Is Talisman Too Little Too Late?

Talisman Mastiff Command Vehicle 02

I have held off posting anything on current IED equipment for obvious reasons, but now that the UK’s Counter Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) capability, known as TALISMAN, has made its public debut at the Defence Vehicle Dynamics show, I thought a bit of background might be useful.

It is a sensitive subject, full of complexity, so apologies in advance for any errors.

There has been a high-intensity programme within the MoD to counter the ever-changing IED threat for some time now, an obvious reaction to the Taleban tactic of pushing out IED’s left, right and centre.

Southern Africa, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan have presented different challenges, for a very informative look at the changing nature of IED’s in Afghanistan have a look here. Whilst those in Iraq would generally use military-grade explosives/surplus munitions, Afghan IED’s tend to use ‘home brew’ explosives combined with accelerants but are much larger. It has also been reported that the networks controlling the use of IED’s are much more sophisticated in Afghanistan.

Even these statements may be out of date, it is a rapidly changing situation.

The age-old cycle of measure and countermeasure continues, we might deploy mine rollers so to counter them, bomb makers simply put the charge some distance away from the pressure plate. Larger devices are used to destroy even the best-protected vehicles. As the COIN led strategy of increasing reassurance foot patrols becomes more common, directional anti-personnel devices concealed in trees, walls and trails are becoming common.

We should not underestimate the scale and complexity of the problem, it is not going to be solved (if it can be ‘solved’) by the application of technology solutions and this complexity has to be recognised; the full range of military, commercial and scientific capabilities have now been aligned to meet the threat. In previous posts, here and here, I looked at the evolution of protected vehicles and the general subject of passively countering the IED threat, but Talisman represents a discrete capability, designed for route clearance and proving.

It is definitely not a replacement for High Threat Counter IED operators but another supplementary system for a range of scenarios and this is how it should be viewed.

The question remains though, is TALISMAN too little too late?

The story of TALISMAN is tied up with the story of mine-protected vehicles, flails and civilian de-mining, in the timeline below, their stories will crossover, this is another ‘put the kettle on the post’ so apologies for the length.

WWII

Although not specifically for IED disposal the flail tank is worth mentioning for background.

Most people have heard of flails, having seen them in relation to D Day or North Africa and wonder if they would be part of a solution for the Counter IED mission in Afghanistan. The flail tank was invented by a South African Army Major in 1942, Captain Abraham du Toit, although there were patents before that and another South African officer also came up with a similar idea independently. After the customary official disinterest, duplication of effort and ingenious persistence the idea eventually came to fruition as a collaborative effort in the North African desert and resulted in the Matilda Scorpion.

The Scorpion flails were driven by a separate engine enclosed in the box on the right, this also included space for the operator, which must have been rather warm.

Writing in a post-battle report Lt William Schneck wrote

The mine flail tank idea began in 1941, with Abraham S. J. du Toit, a motor engineer in civilian life and a sergeant in the South African artillery, who developed a novel device that detonated mines by beating the ground with heavy chains or wire ropes driven by a rotating drum. A test rig was built on a truck and demonstrated in Pretoria, South Africa, where a short film was produced. After General Auchinleck saw the film, he thought it was a brilliant idea and sent Sergeant du Toit to England to pursue his invention in secrecy. The general felt that secrecy was vital in order to maintain the device’s tactical surprise and value, but keeping it secret in the Middle East or South Africa was impossible. It was intended to mount it on a tank chassis for combat use. Sergeant du Toit was soon promoted to major and was closely involved in the development in Britain of what became the Matilda Baron. Although the Baron never saw combat, it did provide the knowledge and experience that eventually led to the development and fielding of the highly successful Sherman “Crab” flail tank which General Hobart used during the Normandy landings in 1944.

Before Sergeant du Toit had left for England, he had sketched out his idea for Captain Norman Berry, the South African Chief Mechanical Engineer for the 8th Army. Captain Berry soon became tired of waiting for results from England and, on his own initiative, went ahead with some free-lance experiments while the 8th Army was still entrenched along the Gazala Line in the spring of 1942. There was no precedent for frontline troops to design and build a piece of equipment of such importance and complexity. Later, during the summer, Lieutenant-Colonel Mill Colman, a member of the South African Engineer Corps, developed what he thought was a novel idea for mine clearing. The idea had come to him when he noted a tracked vehicle driving by with a length of wire entangled in its track sprockets. With each revolution of the sprocket, the wire hit the ground with great force. Based on this, he thought that it might be possible to build a thrashing device that could detonate mines. Major L. A. Girling, Commander of the 21st South African Corps Field Park Company, was tasked with constructing the first experimental unit. They called it a “mine destroying device.” Captain Berry, hearing of the latest rebirth of the flail idea, told Major Girling of similar previous developments and described how Major du Toit had been sent to England by General Auchinleck to work on a similar idea in conditions of tight secrecy. So secret, in fact, that the Allied command in the Middle East had forgotten about the matter. Captain Berry gladly unearthed the remains of his earlier experiment and handed the contraption over to Major Girling’s team of engineers, consisting of himself, Captain G.J. Barry, Lieutenant Hofmann and

Lieutenant C.D.B. Cramb. Work on the prototype flail tank commenced within twenty-four hours and by 6 August, the first mock-up was completed. This first flail prototype was christened the Durban Mark I, after Lieutenant-Colonel Colman’s hometown in South Africa. The Durban Mark I incorporated many of Captain Berry’s ideas, including an auxiliary 105-horsepower Ford V8 engine mounted in a sponson (an armored box) on the right hand side of the Matilda Tank’s hull powered roller supports to a level box and then to the drum suspended above the ground. The horizontal flail rotor was held by two lattice girder arms about six feet in front of the tank and three feet above the ground. The rotor covered the entire width of the tank and was rotated in the same direction as the tank’s movement, at a speed of approximately 100 revolutions per minute. The rotor was equipped with 24 flails, or chain assemblies, that hit the ground with a contact length of approximately 20-cm. On later versions, fielded after the Second Battle of El Alamein, the boom that carried the rotor was modified so that it could be elevated and depressed by means of hydraulic cylinders to aid in mobility when not in use.

