The name is meant to acknowledge its sheer lack of attraction, a military vehicle with no pretention of elegance. But the unlovely Warthog, unveiled today, will play a crucial part in the desperate attempts to combat the roadside bombs taking such a lethal toll on British lives in Afghanistan.
The squat, snub-nosed armoured carrier is a key component of a £700m package, details of which will be presented by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in London today, aimed at giving better protection for troops and turning the tide of an increasingly ferocious insurgency.
In total, 115 of the 19-tonners will be sent to Helmand next summer as replacement for the Vikings and Vectors, which are being withdrawn after 12 members of the services died in them. Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards, was among those killed while travelling in a Viking. He became the most senior officer in the British Army to die in combat since Colonel H Jones in the Falklands.
They were the latest vehicles to fail to withstand Taliban attacks. The use of Snatch Land Rovers was drastically reduced after the loss of 37 lives and 10 more were killed in Jackals, originally sent to Helmand because they were supposedly mine-resistant.
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have claimed 80 per cent of recent British fatalities. Private James Prosser was the latest victim, killed near Musa Qala on Sunday. Today, the body of Acting Sergeant Michael Lockett, a holder of the Military Cross, returned to RAF Lyneham. He was killed in an explosion in the Gereshk district last week.
The issue of vehicles and roadside bombs have now become central to the UK’s commitment in Afghanistan. According to senior officers, the Government is balking at sending extra troops, the wish of defence chiefs, because of apprehension that adequate numbers of protective carriers may not be supplied in time.
The unveiling of the Warthog comes at a time of intense international debate about Afghanistan and growing opposition in Europe and the US to further involvement in the conflict.
Anders Fogh Rasumussen, the new Nato Secretary-General, who was in Washington to meet Barack Obama, spoke about the sacrifices being made. He said: “While body count is no measure of solidarity, it is, unfortunately, a symbol of commitment. Over 20 countries have had their soldiers killed, some in large numbers.”
Tomorrow, General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, will give a keynote speech in London. A central plank of the General’s new strategy for the war, he said in a recent report, would mean Western troops would have to live and work among local people. He acknowledged that this would mean incurring more risk of attacks.
Defence officials insist that thorough evaluation of how the losses occurred has helped design the Warthog, and it will be one of the safest vehicles sent to the conflict. It is better armoured than the Viking, and has been equipped with state-of-the-art counter measures against bombs and mines. In another break with the past, with the £150m purchase of the Warthog the UK became the first Western power to buy a major piece of equipment from Asia. The vehicle is made in Singapore to UK specifications.
Alongside the Warthog, the rest of the £700m budget from Urgent Operational Requirements will go on more Jackals, Buffalo mine-protecting vehicles, the Husky and Coyote, medium and light armoured support vehicles. The MoD has denied claims that the version of the Husky being bought for British forces has been rejected by the US.
The Warthog’s specifications include additional armour, improved electronics, and seats which protect crews and passengers more effectively in the event of a blast. It is also faster, enabling it to get away from attacks more easily.
Speaking at the “rollout” of the Warthog in Singapore, Brigadier Patrick Choy, a senior official with Singapore Technologies Kinetics, the firm which built the Warthog, said: “These vehicles had been built to the demands made by the MoD in London after extensive evaluations about what is needed in Afghanistan. As the name suggests, it is not pretty, but it is tough, durable and happy to live in shit, which makes it prepared for operations in Helmand. We shall have our own team out there to help maintain the vehicles and maker sure that the UK forces are not let down.”
Members of British forces have been testing the Warthog. Major Jez Hermer, who recently left the Royal Marines after taking its Viking fleet to Afghanistan, said: “Having been out there I know how tough it is. This is a better vehicle of its type than anything we have got out there and [will] help save lives. It has good armour protection, but can also go across extremely difficult terrain.”
Brigadier Ian Simpson, who heads the “Combat Wheels Group” at the Ministry of Defence, said: “The Warthog has been acquired specifically with Afghanistan in mind, and it is very much a key element in our plans to provide the forces there with the best protection and equipment possible.
“This is the first time we have bought such equipment from an Asian firm and I have no qualms about that whatever. This has been done to very high engineering standards and, crucially, the vehicles will be delivered in time.”
One of the main selling points of the Warthog is that further equipment and armour can be added in the future. Defence officials accept that this will be a matter of necessity. One of the brutal lessons of the Afghan war is that the Taliban will continue to make better and bigger bombs, and the West will have to keep on countering this, the deadliest of threats.