in effect, deflect bullets. Both of those types of vehicle are now in theatre, and the testing question is this: in which type would you prefer your son or daughter to be transported, or to be transported yourself? When the previous Secretary of State visited Basra, he rode in a Mastiff. That was very appropriate, given that he was credited with ensuring that that vehicle was procured in the first place.
One aim of insurgents, in seeking to win the propaganda war, is to send back a steady trickle of dead bodies. If we accept unnecessary casualties, we might lose support on the home front, which would work against our objective of winning. There was an incredible loss of life and vehicles in world war two due to mines, but by the time of the Oman conflict in the early ’70s, the V-shaped hull was protecting the cabs of lorries, providing more protection than we have today. The Omanis were well equipped with vehicles, strike aircraft and helicopters; if only we had that capability today.
Then there was the Rhodesian situation, during which 80 mine-protected combat vehicles were built by 1978. The vehicle was developed on a modular concept, whereby different bodies could be fitted, but one of its best features was its cross-country capability. That is an example from 30 years ago of a vehicle with high protection and manoeuvrability, which the South Africans further developed into the RG31, but many people today say that it is impossible to provide anything similar. Currently, the US-armoured vehicle manufacturer Force Protection is building, as a private venture, the Cheetah, featuring the same basic technology as that developed by the Rhodesians.
The Chief of the General Staff was recently quoted in the media as saying:
“If there was a better vehicle, a smaller vehicle, out there we could get our hands on quickly, or could have got our hands on quickly…we would have done so.”
A problem for parliamentarians is that we do not always have access to information about the types of vehicles in which soldiers are killed or injured. Also, we cannot find out the weight of certain vehicles. When I asked the Secretary of State for Defence, in a written question,
“what the unladen weight is of (a) the Snatch Vixen and (b) each of its variants”,
the reply stated:
“I am withholding the information requested, as its disclosure would, or would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 154W.]
That is strange, because I had previously been given, in answer to another written parliamentary question, the weights of the WMIK, or weapons mounted installation kit, the E-WMIK and the M-WMIK, or mobility weapons mounted installation kit. It is also strange, because the Army website states the weight of both the Panther and the Jackal. Furthermore, only a week last Monday on 12 January, the Channel 5 programme “Warzone” stated that the Vixen weighed more than four tonnes, so I got my answer. I suspect that that four tonnes is the same increase in weight, from the Snatch to the Vixen, as when the M-WMIK was armoured to become the Jackal. The decision to deny a Member of Parliament an answer to a perfectly reasonable question probably has more to do with preventing the likes of me from suggesting an alternative. The Minister is grimacing somewhat at that remark.
In the interview that I have quoted, the Chief of General Staff said:
“If you are committing young people to battle they have to be given the best, and when circumstances change, they have to be given the best again.”
That statement should be applauded, as far as equipment is concerned, but the same cannot be said with enthusiasm for vehicles, other than the Mastiff and the Ridgback. The circumstances changed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the MOD was badly caught out to think that it could replace the Land Rover variants with only the disastrous Pinzgauer Vector, which I understand was the Army’s choice. I well remember being hauled over the coals for suggesting, at a briefing in the MOD, that that vehicle was dangerous, but the out-of-service date for the Vector is now 2015, which is an incredibly short period. That rather backs up my initial remarks.
Any new vehicle is tested in theatre in no uncertain terms—previously by insurgents in Iraq and currently in Afghanistan. A Mastiff vehicle was disabled after six stack mines exploded, but it was soon functional again and there was no loss of life. No wonder the enemy has given up on that vehicle and we are seeing it undertake many tasks for which it was never intended.
I am not saying that every vehicle requires a V-shaped hull, but when our forces are sent into areas where mines and explosives are prevalent, Ministers, civil servants and commanders have a duty to make sure that the right vehicles are available. To hide behind talk about a certain type of vehicle not being available is simply not good enough. It is surely a question of will. After all, if Force Protection can design and build the Wolfhound in 90 days, a replacement for the Snatch Land Rover could undoubtedly be provided—although that is with the proviso that the finance is available. I seriously question whether the powers that be know what they want or, as the past has often proved, have they got it horribly and expensively wrong? The UK has run into a cash crisis that is second to none, and we must ask where the funds will come from.
The policy of adding armour to convert a vehicle, rather than designing for purpose, has been repeated time and again. It happened with the Land Rover, the Panther, the Pinzgauer Vector, the M-WMIK being turned into a Jackal and now the Viking. As a result, weight is an increased factor, the vehicle’s manoeuvrability is decreased and the chance of being flipped over by a mine strike dramatically increases. Some people might accuse me of not wanting protection for our troops, but my answer to that is that such vehicles did not have the right design in the first place for the purpose for which they were intended. The addition of armour to those vehicles thankfully decreases the number of deaths, but it often increases the number of terrible injuries, about which the public are not fully informed.