After the tests, Major Girling’s team continued to refine their design. On 12 September, the Durban Mark I was demonstrated for the 8th Army’s corps commanders and their chief engineers. Generals Alexander, Commander-and-Chief, Middle East, Montgomery, Commander 8th Army, and Morshead, Commander 9th Australian Division, witnessed Scorpion demonstrations and were impressed with its capabilities, considering the short amount of time invested in the project. Major Girling was congratulated for bringing the project to such a successful conclusion so quickly. Brigadier Ray remarked that, in appearance, the prototype resembled a scorpion and the name stuck. General Montgomery, a deeply religious and austere man, felt the name appropriate and quoted from the First Book of Kings (Chapter 12, Verse 14): “My Father has chastised you with whips, but I shall chastise you with scorpions.” Having observed the new, unprecedented invention, General Montgomery said that he wanted twelve for the coming attack. Brigadier Kisch had explained that the production of so large a number would have to be approved by General Headquarters and that it would mean suspending other production work. To this, General Montgomery replied, “Don’t belly-ache, order two dozen.” The next day Brigadier Kisch ordered the fabrication of an additional twenty-four of the new “Scorpion” mine destroyers, combined with the first prototype, this would provide the 8th Army a total of twenty-five Scorpions for Operation Lightfoot.

According to Major Reid of the New Zealand engineers, “This idea had great possibilities, especially from the sappers’ point of view, as if we could get tanks to clear gaps through minefields we could anticipate a much longer life.” Compared to the other available alternatives such as rollers and hand clearance, the flail-type mine clearance system appeared to be far superior.

Used operationally in the 1942 second Battle of El Alamein the crew had to wear respirators due to the massive volume of dust the flails threw into the air. Nonetheless, the concept, if not the implementation, was proven. Improvements were made, concepts refined and different tank chassis tried until all the designs and operational experience culminated in the Sherman Crab.

I had a look at General Percy Hobart, a true armoured warfare visionary, and the use of armoured combat engineering in an earlier post. I think it’s one of the most interesting aspects of D-Day. The Sherman Crab was a marked improvement, the flails were driven from the main engine via a power take-off, hydraulic raising/lowering and barbed wire cutters which enabled it to double up as a barbed-wire breaching device. One of the most important innovations was a system that allowed the marking of a safe lane, using smoke grenade launchers, an illuminated pole launcher and a chalk dispenser. The Sherman Flail performed a vital service during D Day and beyond and its importance should not be underestimated.

Flails were not the only anti mine technology, ploughs and rollers were used before the flail as early as 1918 but the flail seems to have had greater success in the war years because they were lighter and more suited to the type of terrain encountered.

Despite some smaller developments, post-war, the fail and roller fell out of favour and the explosive breaching charge like the Giant Viper and Python were generally seen as the answer to minefield breaching.

Pre 1992

The Pookie was a specialist mine detection vehicle, first built in Rhodesia in 1976, comprising a monocoque armoured capsule sitting on an open frame chassis. The donor chassis was Volkswagon Kombi which used low downward force torsion arm suspension and this was combined with surplus Formula One tyres to create a ground pressure of less than 3lbs per square foot, less than a human. This ultra-low ground pressure meant that it did not even detonate anti-personnel mines and allowed the detector to be used without fear of detonation, the Pookie could drive right over a mine and not set it off.

Detection allowed the mine to be cleared or selectively detonated, standard operating procedure was to detect, mark and retire, with sappers carrying out the controlled detonation or neutralisation.

In four years of operation, not a single mine was detonated by a Pookie but they found over 550 and had both a practical and psychological effect. Although relatively slow it was very effective and during the latter years of its service, the enemy was known to have placed a bounty on it!

In 1979 a small number of Pookie’s detected an average of just under 6 mines per day and built at a cost of less than a single damaged vehicle repair they were a great success. None were lost to land mines although a number were damaged in ambushes that specifically targeting them. Only 1 driver was killed by a direct RPG hit. Responding to the threat of ambush they were fitted with the spider, a fearsome 24 barrel 12 gauge shotgun providing a 270-degree arc of fire.

Each Pookie cost a grand total of R$11,000 and in short order had handsomely paid for themselves.

In response to a South African Army requirement to clear military convoy routes of anti-vehicle mines in Northern Namibia and Southern Angola, RSD developed the Chubby, an obvious successor to the Pookie. The Chubby system has been continually developed since its introduction in the late eighties.

The concept embodied by the Pookie was developed further into the Meerkat and Husky vehicles as part of the Chubby mine detection and removal system. The Chubby system from RSD utilises a range of V-shaped and open frame vehicles to both detect and disrupt mines and IED’s. The detection vehicles are very low ground pressure but the detonation vehicles have staggered wheels and high ground pressure.

To be clear, the Chubby system was available and operationally deployed in the eighties but it was designed to counter anti-tank mines, not low metal content IED’s, a world of difference.

1992 to 1996

The British contribution to operation in the Balkans, UNPROFOR, IFOR and SFOR spanned this period (SFOR became EURFOR in 2005) and involved up to 10,000 UK personnel at its peak. One of the key requirements was for ordnance disposal and in particular, counter-mine route proving/clearance.

The South African Mamba prototype was sent to Alvis in the UK and this ultimately became the Alvis 4, a number of long-wheelbase Mambas were also supplied and these (I think) became the Alvis 8.

6 were deployed to the Balkans for use by the Royal Engineers.

Route Proving generally consisted of the vehicles driving a route immediately prior to it being opened, nice and simple!

