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Armed Forces: Vehicles

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether fighting vehicles supplied to British troops in Afghanistan provide adequate protection against Taliban attacks using improvised explosive devices.

My Lords, the current range of fighting vehicles supplied to British troops in Afghanistan has been optimised for that particular environment and offers the most suitable form of survivability in that theatre of operations. However, no vehicle can currently withstand a blast of infinite magnitude and there will always be gaps in a vehicle’s protection. The strengths and weaknesses of the different types of platform that make up the vehicle fleet give operational commanders the option to mix and match capabilities and to tailor them for a specific operation.

My Lords, we were all shocked by the tragic deaths last week of six of our service personnel in Afghanistan. Can the Minister assure the House that the flat-bottomed Warrior fighting vehicle is the most suitable equipment to protect our Armed Forces from improvised explosive devices? Can he further assure the House that financial constraints on the provision of equipment or modified equipment are not delaying the deployment to Afghanistan of the best possible protection for the brave men and women of our Armed Forces?

My Lords, my thoughts are also with the families and friends of those six soldiers. Every death and injury reminds us of the human cost paid by our Armed Forces to keep our country safe. The Warrior is optimised to protect our Armed Forces from IEDs and is suitable for the task that it is required to do. It has a good track record in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The protected vehicle fleet in Afghanistan comprises a mix of armoured capabilities, some of which have flat-bottomed hulls with tracks and others have V-shaped hulls with wheels. This provides commanders with a range of operational capabilities to match the threat. Despite financial constraints, there is a successful programme that allows the Treasury to fund urgent operational requirements to procure equipment within a shortened timescale. Since 2001, more than £5.5 billion has been spent on UORs for Afghanistan.

My Lords, it is many years since I had ministerial responsibility, under the noble Lord, Lord Healey, for the equipment of all our Armed Forces. My advisers then sought to prioritise needs for research and development. I believe that the Taliban is skilful in simplifying the components of IEDs, which may be part of the problem. Has any priority been given to technological means of counteracting IEDs? If so, when was priority given to research and development in this field?

My Lords, this is a very important question. Survivability is measured by a number of factors, not just the width of the armour. A vehicle’s ability to manoeuvre around a battlefield, its firepower and its situational awareness capabilities all contribute to its survivability along with other factors such as tactics and procedures. A platform’s relative strength in one of the areas of survivability will result in a corresponding trade-off against another. For example, a highly mobile platform will have to be lightweight and therefore cannot have heavy armour, such as the Jackal and the Coyote, whereas a well armoured platform will lack mobility, such as the Mastiff. The same is true of lethality as the greater the firepower the more the weight will increase, which means less armour and less mobility. As tactics change, so does the optimal platform of choice.

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, when assessing an armoured vehicle, a balance has to be struck between physical protection, mobility and firepower. All contribute to survivability and operational effectiveness. Is my noble friend satisfied that the upgraded Warrior meets these standards more effectively than other similar vehicles? Does it require a further upgrade? What is the opinion of those in our Armed Forces who have to use these vehicles?

My Lords, the Warrior is very popular with our troops. I was out in Afghanistan two weeks ago and I spent quite a lot of time talking to members of the Armed Forces who work with this bit of equipment. They are very impressed by it. It is seen by insurgents as a tank and they will normally melt away on its arrival. It provides excellent mobility and survivability and is able to operate over the most difficult terrain. I need to be careful what I say for security reasons but I can say that the recent incident was a combination of several really unlucky combinations. No vehicle in theatre, including one with a V-shaped hull, would have survived a similar explosion. Warrior has been extensively upgraded, particularly to deliver enhanced protection against IEDs. I have copies of the upgrade work on the Warrior, which has been security cleared. I am very happy to distribute them to any noble Lords who would like to see them.

My Lords, anybody who knows anything about this subject will know that the noble Lord is absolutely right. There is a level of weight of explosive which will destroy any vehicle, including a main battle tank. That is just one unfortunate fact of life. In my time I think that I ordered eight new armoured vehicles, seven of which were procured specifically for Afghanistan under the UOR initiative. I hope that all of them were successful in their way. Does the noble Lord agree with me that the outstanding success among them has been Mastiff 2 and that there must be a very strong case, even though Mastiff 2 was ordered under the UOR programme, for keeping that permanently in inventory, where almost certainly its qualities will be necessary in any other deployment we make in a third world context?

My Lords, this Government take the protection of our Armed Forces against IEDs very seriously. I know that the previous Government did so as well and I pay tribute to them for what they did in this area, particularly as regards equipment such as the Mastiff. I take seriously what the noble Lord says about Mastiff in the future. We are looking at that very closely.