Before moving on to our proposed light role and rapid reaction formations I thought a look at the vehicles that might provide the backbone of the mechanised infantry brigades would be worth doing.
The UK armed forces have in recent years seen an explosion in vehicle types as a result in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Putting aside the politics of protected vehicles for one moment, it is clear that these additional vehicles have been in response to operational need so long term planning issues have generally been last on the list of things to consider. The very fact that we were so under prepared and reacted so slowly is another argument but we are where we are and must now start thinking about a coherent road map for the future, sorry about the pun!
Excepting the heavy metal of MRLS, AS90, Challenger and Warrior plus derivatives, vehicles currently in service include 4×4 and 6×6 Pinzgauers, Vector, Snatch, WMIK, various types of short and long wheelbase GS/FFR Land Rovers, Land Rover Ambulance, Saxon, various types of Bulldog, Scimitar, Sampson, Sultan, Samaritan, Stormer, Spartan, Viking, Mastiff, Bv206, Panther, Husky, Wolfhound, Jackal, Coyote, Fuchs, Quads/Bikes, Ridgeback, Terrier, Bushmaster, Supacat ATMP, Springer, Warthog and Tellar (have I missed any?) and this is before we even get into engineering plant and logistics vehicles!
In an era of asymmetric warfare having unprotected assets, like for example a Pinzgauer or Duro based communications vehicle, in the force mix, is simply untenable, as it creates soft targets that are easy to exploit. Putting these vehicles in convoys with more protected vehicles might alleviate some of the issues but that is a risky strategy and limits manoeuvre significantly. Even against nation states in what one might consider ‘conventional’ operations the IED is likely to feature heavily.
IED’s and RPG’s/Small Arms are the weapon of choice for these manouverable aymetric threats and the proliferation of guided weapons means we shoud also consider protection against these as a priority. Defeating IED’s involves more that simply sitting in mobile pillboxes and we will cover this in a future post but passive protection measures remain an important part of the force protection mix.
Therefore, all vehicles, no matter what their function, must be survivable against small arms and modestly sized IED’s with as much RPG protection as possible and this will mean a fundamental shift in the way we approach the vehicle matrix.
In a previous post we suggested that the mechanised brigades lose their Warriors and Challengers which would allow a close support Challenger variant to be fielded and the existing FV43x/Bulldogs in these units to be replaced with Warrior conversions so that the armoured brigade consisted of three primary types, Challenger, Warrior and FRES Recce Block. FRES Recce Block will replace Scimitar, Sultan, Sampson, Samaritan and hopefully the Stormer flatbed currently used for Shielder mine system. It would be a good idea to take some of the FRES base platforms and introduce a standard flat bed, high mobility cargo platform a la Streaker. The Quad Bikes and Springer represent a niche capability so would be left as is.
The mechanised brigades and other units will therefore use various types of wheeled vehicle but the types should be radically streamlined for the obvious logistics, maintenance, training and cost benefits.
Size, weight, logistics/transport planning, air mobility, cost, adaptability, ease of maintenance, fuel consumption, ground mobility and survivability are all key considerations.
Later in the post a two weight class family will be proposed but before looking at specifics it is worth looking at the US experience to see if any pointers for the future can be found and exploited.
In Iraq the US HMMWV and up armoured versions were increasingly vulnerable to IED’s and so the MRAP programme was born and whatever the arguments for and against there is no doubt that casualties were reduced as a result of their introduction (amongst many other measures it must be said) The resultant political consideration of US casualties reduction contributed to a sustained US presence, in this respect the IED and MRAP might be considered as strategic weapons. These early MRAP’s were mainly based on commercial truck platforms and as such suffered mobility issues off road but Iraq had a well developed road infrastructure and many of the conflict areas were urbanised so these limitations were less of an issue.