The Alvis 4 had a number of modifications including additional armour to counter TMRP 6 and 7 mines that fired an Explosively Formed Projectile, this made vehicle handling even more hair raising. They have been variously called Alvis 4’s, Alvis 8’s, Mambas, Comanche’s, Acorns and RG-31’s by different sources but for the purpose of this post, they are Alvis 4’s.

How much might one expect six 4 speed manual gearbox vehicles with no ECM or comms cost and that were more hairier to drive than a Land Rover ambulance?

Wait for it, wait for it…

£1.2million in 1990’s money.

Despite the cost, the Alvis 4’s/Mambas were a great success but the harsh climate and terrain of the Balkans combined with the extra weight imposed by additional armour exposed a number of limitations so they were eventually disposed of and a replacement sought (more later)

During the Balkans deployment, we purchased 3 complete sets of the Chubby route clearance system from RS Dorbyl and France also ordered a number of systems. Designed for the conditions of southern Africa the Chubby system encountered a number of problems with the weather and terrain in the Balkans, unable to cope with icy and tight mountain roads their utility was limited.

Two of the three systems were subsequently disposed of to the HALO Trust, a charity that specialises in the removal of the debris of conflict, I am not sure what happened to the third.

The flail enjoyed a resurgence in the ’90s as the need for humanitarian demining of post-conflict areas such as Angola and Afghanistan became obvious. Although the military still has flails in their kit bags, Singapore has recently developed the Bionix Trailblazer, for example, the majority of users are now civilian demining organisations. The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining has some excellent publications on the subject.

Another well-known example is the Hydrema MCV910 (also in service with the Singapore armed forces) and there are many others. The Aardvark Joint Service Flail Unit is made in the UK by Aardvark Clear Mine, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Penman Engineering and is said by some to be extremely effective, in service all around the world including Afghanistan

Why not in British service in Afghanistan one might ask.

To understand the reason why flails are unsuitable for use in counter IED operations it is important to understand the difference between a mine and an IED.

Mines are usually well packaged, discrete devices with an integral trigger device. IED’s found in Afghanistan and other places often have the mean of initiation (or trigger) some distance from the charge and this is a problem that all mechanical demining tools have when countering IED’s. Whilst the flail might do its job and initiate the trigger or pressure plate, the main charge could well be a few metres back up the road and directly under the flail vehicle chassis. Other significant problems include the likelihood of distributing explosive materials indiscriminately and there is the obvious destruction of the ground surface. This might cause problems with a local civilian population, especially if it is repeated.

So although flails have limited utility in demining operations in a civilian context and minefield breaching (not clearance) in a military context, their use for counter IED is severely limited, hence why they are not used.

1997

The US tested a Chubby route clearance system from RS Dorbyl and the US company, CSI

1998

US forces start work on the development of the Interim Vehicle Mounted Mine Detector (IVMMD) system, using the 10 Chubby systems purchased from RSD Dorbyl. They were part of the Ground Standoff Mine Detection System (GSTAMIDS) Block 0 program, of which the IVMMD was designated as the Mine Detection Vehicle component.

1999

The Australian DoD purchased a complete Chubby set for evaluation at a cost of 4.66 AUS$

The US requested a demonstration of the Buffalo heavy mine-protected clearance vehicle.

Another eight Alvis 4’s are procured for use in Macedonia and Kosovo for a combined cost of £3.3million

So the Alvis 4/8’s, all 14 of them cost a total of £4.5million, or more or less, a third of a million pounds each although this would have also included spares and other extras.

In 1999 Minetech resurrected the vehicle and combined it with a modern Ground Penetrating Radar system from Tricon, a German company specialising in detection equipment. The basic design was improved with a new power pack, hydraulic steering and power system.

After a series of post trials improvements, the Minetech Pookie fleet was deployed to Afghanistan and may even still be there.

Again, more applicable to demining operations rather than combat Counter IED but an interesting system nevertheless.

2000

After the poor performance of the Chubby systems in the snow, mud and close terrain of the Balkans, the MoD initiate the Mine Detection, Neutralisation and Route Marking (MINDER) programme.

January, the MoD is up and running with MINDER, a ten-year programme worth up to £100million, expressions of interest were to be in the DPA by the third week of January. The prime contractor was to work with the MoD to produce two variants, MINDER RP (Route Proving) and the reconnaissance version, MINDER Recce.

The MINDER requirements are said to be ambitious, no surprises there, this seems to be a common problem with UK equipment programmes yet in some cases it is understandable. Recognising the likely use of IED’s and mines the UK needed a system that could operate anywhere in the world.

MINDER RP was to be a mine-protected vehicle that carried a sensor suite to detect mines and IED’s, a means of neutralising them and marking a safe lane. MINDER RECCE would be fitted to the army’s Future Engineer versions of reconnaissance vehicles such as MRAV and TRACER.

November, in response to a written Parliamentary question the Chief of the Defence Procurement Agency, Robert Walmsley, stated that two contracts had been awarded to Ultra Electronics and Hunting Engineering, for the Competitive Assessment Phase (CAP) of MINDER. Each contract was worth £6 million and a bid was also received from BAE Systems, which was not successful in the detailed tender assessment process. Total expected costs have risen to £344 million and initial capability was expected to be in 2005 with incremental growth up to 2010.

BAe had partnered with Mechem (part of state-owned Denel) from South Africa for their bid and included development of Chubby.

US forces start work on a remote control option for their IVMMD systems.

2001

The Royal Engineer Alvis 4’s were replaced under an Urgent Operational Requirement with the Lion MPV made by Technical Solutions Group (a subsidiary of Force Protection) in the USA. Supacat fronted the bid with involvement from a company called Seafire and the name Tempest was selected to avoid confusion. Supacat carried out a number of modifications and 8 vehicles were obtained for a total contract price of £2.7million.

