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Armed Forces: Operational Capability

Volume 684: debated on Monday 24 July 2006

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have made clear my determination to ensure that the Armed Forces on operations have the resources that they need to do the job. I said that I would update the House on developments in two particular areas of operational capability: additional options for armoured vehicles and helicopter support for Afghanistan.

As I told the House on 26 June, I ordered an urgent review of our armoured vehicle fleet, particularly focused on the evolving threat in Iraq, but covering the whole operational picture, including Afghanistan, to ensure that we were providing commanders with the best options.

That review has now concluded. It has confirmed that there is a growing requirement for a protected vehicle with capabilities between our heavy armour, such as Warrior, and lighter patrol vehicles, such as Snatch. The review has also identified feasible options to address the gap in the short term. We have now completed a very rapid assessment of those options and have identified three complementary ways forward. Two of these build on and accelerate work that is already ongoing in the department. The third is new. The necessary funding will come in part from acceleration of existing funding within the defence budget and in part from substantial new funding from the Treasury.

The first element is an additional buy of around 100 Vector, our new Pinzgauer-based protected patrol vehicle, for Afghanistan, on top of the 62 already on contract. Vector provides good protection and, importantly, increased mobility and capacity compared with Snatch, which makes it very suitable for the rugged terrain and long patrol distances in Afghanistan.

The second element is to provide around 70 additional up-armoured and upgraded FV430 to equip a mechanised infantry battlegroup for Iraq by the spring of 2007, again on top of the 54 that we have already ordered. The FV430 will be delivered incrementally, with the first vehicles currently expected to be delivered this autumn. Significantly smaller and lighter than Warrior, the up-armoured FV430 will provide a similar level of protection while being less intimidating and having less impact on local infrastructure, thereby providing commanders with an important additional option. Since it is able to carry out many of the same tasks as Warrior, it will also relieve pressure on heavily committed Warrior vehicles and armoured infantry battlegroups.

The third, new element is the Cougar, manufactured by Force Protection Incorporated of Charleston, South Carolina. We judge that this vehicle meets our requirement for a well protected, wheeled patrol vehicle with a less intimidating profile than tracked vehicles such as Warrior or FV430. We are arranging to rapidly procure around 100 vehicles through US military sources. We have received excellent co-operation from the US Government, military and industry—an example of the special relationship bringing real benefits for our soldiers on the ground. Once we take possession of the vehicles, we must then customise them with Bowman radios and electronic countermeasures, and then fit additional armour beyond the standard level, to ensure that they have the best possible protection. This procurement and enhancement process takes time. But we expect to be able to deliver the vehicles, in batches, with an effective capability in place before the end of the year and continuing through the next six-month rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These three vehicles will complement existing Warrior and Snatch. Warrior will continue to provide the capability to deal with the most demanding threats, but its profile and weight make it unsuitable for some operations and situations, such as Afghanistan. Snatch, with a much less intimidating profile, enables troops to interact with locals and promotes a sense of normality, and it will remain a key tool for building and maintaining consent. The up-armoured FV430, the Cougar medium PPV and Vector fill the requirements for varying degrees of protection, mobility and profile between these two extremes. But I am confident that together these vehicles provide commanders with the right range of options to deal with the situations and threats that they face.

In my Afghanistan Statement on 10 July 2006 (Official Report, cols. 1131-35), I detailed the additional forces that we shall deploy to southern Afghanistan. I also undertook to provide further details of the enhancement of the support helicopter force deployed as part of the Helmand task force once I had received definitive advice on the needs of our commanders on the ground. I have now had that advice, as endorsed by the Chief of the Defence Staff, and I have directed that those needs be met in full. I have therefore directed that two extra CH-47 Chinook be deployed, the first in early September 2006 and the second in October. Helicopter force levels will remain under constant review.

I also wish to update the House on the units assigned to provide additional forces for Afghanistan. Force protection for 28 Regiment, Royal Engineers will be provided by W Company, 45 Commando, Royal Marines—not a composite unit as has been suggested. Finally, I erroneously referred in my earlier Statement to 12 Signal Regiment. The unit listed should have been 14 Signal Regiment.