UK SAS Commander Quits, Citing Inadequate Equipment
In the USA, a controversy erupted in early 2008 when USMC whistleblower Franz Gayl’s “The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle Case Study” [PDF] blamed a slow military procurement system for delays in fielding mine-resistant vehicles. The USMC had actually been an early purchaser, but the vehicles had remained an tiny portion of the total US vehicle fleet in theater until the MRAP competition began in 2006 at the USMC’s urging – over 3 1/2 years into a war that had featured IED land mines as the primary threat since 2003.
Britain has its own long-running controversy around its vulnerable Land Rover Snatch 2 patrol vehicles, which feature even less armor than the USA’s M1114 Hummers. That controversy has now boiled over into a full-scale political row, after senior SAS commanders resigned over inadequate equipment that Maj. Morley of 23 SAS has termed “cavalier at best, criminal at worst.” The issue was recently revived, with a slightly different focus, by the death of Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, the most senior British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan…
- Land Rovers: Weaknesses and Responses
- 23 SAS, Cpl. Bryant, and Maj. Morley’s Resignation
- Updates and Follow-Ons [updated]
- Additional Readings
Land Rovers: Weaknesses and Responses
The lightly-armored Land Rovers were originally designed for service in Northern Ireland. Protection levels against small arms fire are lower than the USA’s up-armored Hummers, and they suffer from flat, un-armored bottoms that make them little better than a civilian car against underbody land mine blasts. Worse, their off road capability in terrain like Afghanistan’s is considered rather limited, forcing them onto roads as obvious targets.
These characteristics have made the Land Rovers a target of controversy for some time now. To date, 34 British troops have been killed in Land Rover Snatch vehicles while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan – 1/8 of all British casualties in those theaters.
A BBC report quotes Steve McLoughlin, a former member of the Royal Green Jackets who served in Iraq and spoke to BBC Radio Five Live:
“You drive over a landmine in a very-lightly armoured Land-Rover Snatch – it’s not much different from driving over it in a Ford Escort. At the very least you’re going to lose limbs – horrific injuries if you survive – you’re probably going to get killed outright.
“The government doesn’t like talking about this issue. They get some faceless MoD bureaucrat to issue a two-line statement, then it’s gone and forgotten.”
The government’s frequent reassurances on this matter, and refusal to acknowledge a problem, may lie at the root of the boiling discontent that it now faces. The UK MoD has not been idle, but neither has it openly acknowledged a problem with the vehicles, or set implicit limitations around their use that have translated into changes in the field.
The MoD reacted by moving Warrior tracked armored vehicles into theater, and in July 2006 the UK MoD began a 3-pronged effort that up-armored FV432 tracked armored personnel carriers, and added limited numbers of the Cougar MRAP for use as route-clearance and explosive ordnance disposal vehicles. They also bought up-armored Pinzgauer Vector trucks, which have been criticized for their protection levels. Subsequent orders would add to the number of Cougars and upgraded FV432 APCs in theater, and October 2006 saw the first live fielding of the Royal Marines’ BvS10 tracked all-terrain armored vehicles in Afghanistan – where they have enjoyed considerable success.
In September 2007, the MoD followed by announcing a new high-speed, all-terrain wheeled vehicle called the “Jackal,” for use by special forces and reconnaissance units. It doesn’t offer any more crew protection than the Land Rovers do, but it does offer vastly superior off-road capabilities, allowing it to avoid obvious mine targets like roads.
The most recent addition came in late October 2008, with a GBP 700 million set of contracts involving armored supply trucks and construction equipment, a handful of additional Cougar variants for training, and the purchase of Force Protection’s larger Buffalo mine-clearance vehicle for that specialized function.
23 SAS, Cpl. Bryant, and Maj. Morley’s Resignation
None of this filtered down to D Squadron, 23 SAS, as they prepared to deploy about 100 members to Helmland Province, Afghanistan. The SAS reservist battalion had been called in order to relieve the operational pressure on 22 SAS, and their mission was to supervise elite elements of the Afghan police.
This would inevitably require significant road travel. During pre-deployment training, SAS soliders have told the Telegraph that only Snatch Land Rovers were made available to them – despite their protests to senior officers and to the MoD.
“We said this was dangerous and unacceptable… Snatch was highlighted as lethal and useless for two reasons – the armour does not work as rounds go through it like butter and it has no cross-country capability, denying us the element of surprise.”