The TEMPEST MPV was based on a Peterbilt 330 unit with a Marmon Herrington 4 wheel drive running gear. The relationship between Technical Solutions Group, Force Protection, Seafire and Supacat seems a little unclear. Murray Hammick was named as owner and manager of Seafire and before joining Force Protection, was also head of business development for Alvis, a contributing editor for Janes and an ex Major in the British Army. All very complex.

The MINDER Competitive Assessment Phase continues.

The Hunting Engineering consortium includes Thompson Missile Electronics, RTS Advanced Robotics, DERA and Redifon.

It is clear that the resultant concepts envisage some form of articulated arm for disruption of devices.

As part of the MINDER programme, Pearson Engineering develops the PEROCC, the Pearson Engineering Route Opening and Clearance Capability, a heavily modified commercial wheeled loader. Videos and further information here

2002

US armed forces ordered a number of Buffalo protected clearance vehicles from Force Protection after extensive evaluation in the preceding few years. The Buffalo is a heavy, extremely well protected and durable vehicle, designed to go into harm’s way and neutralise IED’s. The articulated claw is used to move materials and disrupt devices.

The US Army deployed 4 Buffalo’s to Bagram in Afghanistan to assist with clearance operations at the airbase.

MINDER is cancelled in the Assessment Phase due to ‘technical solutions not proving adequate performance’

After several million pounds has been spent the Army is left with nothing.

2003

Tempest Mine Protected Vehicles (MPV) were deployed to Iraq in 2003 in support of operations around Basra.

The Alvis 4/8’s are finally withdrawn from UK service in the Balkans.

November, US DoD initiated market research to meet Urgent and Operational Needs for blast protected vehicles used in route clearance and EOD operations, this was later to become the JERRV programme.

US forces deployed their Buffalo vehicles to Iraq.

The US Ground Standoff Mine Detection System (GSTAMIDS) Block 0 program is terminated and becomes the FCS GSTAMIDS.

2004

Tempest Mine Protected Vehicles (MPV) were deployed to Bosnia in 2004 in support of operations.

Although peripherally related, it’s worthwhile including here for background. The USMC requested TSG/Force Protection deliver the first 27 Cougar MRAP vehicles, these were a completely new design, not based on anything previous, although the obvious general principles of sacrificial components and hull shaping are self-evident. The Cougar was actually designed by a small team including a British engineer and the first variant was called the Hardened Engineer Vehicle, first deliveries began in September.

The French armed forces start the development of SOUVIM, a similar concept to the Chubby system.

Although the (GSTAMIDS) Block 0 programme was terminated, the IVMMD equipment was still in the US inventory, so was deployed to Iraq early in the year, immediately starting limited operations.

The Alvis 4’s are disposed of due to reliability and safety concerns, lack of spares and lack of roadworthiness.

9 go to the Estonian armed forces, 4 to a US Security company (Blackwater) and 1 to Singapore

Total sale value for all 14, £44,000.

Some depreciation.

2005

The US  subsequently adopted the Cougar HEV design with some modification and they are renamed the Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicles (JERRV)

Force Protection receive a series of orders from the US DoD, totalling approximately $87 million for the delivery of 122 Cougar JERRV. There are a number of configurations of JERRV including a 4×4 and 6×6,  subsequent orders number in the hundreds. With the earlier Buffalo, they revolutionise anti IED operations in Iraq. BAe RG31’s were also obtained by US forces.

2006

Tempest Mine Protected Vehicles (MPV) were deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 supporting a range of EOD related tasks.

March, Pearson Engineering is awarded a 2-year contract from the MoD for the Mounted Countermine Capability Concept Demonstrator (MC3D), a joint UK-Canadian programme that uses the PEROCC system described above.

May, Canada announced the EROC ( Expedient Route-Opening Capability) programme, consisting of the Husky mine detector vehicle, and the Buffalo and Cougar mine-protected vehicles. For $29.6 million (Canadian) EROC consists of six Husky’s, five Cougars, five Buffalo’s and 2 years of logistics support.

Initial trials were completed in Angola of the Niitek Visor ground-penetrating radar fitted to the Mine Stalker remotely operated vehicle. The trials were funded by the US Department of Defense Humanitarian Demining Research & Development Program.

July, the US 25th Infantry Division begins acceptance testing of the Honeywell T-Hawk micro UAV

The US IVMMD gets a new lease of life and the Meerkat/Husky combination is replaced with a single Husky Mk2, the resultant system becomes known as Vehicle Mounted Mine detector (VMMD)

By replacing two different vehicles (Husky and Meerkat) with a single versatile vehicle that can be used either in the detection or towing role, the logistics overhead is reduced and flexibility improved.

CSI in the US now offer the Chubby/VMMD complete system (the link includes a comprehensive system description and 2 excellent videos)

A technology improvement plan was also initiated that included the installation of a Niitek Visor 2500 Ground-penetrating Radar (GPR) system. The Visor 25000 is designed to counter the increasing use of low and non metallic devices and reduce false positives.

August, initial deliveries to Afghanistan begin for the Canadian EROC system.

November, in response to a written Parliamentary question, the MoD confirms that

There is currently no formal UOR for the procurement of either “Buffalo” or “Husky”, which are equipments currently used by US Forces. The requirement for a route clearance capability to support current operations is being assessed by the Equipment Capability Manager and this may lead to a UOR in the future if required.

By the end of the year, Force Protection had received orders for 137 Buffalo’s.

2007

January, the Channel 4 documentary from Sean Langan, Fighting the Taliban, is aired in the UK in which UK forces are seen driving around in Land Rover WMIK’s and the accompanying Estonians ride in their MRAP style vehicles. The Estonian vehicles, used to CASEVAC British soldiers, were the Alvis 4’s we used in the Balkans and subsequently got rid of.