Afghanistan, with its poor road infrastructure has exposed these mobility shortcomings and the US have moved with their usual stunning speed and introduced the M-ATV from Oskosh. Over 5,000 have been ordered and the first are already in theatre, total order value is over $4billion already out of a total MRAP buy of almost $35billion. The contract was awarded in June 2009 and the first ones arrived in October of the same year, this speed compares very well with the time taken to get UK vehicles into theatre and makes Lord Draysons crowing about the 6 months it took to get an already in production vehicle (Mastiff) into Iraq in 6 months look rather hollow.
The Oskosh M-ATV is based on the chassis of the Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR) truck with its TAK-4 independant suspension providing excellent mobility. Even though it has better mobility and is billed as being more suitable for Afghanistan it is still large and weighs in at over 11 tonnes.
The US is seeking to replace all its MRAP’s and HMMWV with the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) but although the ambitious programme is progressing, it seems to be at quite a slow pace, funding issues have even resulted in other nations being invited into the programme, India for example. The JLTV is still a very large, heavy vehicle and rather embarrasingly a journalist tipped one of the contenders over on a press day.
Moving up the weight scale is the 8×8 Stryker, introduced several years ago as part of the interim Brigade Combat Team and Land Warrior concepts, it has seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a recent sensationalist Washington Post article the Stryker was dubbed a ‘kevlar coffin’ by one of the soldiers, a term that has been used before in relation to the UK’s vector vehicle although it was likely the soldier in question was larging the danger up in order to impress a female reporter!
Since they arrived at the outpost on Sept. 13, the Blackwatch unit – Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, with the 5th Stryker Brigade – had lost three soldiers and two civil affairs officers. IEDs had destroyed three of their four Stryker vehicles. Overall, 21 of 350 Strykers have been destroyed since the 5th Brigade deployed in southern Afghanistan in July; more than two dozen Americans have been killed and nearly 70 wounded.
I think a Company has more than 4 vehicles, perhaps she meant a platoon, usual MSM hyper accurate reporting I guess. Welcome to the jungle as they say. We have been dealing with the very same issues since we deployed to Helmand.
Another more balanced article from the US Army Times was critical of the Stryker but placed the vehicle in the context of tactics and procedures.
The Stryker has more technology than my kids bedrooms and its speed lent itself to chasing insurgent mortar teams around Bagdad but the rapidly inserted field expedient of slat armour, driver shields and the placing of sandbags on the floor pointed to a design that was suffering from survivability issues. Before they were deployed to Aghanistan a number of enhancements were added included additional belly armour, Kevlar flooring, blast attenuating seats and foor pedestals. Modifications to the suspension were also made to balance the weight of these additions and ensure that ride height was not too low and close to the source of an explosion. The extra weight has of course severely impacted mobility and fuel consumption, mobility was one of the trademarks of the Stryker in Iraq but in Afghanistan, it is a different story. The Stryker is also being modified to the A1 revision that includes even more imporvements
There is no doubt it has been a controversial vehicle with as many supporters and detractors but perhaps the fairest assessment is that in the right conditions it has excelled, in different conditions like Afghanistan, it has been found wanting in many but not all regards. The Canadians have also used similar vehicles with mixed results.
The US Future Combat System programme is now defunct but a better defined although equally ambitious programme has now emerged. The Brigade Combat Team Modernization (BCTM) program with the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) is postulated to have the mobility off road of a Bradley with the urban mobility of a Stryker, a tough trick to pull off. Key requirements are versatility, survivability and mobility. We know these are generally that trade offs are usually required so to major on one needs a compromise in another, this seemingly circular argument and the inability to settle on tangible and achievable specifications were the undoing of FRES so it will be interesting to see where this goes. Generaly Dynamics have even pitched a ‘Super Stryker’ design into the mix.
UK experience is similar in some ways to that of the US although we have favoured mobility over protection in many cases with the Jackal, WNIK, Snatch and Vector. The argument about these vehicles is an emotive one because so many service personnel have been killed or injured driving in them but these bare statistics do not show the full picture. Could their mobility have resulted in much lower overall casualties when taken in the round. We have also moved at a much slower pace for a variety of economic, political and other reasons.
Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan we decided on Pirahna V as the FRES Utility Vehicle after a competition between the VBCI, Pirahna and Boxer in the Trials of Truth. Although the deal collapsed after GD and the MoD could not agree on commercial terms one gets the impression the real reason was a realisation that there was and is a very big question mark over the basic design and survivability of 8×8 combat vehicles. Despite centralised tire inflation, air suspension and other advancements they have a high ground pressure, small wheel size pushes ground pressure up, small wheel sizes are dictated by steering travel and the need to minimise hull intrusion. As with all designs you improve one area only to compromise another. This means that in order to have anything like the levels of IED protection that the MRAP style vehicle has the 8×8 has its mobility compromised which subsequently means they have to travel more and more on roads, where you might as well have had an MRAP.
Given our assertion that the IED is not going away, in any spectrum of conflict, the 8×8 it would seem, is an evolutionary dead end. Not mobile enough to avoid vulnerable points and not well enough protected against IED threats that its lack of mobility forces (unlike tracks) forces it into the road danger zone. The holy grail of vehicle design is something with the mobility of tracks and the IED protection of an MRAP/PPV, with added direct/indirect fire protection as well.
Is this possible, probbly not, which leads us into compromise or accepting multiple designs that we take from the toolbox as needs dictate.
The Mastiff has an enviable reputation for protection against IED’s and mines yet even its most ardent supporter would admit that it is not particularly mobile off road, even the mark 2 with its improved suspension.
So the debate between wheels v tracks or MRAP v 8×8’s is far from over and even further from have a definitaive answer. We examined the wheels v tracks debat in an earlier post and came down on the side of tracks for high tempo, high mobility operations but a wheeled solution may be more appropriate for a mechanised formation, supported by the FRES tracked component for specific applications and scenarios. The RAND study into medium weight vehicles makes for interesting reading to inform this debate although it is a few years old.
The question is therefore not, one v the other, but what is the optimal mix and what design criteria should be emphasised.
Although we should be wary of seeing everything through an Afghanistan shaped prism these large vehicles are often just too large to negotiate narrow streets or too heavy for fragile infrastructure, highlighting the mobility v protection argument. If one has to dismount because the vehicle is too large then overall survivability is of course reduced although ironically, walking can be safer in many situations. Because of their high centre of gravity caused by the V shaped hull there is a very real danger of rollover. Rollovers have caused many casulaties in both accidents and as a result of IED or other enemy action.The existing designs lack mobility which means they get stuck quite often, an immobile vehicle creates severe problems, attracting unwanted enemy attention and requiring significant recovery resources, blocking roads for locals denying movement for friendly forces.
Fuel consumption is on and upward trajectory because the large MRAP type vehicles have very poor fuel consumption compared with their predecessors. The latest US design described avove, the Oskosh M-ATV, has a 7.1 litre engine in a design that has 6 seats max!
Given that every single litre of fuel has to be expensively moved to theatre and in asymetric conflict logistic patrols present tempting targets the amount of combat power having to be devoted to logistic force protection should be a wake up call for the military. We need a concerted effort to reduce fuel consumption because not only does it reduce costs it also improves combat manouver capabilities.
We also need to consider maintenance and logistics overhead, having multiple vehicle types with different engines, transmissions, vetronics systems, tyres, hydraulic hoses and battery leads make an already complex supply chain even more difficult. Availability has been constrained by the availability of spare parts in theatre for years and this simply has to stop. The answer is not a better logiustics system or more spares (although that would help in the short term) but a common set of parts across multiple vehicles.
The General Vehicle Architecture (GVA) project is seeking to achieve this commonality in the electronic domain but we need to be much more ambitious and extend this to mechanical components.
The UK has a golden opportunity to create a coherent and consistent vehiclular designs with significant export potential, we are blessed with a wide variety of military and civilian vehicular design expertise, from Lotus to BAe and McLaren to Supacat. Much of the world uses UK automotive and component expertise, lets gather these and have a strategy rather than a series of ill thought out projects and programmes that lurch from one crisis to te next without delivering anything of lasting vaue for the armed forces or UK PLC.
In the next post I will look at these options.