There was welcome news yesterday for our forces in Afghanistan, and for those who want to see them supplied with the best equipment, with pictures of the first ‘Foxhound’ patrol vehicles arriving in Helmand. Foxhound is the long-awaited replacement for the Snatch Land Rover, whose inadequate protection against Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq and then Afghanistan became glaringly obvious as far back as 2005. In the intervening years, the Ministry of Defence has procured a number of vehicles offering much better protection, starting with the Mastiff in late 2006. However, the greater protection of these vehicles came at a price, in terms of weight and manoeuvrability (and air-transportability): the Mastiff weighs well over 20 tons — even the smaller ‘Ridgeback’ variant which arrived in Helmand in 2009 weighed 18 tons — compared to less than 5 tons for the Snatch.
For years after 2005, the MoD and the army insisted (internally as well as publicly) that this trade-off between protection on the one hand, and weight and mobility and air transportability on the other, was ineluctable. This was what lay behind the army’s initial lack of enthusiasm for the Mastiff and Ridgeback (although that quickly changed once the vehicles were deployed). It also explained their advice to ministers that the Snatch and the similarly lightly-protected ‘Vector’ should not be withdrawn from Afghanistan despite their evident vulnerability, as lighter vehicles remained necessary for some tasks — advice which ministers relied on, perhaps unwisely, until it became untenable during 2009.
Personally I never believed that the trade-off between protection and mobility was truly ineluctable. Most IEDs in Afghanistan (unlike Iraq) are buried in the ground. The crucial feature in protection against these weapons is a V-shaped hull, which deflects the blast around the compartment containing the personnel. Another vital feature is the ability to continue even after one wheel has been blown off – reducing vulnerability to ambush after an IED-strike. Neither of these features is, as a matter of principle, impossible to achieve at a lower weight. What was true, however, was that no vehicle on the market in 2006 or for several years afterwards did in fact combine these features at a weight below 10 tons.
So the politicians urged the MoD to continue looking, and to make clear to industry that as soon as such a vehicle existed, we would waste no time before buying it. It was 2009 before the MoD found anything which looked like it might solve the problem: during that year it began assessing a number of prototypes including the &”Ocelot” from Force Protection, the manufacturers of the Mastiff and Ridgback. In March 2010, once it was convinced that the specification could realistically be fulfilled, the MoD committed to ordering 200 &”Light Protected Patrol Vehicles” via an Urgent Operational Requirement (i.e., funded direct from the Treasury, in addition to the defence budget), with Ocelot one of the two contenders. In November of that year Ocelot was confirmed as the winner. Now, more than two years after the initial commitment, and 18 months after the firm order, the vehicle has arrived in Afghanistan — though at present it is confined to training and final testing, and will not be properly deployed in operations until the changeover of forces in the autumn, two years after the firm order was made.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this brief history. First, for all the Conservatives’ agitation between 2006 and 2010, there has been no significant change since the election in either scale or urgency in supplying equipment to our forces in Afghanistan. In opposition, David Cameron and his team argued consistently and stridently that they would have been able to supply the necessary equipment much faster. But Foxhound has proceeded on exactly the same two-year timetable which the army and the Ministry of Defence, left to their own devices, always insisted was the fastest possible. The striking exception to this timetable remains the Mastiff, which was ordered in July 2006 and deployed in December of the same year — through the personal intervention of the then Defence Secretary Des Browne, and the hands-on management of the procurement minister Lord Drayson — but rather than being used as a model for a new approach, this seems to have been quietly forgotten.
The second conclusion is that government and industry need to work much more closely together, at a much earlier stage, to focus and accelerate the research and development process. If a British company had developed a vehicle like the Ocelot five years earlier, it would have been ideally placed to secure global export orders at a time when many of the world’s militaries, including America’s, were scouring the globe for solutions to this growing threat. More importantly, it would have saved the lives of British troops. There is still a good chance that Foxhound may turn out to be a long-term success story — and although the parent company, Force Protection, is American, large parts of the assembly and supply chain are in the UK, so the MoD can boast that the programme is supporting 750 high-skilled manufacturing jobs. The tragedy is that it has come five years too late.