Army must wait for bombproof vehicles

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The Independent Online

British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will have to wait another year before desperately needed vehicles capable of withstanding bomb blasts are ready.

The revelation comes less than a month after four soldiers died when their "Snatch" Land Rover was destroyed by a roadside bomb. Among the fatalities was Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first British female soldier to die in Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Defence, already under fire for failing to provide troops with adequate equipment, was yesterday condemned by families and top military brass over the latest delay in replacing the soft-skinned Land Rovers.

Around one in six of the troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan – 46 – have been in poorly protected vehicles.

Yet the need for a manoeuvrable vehicle that can withstand mines was identified in 1998. Since then the MoD has spent £380m on research before settling in 2004 on the so-called Future Rapid Effects System of 3,000 new vehicles. These, however, are unlikely to see service before 2017,.

Meanwhile, the Government is spending £120m on the short-term solution of Mastiff and Bulldog vehicles – described by the Prime Minister as offering "the best-known protection" against explosive devices.

There are 36 Mastiffs in Afghanistan. These can cater for only 288 soldiers at a time – just 3.6 per cent of the 8,000 British forces there. In Iraq, there are 49 Mastiffs for 4,000 troops.

Patrick Mercer MP, a former army commander in Bosnia, said: "The Snatch Land Rover is a wholly inadequate vehicle. The first fatality by enemy action in Afghanistan [in January 2003] was against an unarmoured Land Rover. It is disgraceful death traps like these are still being used."

Major General Julian Thompson, a commander during the Falklands conflict, added: "When I was in Northern Ireland we were not allowed to use Snatch in South Armagh because they were so vulnerable. So why are they being used in Iraq?"

The MoD recently announced that it has ordered 174 extra Mastiffs and 150 Ridgbacks – also designed to withstand roadside bombs. But these will not be ready until next year.

Last year the MoD pledged that all Snatch Land Rovers would be removed from Afghanistan before the end of 2007.

Colin Redpath lost his son Kirk, a lance corporal, in Iraq last August. He is now joining legal action by other families of troops killed in Snatch Land Rovers against the MoD.

"At the inquest the officers said they had asked for better-protected vehicles, but were told there weren't any," Mr Redpath said.

An MoD spokesman said: "Through investment in Mastiff and Ridgback we are already reducing the number of roles in which we use the Snatch Land Rover."

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