Let us consider the Warrior, which I understand is to have additional underbelly armour added and is already low to the ground. The blast can be prevented from penetrating the hull of the Warrior, but that runs the risk of turning the vehicle over. The mindset seems to be that if a tank cannot take a blast, nothing can. Tanks and other infantry back-up vehicles were designed to take on other tank formations, but if I were in Afghanistan, I would rather be in a Mastiff than a Warrior any day. On tracked vehicles, the Viking was used because the Marines had nothing else. It will be replaced by a larger version of the same type, the Warthog. There are advantages and disadvantages to tracks versus wheels, but I cannot understand why if a mine-protected tracked vehicle is required, it cannot be produced quickly—to say it cannot be done is simply absurd.
We are constantly told that there is no alternative to the Snatch Land Rover—an assertion which I vigorously dispute. Let us examine the situation regarding Force Protection’s Cheetah vehicle. More than a year ago, I asked what consideration had been given to that vehicle. The answer stated that
“The Cheetah has been considered for a protected patrol vehicle programme. It did not, however, meet a number of key user requirements.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 55W.]
Further questioning resulted in the following response:
“The Cheetah vehicle did not meet the minimum internal space”.—[Official Report, 18 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 87W.]
Follow-up questions last February about the Panther, which only has side exit doors, versus the Cheetah, which has a rear exit, elicited a further reference to internal space. Yet, where precisely are those 401 Panthers ordered in 2003—now weighing 7 tonnes—100 of which are supposed to be operational? Perhaps the Minister will answer that when he winds up.
Again, last December, at a briefing for Members of both Houses, we were told that one reason why the Cheetah was unacceptable was because it took a fully kitted-out Fijian soldier—in other words, a very large chap—some 40 seconds to get in or out of the passenger door. However, if the vehicle can take the blast, someone would stay in it and get out of the killing zone altogether as soon as possible. In many vehicle designs, the soldier would have to evacuate the vehicle, which would probably be badly damaged anyway.
Back in November 2005, I highlighted the issues relating to another vehicle when I asked the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), if the Buffalo vehicle designed with the V-shaped hull principle would be introduced for action against roadside explosive devices. The answer was that an assessment had been carried out on the vehicle, but there were no plans to procure it. Yet exactly three years later, in answer to another question concerning the Talisman project, I was told that the Buffalo would be purchased to counter improvised explosive devices as part of a three-vehicle package. Although I was delighted to have flagged-up the Buffalo issue, why did it take so long to recognise its attributes and get it into service?
Those examples show that different tactics have to be used with blast-absorption-type vehicles compared with blast-deflection vehicles. I wonder whether that has been recognised. I do not believe that those who gave the December presentation understood the difference and, as they also indicated a preference for low-profile vehicles—presumably the physical height of the vehicle must be a priority—the safer design of blast deflection is completely ruled out. That is surprising, because one would think that the greatest priority is to save the lives of soldiers whenever possible.
I also asked about the relative dimension specifications of the Cheetah and the Snatch Land Rover. I have since discovered that the measurements provided in a written answer on the Cheetah were based on an old and now non-existent specification. The Cheetah has recently been changed—it is now much lighter and has better armour and mobility. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that the MOD should re-examine the Cheetah and revisit the decision not to consider that vehicle in the light of the facts that I have just put in the public domain. In addition, I do not take kindly to receiving inaccurate replies to written parliamentary questions—I would use a different word from “inaccurate”, if I were not trying to stay in order this afternoon, Mr. Williams.
Having the correct vehicle for the job is crucial. Tactical advantage and manoeuvrability were lost in Iraq with the Snatch Land Rover having to be replaced by the Challenger tank. In Afghanistan, the first battle for Garmsir was unsuccessful when Vikings were used, but the day was won when Warriors were correctly used—although I understand that that vehicle is now being used as a transporter, which is not its role. I can never understand the view of those in the Army who say, “We are soldiers and therefore we expect casualties” without appreciating the political reaction back in the UK. The conflict also needs to be won on home ground. If public support wanes as a result of a growing casualty list and a war being waged at a considerable distance from the UK, considering such a war is also a drain on resources at a time of great economic hardship, the cause may be lost.
I do not accept that suitable vehicles cannot be procured. There should be better co-operation between the operational and procurement side of the Army, and a clear definition of what is required. A company such as Force Protection could then be approached—as, indeed, could others—to produce what the UK needs in double quick time using commercial parts. For example, in relation to the Iveco Trakker Hovertruck, which is a half-track vehicle, the commercial technology exists to convert the half track back to conventional wheels, depending on whether there are summer or winter conditions. More intelligent procurement of vehicles that are better designed to include protective and practical features gives a great tactical advantage. As a result, the death toll will not be seen to be mounting. We will also be seen to be winning the conflict and hearts of minds both here in the United Kingdom and in Afghanistan.
Nothing succeeds like success. While paying full tribute both to the professionalism and bravery of our soldiers, as ever supported by their families and friends, and to their achievements against the odds, we should ensure that our armed forces are provided with what is required to finish the job with the minimum of casualties.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing this important debate and say how enjoyable it is, once again, to listen to her? She knows that we both have an interest in the subject which goes back many years, and I credit her work in this area.
It would be remiss not to use this occasion to note the bravery of Corporal Richard Robinson of 1 Rifles, who lost his life at the weekend. All the thoughts of Members from all parts of the House will be with his family and friends, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will associate herself with those thoughts.