See the documentary (in 5 parts) on YouTube herehereherehere and here

Meanwhile, having taken delivery of 6 Husky’s, 5 Cougars and 5 Buffalo’s, Canadian forces are using them to great effect.

The technology improvement programme for the US Husky VMMD is completed and the resultant system is renamed (again) to become the Husky Mounted Detection System (HMDS)

May, the MoD announces the introduction of the Tellar munitions disposal vehicle, based on the Mowag Duro chassis already in service with the Army.

These will be deployed overseas and the image shows clearly a ‘non-green’ colour scheme, they have ‘riot protection’ which might be fine for Northern Ireland but Basra and Helmand, not so sure.

The vehicle carries all equipment required by the end user to undertake conventional munitions disposal. It has also been fitted as an emergency response vehicle (blue light enabled), and is fitted with a mobile phone, force protection suite, a personal address system, and two Global Positioning Systems (GPS): a Bowman radio GPS, and a commercial GPS. It also comes fitted with a level of riot protection.

Each vehicle weighs 9.5 tonnes and costs around £415,000. 18 vehicles have been bought, with 14 to be deployed on operations, and four held in the UK for training and reserves. Tellar will deploy with the Joint Explosives Ordnance Disposal force on both Operations Herrick and Telic in the near future.

The article states they will be used by the Royal Engineers for conventional munitions disposal and deploy to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  As I will show later, they will be used for Counter IED missions in Afghanistan where its protection can be easily contrasted with that provided to US EOD personnel in their Cougar HEV/JERRV’s, the vehicles that have been in service with US forces since 2005.

US forces in Iraq started using the Honeywell T-Hawk micro UAV in counter IED operations, flying ahead of convoys to examine suspect areas.

2008

US armed forces ordered their 200th Buffalo mine clearance vehicle, Italy orders four, France five and Canada, an additional fourteen

The Talisman project is born and orders placed, with BMT and PA Consulting as part of the team.

The MoD news release states

£96 million from the package will also be used to develop a specialist route clearance system known as Talisman, which will provide a new high-tech way of dealing with the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat. Among the Talisman vehicles to be developed will be the Buffalo mine-protected vehicle and the Engineer Excavator.

New and Hi-Tech!

If that means Buffalo, used by US forces since 2002 or the JCB HMEE, again used by US forces for a number of years and a specialist military derivative of the Fast Track agricultural and construction vehicles, then fair enough.

November, the Talisman in-service date is targeted at late 2009

The US Navy ordered 372 Honeywell T Hawk systems

Honeywell and Thales signed a teaming agreement for the T-Hawk

Testing for the US Army Buffalo A2 programme began and at this point, over 25 improvements had been incorporated into the original design, including fire suppression, additional armour, a claw mounted real-time video camera and the Air Digger.

Further improvement and trials work continues in Cambodia and Angola on the Mine Stalker system for humanitarian demining. The system is maturing and displays a greater than 99.6% detection rate even against low metal anti-tank mines. Confusingly, Mine Stalker is also the name given to the same ground penetrating radar but this time mounted on a Multidrive tractor, the same tractor that has also been used with different detector systems.

Although humanitarian demining is very different from IED clearance in Afghanistan there are some parallels and an excellent overview can be seen here

2009

February, US forces in Afghanistan commenced Operation Gateway III which involved clearing Route 515 of IED’s using the Husky system.

March, the West Lincolnshire Coroner, Stuart Fisher, speaking at the inquest of Captain Daniel Sheperd of  11 EOD Regiment Royal Logistic Corps, urge the MoD to use more robots where possible.

A video is released that highlights the scale of the Counter IED effort

September, Thales is appointed as Mission Systems Design Authority for the Talisman project, which will be £25million, please. The press release states that as part of the services, Thales will supply warehousing (honestly)

October, the MoD took delivery of 14 Buffalo’s

November, the MoD took delivery of a number of Dragon Runner robotic vehicles from Automatika, a division of QinetiQ.

At a conference on defeating the IED, General Sir Richard Dannatt stated

The insurgent has chosen to put his strength up against our weakness, it forces us into bigger and more protected vehicles, or even better for them, to stay in our bases and not have any access to the people. To do our job we must integrate with the people, and the insurgent wants to prevent us from doing that. It is time for expenditure on counter IED to move from UOR to core business. If we accept that we will be in Afghanistan for three to five years and beyond, there is no doubt that this is now our core business.

As he leaves his job, in August 2009, he urged the MoD to put more resources into counter IED activity.

Improvised explosive devices are a major issue at the moment. They are a major tactical battle that we have got to win and we need to roll out more equipment so that we have permanent 24/7 surveillance over the most difficult areas and so we can target the Taliban as they are laying these things

In particular, Dannatt called for the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) programme to be accelerated, with data and images collected by planes and unmanned drones, looked at and analysed by specialist staff who then pass the information on to field commanders, who are said to believe that the lack of these specialists is directly influencing the number of fatalities the British army is experiencing

In response, Liam Fox, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Defence said

Good ISTAR capability, in addition to more helicopters, earning the trust of the local population and increased armour, is the best way to counter the IED threat. If there is a shortage of this capability, the government must do everything it can to fill that gap

In the same month, Michael Yon published his excellent report from his embed with UK forces, Bad Medicine

This lays bare the sheer scale of the problem, the efforts of high threat C-IED teams and the flimsy Tellar vehicle that is used by the Joint Force EOD Task Force.

CSI continued to develop the Husky system, the Mark III now includes a large number of improvements and their is also a 2 man version to handle the extra workload resulting from the Niitek Visor 2500 Ground Penetrating Radar and other sensors.

Over 500 are now in service.