The Special Forces troops are understood to have resorted to hitching lifts with the infantry in the Mastiff (Cougar) mine-resistant vehicles, or marching to missions instead. Furthermore, 10% of the SAS soldiers also had to go without night sights, despite the routine use of night-time operations in the dark. A recent Parliamentary inquiry has even heard evidence that the 21 SAS reservist battalion had to take machine guns from other Territorial Army battalions, based on a “commander’s request” for long range weapons to supplement their rifles and 5.56mm FN Minimi light machine guns.
These matters came to a head in the most unfortunate way: when 4 soldiers died on June 17/08, after their Snatch Land Rover hit a landmine east of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The dead included Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout; all were later revealed to have been SAS members. The other casualty was Corporal Sarah Bryant of 15 (United Kingdom) Psychological Operations Group. Cpl. Bryant was Britain’s first female casualty.
Britain’s Telegraph newspaper adds that:
“When the SAS squadron learnt of the deaths of Cpl Bryant and her three colleagues on June 17 there was immense anger. “We thought we could muddle through and that luck was with us,” one officer said. “It happened because we could not drive across country”.”
23 SAS commander Maj. Morley’s subsequent resignation in protest follows those of Col. Stuart Tootal, who commanded 3 Bn in Helmland in 2006; Brig. Ed Butler; and a commanding officer of 22 SAS.
In response, UK defence equipment minister Quentin Davies [Labour, formerly Conservative - Grantham and Stanford] noted that he had asked his officials to review their email communications, and had not yet been able to find any record of complaints from Maj. Morley. On a less felicitous note, he also offered a type of explanation that has often been heard in the USA under similar circumstances:
“Obviously, there may be occasions when, in retrospect, a commander chose the wrong piece of equipment, the wrong vehicle, for the particular threat that the patrol or whatever it was encountered and we had some casualties as a result.”
It is this comment in particular that has landed Davies in very hot political water, given evidence that the root of the problem lay precisely in the lack of offered alternatives. A different Telegraph article quotes an SAS officer who served with Major Morley:
“He (Davies) is simply incorrect… We did not have a choice of vehicles. We did not have a choice, because if we had you would not have seen us for dust in Snatch Land Rovers.”
That Telegraph article adds that emails describing the snatch Land Rovers as “unsuitable”, “unfit for the role” and “operationally limiting” were sent from the commanding officer of 23 SAS to the directorate of Special Forces and forwarded to the Forces operational centre, Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood.
A pre-deployment report also highlighted SAS concerns that people would be killed if it was used, and the SAS reportedly pleaded to be given the new Jackal all-terrain vehicles or the upgraded “R” Wimik Land Rovers distributed to all other frontline troops in Afghanistan. In an attack earlier in the summer three paratroopers suffered only one broken leg between them when their heavily armored Wimik went over a mine that was reportedly similar in size to the one that killed Cpl. Bryant and her 3 SAS companions.
Senior military figures and opposition politicians have now called on Mr Davies to “consider his position”. To make the meaning of such statements abundantly clear, DID offers a Telegraph newspaper quote from the Conservative Party opposition’s shadow defence minister Gerald Howarth:
“This is the second example in two days of commanders being denied equipment which they had requested. Quentin Davies has been extraordinarily cavalier about the requests that commanders have made from the field. If he cannot fulfil the role of equipping them properly then he should consider his position.”
Nor has the minister’s Parliamentary apology yet served to calm the boiling controversy:
“…earlier outside the House I already expressed to the father of one of our gallant soldiers who has died and he said, not directly to me but to the media I understood, he had been upset by my remarks. I apologised unreservedly to him and expressed my great regret – obviously any offence was entirely inadvertent, I hope you recognise that. If I have some reason to suppose that operational commanders had been offended by the remarks I’d made then again I would apologise to them pretty directly.”
The last word is yet to be heard on this matter, with Parliamentary motions and ongoing pressure expected on both the political and organizational fronts. For now, the last word will be left to Desmond Feely, Cpl. Sarah Bryant’s father:
“The reality is that all military personnel who sign up to serve their country know what the risks are: they have a dangerous job but are extremely willing and completely capable of getting the job done.
For these courageous young men and women to succeed they not only require that our government provide them with the best possible equipment to aid their success, but they deserve it.
Their goal is to efficiently and expeditiously carry out military operations with the absolute minimum loss of civilian or military life.
But if they are hampered in their efforts by substandard equipment, which makes them highly vulnerable easy targets for the enemy, this government needs to be held accountable for its failing.