Can I set out our approach, which the hon. Lady will recognise? It is to give our commanders on the ground a range of vehicle options, and great strides have been made in providing that range. I shall put on the record the number of different vehicles that are now being procured for the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres. They are the Mastiff, the Ridgback, the Jackal, the Vectra, the Coyote, the Husky, the Wolfhound and the Warthog; don’t ask me who thinks up the names, Mr. Williams—they are clearly imaginative. In addition, we have the WMIK, the Viking, the Snatch, the Snatch Vixen and, soon, the Panther, which I shall refer to in a minute. It is important that we, as politicians, do not second guess the commanders but give them that range of vehicles. It is up to them to choose which vehicles are used for particular missions, taking into account the threat and the task at hand.
I absolutely accept that it is up to commanders to choose which vehicles they should use for specific missions, but if certain types of vehicles are not available to them, they are somewhat stuck. May I suggest to the Minister that those in the Ministry of Defence should go back to the time of the Rhodesian conflict, when the Land Rover was converted with a V-shaped hull and provided a very fast cross-country vehicle. That is thinking out of the box, and, sometimes, that is what should take place.
Having, as a Minister, hopped over to the other side of the fence, I have learned in more detail how decisions are taken. One thing is clear, and I must put it on the record: decisions on procurement are taken jointly between Ministers on the advice, and with the support of, the chiefs. It is important to recognise that fact. The decisions on the types of vehicles that are available are not taken in isolation from the military advice, or support, of the service chiefs, and the decision on how those assets are used on the ground ultimately has to rest with individual commanders.
I must say that no vehicle can guarantee complete protection. The balance that commanders strike, and the judgment that they use, on the ground is down to them. Another important point is that this is not just a matter of procuring a new vehicle that will carry people from A to B, because a lot of technology is now needed for vehicles on different operations, which needs to be taken into account. It is not about going into a showroom and buying a vehicle off the shelf. I do not suggest that the hon. Lady has said that, but some commentators have said it.
I congratulate the Ministry on the urgent operational requirements process, which very quickly introduced into theatre the vehicles that I have just named. Turnarounds have been done very quickly—some in fewer than six months—and I credit not only the MOD team but everyone involved in the procurement process.
The hon. Lady talked about finance, but finance is not an issue. We have spent some £4 billion on urgent operational requirements, some £1 billion of which went on the new fleet of vehicles. That money is not from the MOD budget but from the Treasury reserve, and the Government are committed to ensuring that finance is not an inhibitor to providing the best that we need on the ground for our troops. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee looked at the UOR process and were congratulatory about it.
I turn to the issue of how we should determine the types of vehicles that ought to be deployed in Afghanistan. Again, the decision is down to individual commanders, but we are up against an ever-evolving threat, as the hon. Lady recognises, and we cannot design a single vehicle for every single use. As she has said, I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan and seen the Mastiff vehicle, including one that, having run over a mine, provided great protection to the individuals inside it. She has referred on several occasions to the V-shaped hull on the Mastiff and other vehicles, which is important, but it is not the sole driver in terms of protecting our troops in a vehicle—armour is important, as are tactics and the manoeuvrability of vehicles. On the threat of improvised explosive devices, the electronic counter-measures, which, as she would expect, I shall not go into, are very effective in saving people’s lives. The issue concerns not only the armour and the V-shaped hull, but a suite of effects that we can use to protect the men and woman who serve on our behalf.
The hon. Lady is right that there is a difference between blast absorption and blast deflection, but the type of protection used on any vehicle is driven by its capability and the way it has been designed to meet the threat that it faces. One thing that I found in Afghanistan and Iraq is that commanders need a range of vehicles, because, although the Mastiff is very good, if we tried taking it down some small streets in rural Afghanistan, we would find it very difficult, which is why we need a range—
I shall come on to that in a minute. We need to offer a range of vehicles, but I shall now turn to the Snatch Land Rover, which has been the subject of much informed and ill-informed comment in the press. When I was last in Iraq, I asked commanders whether they needed Snatch Land Rovers, and they said yes, because it is about manoeuvrability—
I do not accept that. The point is about manoeuvrability, and the Snatch Vixen’s added protection will improve that capability.
I have seen Panther being modified at Vickers on Tyneside, not far from my own constituency, and it will be deployed in the spring. It has a specific task as a command and liaison vehicle, and I am not sure that it would meet the hon. Lady’s suggested task. She has also mentioned Cheetah, but I am told that it is too small for the suggested task. It has been trialled, but there is no such vehicle in service in any nation at all. I accept that perhaps we need to look for alternatives, but the Cheetah has been looked at.
The hon. Lady has said that the answers to some of her questions were misleading, but that was not the purpose of our answering in the way in which we did. We must be careful not to put too much in the public domain.
Again, I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important subject. I consider her a friend of the MOD, in terms of ensuring that we get what she and I want, which is the best protection and equipment for our servicemen and women in Afghanistan and Iraq. I assure her that that is what the MOD and I, through my involvement as a Minister, want. Our records to date show that we have delivered a wide range of vehicles, that finance is not an issue and that we have ensured that people get what they want.