In a magazine published by the US Joint Program Office Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) Vehicles the Improved Spork for Buffalo vehicles is introduced. Initiated in late 2008, the improved claw can now grasp and rotate objects, not just rummage around. The system can be retrofitted to existing vehicles in less than 30 minutes

December, the UK ordered 5 Honeywell T-Hawk micro UAV systems for $5.7million, each system comprises two air vehicles and ground control equipment.

2010

January, field experience with the T-Hawk micro UAV revealed a number of problems

February, whilst in Istanbul, Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary, made the following offer

Today I told our allies that the United States will be able to offer them more intelligence, training and equipment including jammers, route clearance robots, surveillance systems and ground-penetrating radar

Operation MOSHTARAK commences with a big counter IED effort.

The C-IED Task Force comprises personnel from both the RLC and RE. The RLC Ammunition Technical Officers (ATO’s) work with the RE Search Teams (REST), REST finds the devices and the RLC ATO disposes of them.

A BBC News at Ten report from Afghanistan is aired, a pretty harrowing account of joint USA-UK operations that resulted in the death of a Royal Engineers Search Adviser (RESA). The report showed US forces using Husky’s and Cougar JERRV’s to clear the route. When the US Husky contacts a large IED the force has to resort to on foot detection.

A couple of interesting reports here and here on the Task Force Thor (Target Hazard Open Roadway), the US unit responsible for route clearance.

The Python system gets its first outing in Afghanistan.

As part of Operation MOSHTARAK, the Royal Engineers deployed an explosive clearance system called Python, towed behind the Challenger derived Trojan Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE). Detecting mines and IED’s in front of vehicles or foot patrols, called ‘Op Barma’, is usually a painstaking, dangerous and incredibly difficult task, using Vallon handheld detectors. Occasionally an opportunity exists to use more automated methods.

The Python is the replacement for the Giant Viper, in fact, a mid-life upgrade called Giant Viper Mid Life Upgrade (GVMLI) that replaced the motor unit and other components. Instead of the parachute system in the Giant Viper, the Python uses a long strip of Velcro (honestly) to retard and straighten the hose as it deploys. Although seemingly unsophisticated it is very effective. It is nothing more sophisticated than a 228m length of rubber hose, except the hose is filled with high explosive! Launched using a rocket motor it deploys across the ground to be breached and when it lands the explosive-filled hose detonates, initiating and destroying any mines or IED’s in its path, clearing a safe line approximately 7m wide and 180m long.

The Trojan and Titan (the world’s fastest armoured bridge layer) have been in service with the Royal Engineers for three years and are soon to be joined by the Terrier, a lighter armoured combat engineering vehicle that will replace the Combat Engineer Tractor.

The operation allowed a significant section of wadi north of Patrol Base Wahid to be cleared of IED’s, although the Python provides a breaching, not clearance capability meaning that clearance teams will have to make sure the area is 100% clear. Breaching versus clearance is about the management of risk, breaching means operational tempo can be maintained at an acceptable risk.

Trojan and Python have been in theatre for a while but this is the first public airing of its undoubtedly excellent capabilities and marks an interesting change in approach, in the right location it enables rapid breaching of suspected IED/mine areas with all the operational benefits that this brings.

March, the Express published a story claiming the MoD rejected the Niitek Visor 2500 GPR.

Commenting on the story, Tory MP, Patrick Mercer said

“This is yet another example of the Government dithering. American and Canadian forces are using this equipment now and lives are being saved.”

April, Talisman deployed to Afghanistan.

France takes the lead on a European Defence Agency project where member states will jointly buy a forensic laboratory to analyze improvised explosive device (IED) debris.

June, the French Army took delivery of the MBDA SOUVIM 2 anti-mine/IED system. Similar in concept to the Husky, SOUVIM2 is claimed to be able to clear 150km of track per day and consists of two vehicles and three trailers. The first vehicle (designated VDM) carries magnetic and thermal decoys that trigger heat-sensitive, tripwire and tilt-rod activated mines. The vehicle travels at a speed of 25 kph and uses low-pressure tires to reduce the chance of triggering pressure-sensitive mines. These are detonated by the heavyweight trailer, towed behind the VDM. A follow-on vehicle is the VTR, which tows two additional trailers to tackle residual un-detonated mines to create a safe track up to a width of 3.9 meters.

British ‘bomb disposal experts have been ordered to detonate many improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan rather than trying to dismantle them after four members from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment have been killed in just over a year in Helmand, The Independent reports.

The US orders another 76 Niitek Visor 2500 ground-penetrating radar sets to be fitted to their existing Husky vehicles. The contract included spares, training and maintenance support at a cost of $106.5 million, roughly £900k each. The complete set is called the Husky Mounted Detection System or HMDS

The IED threat has evolved, especially the use of low or non-metallic/magnetic content so existing metal detection systems become less and less effective. Ground-penetrating radar is vital in the hunt for these difficult to detect devices. US Husky’s have primarily been used for main supply routes because of its size but the NIITEK VISOR 2500 system has been miniaturised and mounted on a Talon unmanned robotic vehicle for use in closer and more difficult terrain.

US forces now have 80 systems in theatre and Canada, 21.

Niitek is now owned by the UK company, Chemring.

In the recent visit to Afghanistan, David Cameron said:

“My biggest duty as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is to our Armed Forces and to make sure that they have all the equipment and all of the protection that they need to do the absolutely vital job that they are doing here in Afghanistan.

“I’m pleased to announce today that we will be spending an extra £67m on countering the IED threat and actually doubling the number of British teams that are there to counter the threat from those explosive devices.”

Speaking at DVD, Peter Luff MP, the new Minister for Defence Equipment Support and Technology said.

“Tackling the IED threat is vital for us to make military progress. C-IED is not just about the bomb disposal expert defusing a bomb, vital and dangerous though that role is. It is about making sure that our soldiers have a range of tools, tactics and techniques available to them.”