That is what I believe Major Morley is trying to say…”
Media Reports: Original Telegraph exclusive re: Morley’s Resignation | BBC | ITV | Northwich Guardian | Agence France Presse | BBC re: minister’s response | Telegraph re: military and industry reactions | Telegraph re: demands for Davies’ resignation | The Press Association: Minister’s apology | Telegraph op-ed | Telegraph: Letter from Col. Stuart Tootal, 2006 commanding officer of 3rd Bn The Parachute Regiment in Helmand.
Updates and Follow-Ons
Oct 31/09: The Daily Mail reports:
“The most senior soldier to be killed in Afghanistan foreshadowed his own death in a damning memo about the shortage of helicopters. Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe told his superiors that British troops would die because they were being forced to make trips by road. Less than a month later, he was blown up by a roadside bomb. In his final despatches to commanders in London, classified ‘Nato Secret’, he had dismissed helicopter operations in Afghanistan as ‘not fit for purpose’.”
The issues of blast-resistant vehicles and available helicopters are 2 sides of the same coin, in any environment that features a lot of land mines. On a related note, one might also ask if there’s enough combat engineering. For another take on the issue, see Defence of the Realm’s critique of spending decisions, moreso than spending budgets.
Dec 16/08: As the issue gains political traction, British Defence Secretary John Hutton is under pressure to conduct a public inquiry into the military’s use of Land Rover Snatch vehicles. He responds in a statement to the House of Commons:
“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…
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 judgement of military commanders who have experience of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and access to specialised military engineering expertise.
…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.
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 £700m 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.”
The comment about “reducing the scope of the Snatch 2A vehicle’s role until it is used only within our camps” parallels the US Marine Corps’ decisions re: its Hummers, which were to be placed under similar restrictions in Iraq. The success of the Anbar Awakening, as the Iraqi Sunni population turned on al-Qaeda, has made those restrictions unnecessary in many parts of Iraq.
Nov 28/08: The UK MoD is prodded into to publicly addressing the Snatch furor on its blog, where it said that:
“An article in the Daily Telegraph claims that the deaths of hundreds of soldiers are linked to Snatch Land Rover vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq. We take the protection of our troops very seriously, but operations are inherently risky. We take the steps we can to minimise the risks whilst remembering that we must achieve the tasks required… If there was a better vehicle, a smaller vehicle, out there that we could get our hands on quickly, or could have got our hands on quickly, we would do so or would have done so. We have been going round the international market trying to see if there is another smaller vehicle – it doesn’t exist. We are spending over [GBP] 30million to upgrade all our Snatch vehicles on operations to Snatch Vixen, which provides the same level of manoeuvrability with increased protection. These modifications will give the Snatch Vixen the highest levels of protection for its size and weight class, compared to other vehicles out there on the market.”
- The Telegraph (June 21/08) – Families of troops killed in Snatch Land Rovers to sue MoD
- The Scotsman (June 20/08) – Family’s tears for Sarah – daughter, wife and soldier. Includes sharp criticism of the Snatch Land Rovers.
- UK MoD (June 19/08) – Corporal Sarah Bryant, Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout killed in Afghanistan
- WIRED Danger Room (Feb 19/08) – Report: IED Crisis ‘Avoidable’ With Armored Trucks
- BBC (June 27/06) – Q&A: Army Land Rover row. See also their Nov 1/08 Land Rover Q&A, which updates their earlier coverage.
- UK Army – Land Rover SNATCH 2
- DID (Dec 2/08) – UK MoD Defends Its Snatch Land Rovers
- UK MoD (Oct 29/08) – New Armoured Vehicles for Afghanistan. this GBP 700 million order mostly involves supply trucks and construction equipment, but there will also be a handful of Cougar vehicles, a new Cougar variant and their larger Buffalo mine-clearance counterpart.
- DID Spotlight – Britain Buying New Land Vehicles for Iraqi & Afghan Theaters. Includes Cougar MRAPs, up-armored tracked APCs, ad the criticized Pinzgauer Vector trucks. Updated, with links.
- DID Spotlight – Days of the Jackal: Supacat’s HMT Vehicles. Not armored either – but able to go off-road where Land Rovers cannot, making it an unpredictable target for mine-laying. The UK is just beginning to buy them for its special forces, and so is Australia. The Coyote TSV is a 6×6 variant that will be bought as a companion supply vehicle.