Research continues, UK scientists from St Andrews University are developing a laser system that detects minute quantities of ‘indicator molecules’ given off by explosives.

Talisman gets a public viewing at the DVD show.

June, MoD DSTL scientists involved with work on detection equipment are honoured by the Queen with OBE’s for two of them.

July, The Talon robots that are part of Talisman were criticised by an unnamed ‘army bomb squad insider’, quoted in The Sun newspaper, who said the 10kg robots were too weak to lift explosives, could not cut wires cleanly, were difficult for troops to transport and were prone to falling over on the uneven ground.

“The Dragon Runner is useless – everybody knows it,” the insider was quoted as saying. “It’s more of a hindrance than a help. It won’t go over uneven ground or anything with a slight gradient. Nine times out of ten it just topples over.”

The MoD release a story about how the Army has utilised the skills of a Canadian ‘cowboy’ to assist with training personnel in ground awareness.

Reinforcing the fact that technology is not the answer to all problems the MoD release another story that describes how men, machines and animals are combined to detect and defeat IED’s. Another story, close behind, looks again and military working dogs, especially in the IED detection role.

August, the MoD releases a news item describing Talisman.

In the news piece, the costs have doubled to over £180million and the purpose is defined;

Talisman has been designed to provide an increased level of assurance along routes throughout the region. It consists of a suite of cutting-edge equipment, including armoured vehicles, optical cameras and remote-controlled vehicles.

This life-saving equipment is being used to support combat logistic patrols, which can comprise several hundred vehicles and trek through the country delivering vital supplies to bases for the troops on the front line

From this, it is clear that Talisman is for route clearance and assurance, for combat logistics patrols and quite distinct from the RLC high threat C-IED teams although as with any system, new roles will be found.

It is also apparent from the release that it is a Royal Engineer operated system.

September, Shepard report that the MoD is looking at options for remote-controlled vehicles, especially some of the thousands of Snatch Land Rovers that are earmarked for disposal. The Snatch Technology Demonstrator could be used for base security and counter IED systems were specifically mentioned. The Snatch TD could be used as a sacrificial lamb or to carry sensors for example.

The press release from Marshall’s includes a picture of the interior and highlights the controls

The remote driver’s position is complete with all controls, steering wheel and instruments which replicate what the driver would experience if sitting in the actual vehicle. The driver has a screen which provides him with a real time image of the view from the driver’s position in the Land Rover. This remote driver location can be fitted to any vehicle or building which has the space.

In the remotely controlled vehicle the controls are managed by a series of servos and mechanical devices which turn the steering wheel or push on the pedals. Any vehicle with an automatic gearbox can be converted. The equipment installed in the remote Land Rover has been designed to be fitted or removed in less than 30 minutes so that vehicle can revert to being directly controlled by a driver.

Other bids from BAe and MIRA are also under consideration

2011

March, pictures appear on an Australian Land Rover enthusiast forum of a remotely controlled Snatch Land Rover sporting a ground-penetrating radar.

Defeating the IED

To restate what I said at the beginning of this post, it is a highly complex and difficult task.

The overarching Counter IED strategy sits on three pillars, defeat the device, train the force and attack the network.

Talisman concerns itself with the first pillar but an equal amount of effort is going into the other two. Attacking the network of individuals that make the devices, emplace them and supply materials is likely to be the most effective long term counter. All three elements of this strategy need intimate knowledge of what we are dealing with, for this, we need to neutralise and examine, not just destroy. With knowledge of how the devices are made, emplaced and initiated we can then adjust training, tactics and procedures to minimise risk and impact but when resources are constrained this will inevitably create problems.

Finding the right balance between destroying devices in order to allow greater freedom of movement for troops, and gathering intelligence to target the Taleban networks which build and plant IEDs is difficult. All information obtained from analysing the components of a recovered IED can be fed into an intelligence database like J-KNIFE but there would but it has been reported that there is some disagreement about the balance between careful recovery and exploitation and the less sophisticated mechanical or explosive removal.

An RLC ATO takes up to ten years to train, they are the expert’s experts and consequently in high demand. The high casualty rate has placed an even greater burden on those remaining and recent news reports have highlighted the dangers of fatigue and overstretch.

There is clearly a difference between cap badges, the forensic approach that worked so well in Northern Ireland is carried out by the Royal Logistic Corps but the Royal Engineers would seem to favour the more simple destruction method.

Although joint teams of course work seamlessly on operations the inevitable resource competition between the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistic Corps simply cannot be conducive to maximising effectiveness. When the Royal Army Ordnance Corps was merged with the Royal Corps of Transport into the Royal Logistic Corps, C-IED  lost focus as other capabilities were prioritised, Northern Ireland was coming to an end and the capability might have been seen as niche. Although there are logical reasons for a difference in emphasis between the two, high tempo route clearance or deliberate neutralisation and evidence gathering, for example, this should not be allowed to get in the way of creating a coherent organisational approach to the problem, the IED is not going to go away.

We have to ask if this cap badge rivalry and competition for the resource has hindered our approach to the IED problem, for decades there has been some tension between the two.

The UK, with all its expertise gained from decades in Northern Ireland, was the recognised world leader both in technology and expertise terms but as with many military subjects, we seem to have fallen behind others through a combination of resource constraints and what would seem to be institutional ‘drag’

This has prevented innovative technologies from being rapidly fielded and we now find ourselves having to play catch up.

Has this resulted in unnecessary casualties?

I won’t be so presumptuous to make a judgement but clearly, the US and Canada have had some success with systems like the Husky and Buffalo whilst the UK has been prevaricating, arguing amongst ourselves, creating project teams and appointing design authorities.

That said, it is very probable that the IED will never be completely defeated, they are simply too easy to deploy but we can minimise the threat, thus supporting an overall operational goal.

There is a wide range of technologies, tactics and equipment ranged at the IED and its supporting players. Whether it is the NATO project to support the transport and dissemination of full-motion video generated by UAV’s, the comprehensive ECM equipment fitted to most UK vehicles in theatre, tri-service mine awareness training, pattern analysis, Trojan breaching vehicles, mine rollers, forensic analysis of recovered devices, airborne sensors or even a small kit to assist extraction from minefields (P-MEK) there is no doubt, the kitchen sink is now being thrown at the problem.

A large proportion of IED casualties have occurred within a small radius of a FOB, self evidently we are not dominating the ground around these locations and don’t have the persistent surveillance capabilities to assist. Yet again, US forces are better equipped, UAV’s, aerostats and surveillance towers provide this constant surveillance. Perhaps the plan mooted by 16 Air Assault Battalion in 2008 to erect a network of Northern Ireland style surveillance towers wasn’t as outlandish as first thought.

In any spectrum of operations, the IED will find useful. The cat is well and truly out of that bag and those that argue that IED’s will only be encountered on enduring operations like Northern Ireland or Afghanistan, which of course we will no longer be doing, are simply wrong.

And so we come to Talisman.

Talisman comprises 5 key equipment elements;

  • Buffalo Rummage clearance vehicle
  • Mastiff 2 ‘Protected Eyes’ command and control
  • Honeywell T-Hawk micro UAV
  • QinetiQ/Foster Millar Talon robotic vehicle
  • JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavator

Talisman increases the ‘tools in the box’ at long last but the box isn’t big enough and would seem to be missing some of the tools other forces in theatre have had for several years. All the components are well-proven, effective and in service elsewhere, in some cases for several years. Buffalo has been in service with US forces since 2002, that’s 7 or 8 years. The JCB HMEE has also been in service with the US for some time, entering service with the US in 2007.

Whilst I have no doubt that the behind the scenes integration work is impressive, the speed of getting it into service is absolutely nothing to be proud of.

Talisman was announced in October 2008, which means the need statement was perhaps written 6 months earlier, which would make 2 years between need and deployment, hardly urgent. Remember, the equipment is largely off the shelf and in service with other nations, we are not pushing back the boundaries of science (we may indeed be at the cutting edge but there is nothing in the published materials to suggest this)

Contrast this with the time it took Canada to get Buffalo into theatre, accepting that Talisman is not a single-vehicle.

If one looks at pictures of the Buffalo in service with US forces and the same vehicle now in service with the UK (pictures above) it is clear that the UK version does not have the video camera on the Spork or the compressed air blower or Air Knife, no doubt at some point, the need for real-time imagery will be

Critically, at least not in public announcements, the UK has not fielded an equivalent to the Husky with its ground-penetrating radar, so effective for detecting low metallic content devices although other advanced sensors have been developed by DSTL. There has to be a reason for this omission, even accepting the fact that they are not 100% effective against low metal IED’s, the figures released by its operators show that when used in conjunction with other search methods they can improve productivity enormously. There is no magic bullet but dismissing this type of system because it does not offer a 100% guarantee of detection has to be questioned. The announcements about unmanned Snatch Land Rovers and the images of one with a ground-penetrating radar show the UK is developing these systems, despite buying 3 earlier generation systems for the Balkans and then giving them away.

Instead, we rely on hand detection, a Vallon, mine probe, a ken eye, 2″ paintbrush, professionalism and a big set of balls.

The Husky is not of course a magic bullet, the picture below of a member of the Royal Engineer Search Team (REST) examining a drain for an IED shows how difficult it would be to employ a single technology; there will always be a need for brave and expert individuals like those shown in the pictures.

Effective tactics, techniques and procedures like terrain appreciation, avoiding vulnerable points and Op Barma drills using handheld Vallon detectors go a long way as well.

Summary

The recent UK counter IED effort is a story of missed opportunities, throwing away hard-won lessons, resource starvation and piecemeal, fragmentary and over-ambitious programmes that went precisely nowhere.

Talisman is sure to be welcomed, but we should not be patting ourselves on the back for speed of implementation, its constituent parts have been in service with others for many years and critically, does not include a Husky/SOUVIM type capability.

As we have been slow to adopt new technologies the UK has had to rely on the expertise and frankly huge bollocked bravery of RLC High Threat Counter IED operatives and other specialists from the Royal Engineers, RAF and RN.

And for this, we should ask if too a high price has been paid.

UPDATE

I have updated this post (February 2011) with additional information on the Multidrive/Halo Trust demining tractor and some additional background reading on flails.

The flail enjoyed resurgence in the 90’s as the need for humanitarian demining of post conflict areas such as Angola and Afghanistan became obvious. Although the military still have flails in their kit bags, Singapore have recently developed the Bionix Trailblazer for example, the majority of users are now civilian demining organisations.

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining has some excellent publications on the subject.

Another well known example is the Hydrema MCV910 (also in service with the Singapore armed forces) and there are many others.

The Aardvark Joint Service Flail Unit is made in the UK by Aardvark Clear Mine, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Penman Engineering and is extremely effective, in service all around the world including Afghanistan

Why not in British service in Afghanistan one might ask.

To understand the reason why flails are unsuitable for use in counter IED operations it is important to understand the difference between a mine and an IED.

Mines are usually well packaged, discrete devices with an integral trigger device. IED’s found in Afghanistan and other places often have the mean of initiation (or trigger) some distance from the charge and this is a problem that all mechanical demining tools have when countering IED’s. Whilst the flail might do its job and initiate the trigger or pressure plate, the main charge could well be a few metres back up the road and directly under the flail vehicle chassis.

Other significant problems include the likelihood of distributing explosive materials indiscriminately and there is the obvious destruction of the ground surface. This might cause problems with a local civilian population, especially if it is repeated.

So although flails have a place in demining operations in a civilian context and minefield breaching (not clearance) in a military operation, their use is quite limited.

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