The Squaddie v the GI: Have our troops got what it takes to do the job?

The war has stretched the Army to the limit. But it need not envy its US ally, discovers Cole Moreton
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The troops are exhausted. They need reinforcements. Tanks are broken and there is not enough money to repair them. Fighting is fierce, morale low.

These sound like the complaints of British soldiers in Afghanistan - only last week an officer there declared he was quitting in disgust after his men were forced to borrow bullets from the Canadians during a battle. His own gun had started falling apart in the heat. But this weekend the loudest complaints are not from the British.

It is the US army that is in revolt. General Peter Schoomaker, its leader, is refusing to submit a budget to the Pentagon because he says his troops need billions of extra dollars to go on doing what is expected of them. The news has shocked British squaddies who are used to seeing the Americans as better equipped, better supported and better paid. If even the Yanks are in trouble, what hope can the Brits have?

Jon Hetherington and Andrew Velez were both 22 years old when they died in Afghanistan this summer. They held similar ranks. The lives and deaths of the two men reveal the differences between the allies, and puncture the myths.

The British Army says its soldiers are better equipped now than they have ever been. The Ministry of Defence has told this newspaper that troops on the frontline "have all got everything they need". Body armour is still reportedly in short supply but a spokeswoman said: "Every single soldier on operational duty has a set."

That may well be the case now. Since the Taliban resistance became clear (and since complaints from generals that equipment was woeful) there has been a big effort to get supplies through. Extra helicopters have been sent to supplement those whose engines succumb to heat and dust. The Army has spent £500m on new Mastiff vehicles to replace its ageing Land Rovers.

The gear is arriving, even as the fighting has eased. But when troops like Lance Corporal Hetherington were deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year they were equipped to keep the peace and rebuild schools. That was what they had been told they were going for. They coped, heroically, with the unexpected ferocity of the Taliban, some units fighting night and day for a month. But when equipment broke down under extreme use, roads became impassable and air support failed, they were in trouble. Reports suggest some ran out of ammunition, food and water.

Corporal Hetherington died in Musa Qala in the early hours of 27 August. His body was flown home to Port Talbot, South Wales. He had served his country for six years, a length of service which earns a British corporal £23,470 a year. A US equivalent, such as Specialist Velez, is paid around £24,500. The difference is that the American soldier in a war zone pays no tax. He may also have received up to £25,000 for enlisting, enough to lift a family from poverty. British soldiers receive no such payment, but the idea is being considered as recruiting levels fall.

The two forces have very different attitudes. British troops are now experienced peacekeepers, but those serving alongside Americans complain their allies believe "peacekeeping is for wimps". Like all US soldiers, Specialist Velez pledged to follow the Warrior's Creed and "destroy the enemies of the US". This has led to claims of insensitivity and excessive force.

The British army has been based on regimental tradition, but some disgruntled soldiers say it is being dismantled by a reorganisation that has seen famous regiments such as the Black Watch absorbed into others. Instead of regiments retraining together every few years, career soldiers will now train individually and move between them. "There will be no permanent core group of guys managing the ethos of the regiment," complained a former Black Watch captain.

Links with areas of the country where sons have followed fathers into service are being broken, he said, along with the sense of belonging. "The Americans think, 'God, if only we had that system.' But now everything we value is under attack."

Few US soldiers can fault the immense investment in their kit, but the psychological demands on them appear greater. The British spend six months in action before returning to their home base to rest and train. This has been eroded lately, but the intention remains. Americans must complete a two-year tour of duty before a year off. Some exhausted troops returning from Iraq have been stopped and told to go back.

The pressure got to Specialist Velez. In 2004 his brother, a corporal, was killed in the battle of Fallujah. He escorted the body home to Texas, asking his father, "Do you know how hard it was to talk to Fred when he was in a box of ice?" Despite hallucinations, he returned to the frontline. But on 25 July, in camp in Sharon, he shot and killed himself.

"Poor sod," said a British infantryman, recently returned to the north of England, when told the story. "We get bollock-all support from home, from the politicians and you lot in the media, but at least we get to come home, if we're lucky. What the Yanks expect from their boys, frankly, it shocks me."

WHOSE KIT IS BEST?

Helmet

The M6 worn by UK troops weighs 1.4kg, so is marginally lighter than the US version. But the 1.6kg Modular Integrated Communications Helmet is newer. Both UK and US soldiers wear an earpiece and microphone.

Body Armour

MoD says British supply problems have now been solved. The US spent $300m on its more advanced boron carbide ceramic system which weighs 16kg. Both suits can stop 9mm bullets at 400 metres.

Load-Carrying Equipment

British belt, yoke and pouches have been used since 1988, but are tried and trusted. US kit is only five years old, but Marines say it falls apart in battle, so a new version is currently being researched.

Rifle

After disastrous start and costly refit the UK SA80A2 is seen as among the best, though stories persist of it failing in heat. The US M4 is a reliable compact version of M16.

Accessories

One in four British infantry soldiers has Under-slung grenade launcher fitted to the barrel of rifle as replacement for cumbersome mortars. Trusted US M6 bayonet is also a hand weapon, field knife and saw.

Fatigues

British Soldier 2000 is traditional combat gear. Expensive new loose US uniform features "visual white noise" of shapeless pixelations that blends with desert or city, and flag that can be seen with infrared sights.

Boots

MoD bought thousands of new pairs from Spain after previous issue disintegrated in the heat in 2003. Tougher rubber soles can withstand up to 300C. US has replaced all black leather footwear in the front-line military with light tan suede that requires no spit-and-polish.

Truck

The British Land Rover was not designed for the desert. It is vulnerable to roadside bombs and ambushes, but is slowly being replaced. Some crews bolt on their own improvised armour.

All of which also applies to the US M998 Humvee.

Pay

A British corporal with six years' service, operating in a war zone, will be paid £23,470. A US specialist of equal rank and service, also in battle, can receive £24,592 including bonuses for combat and family separation. But, unlike his ally, he will pay no tax

BRITISH ARMY FIREPOWER

This is the equipment generals have at their command, according to experts at Jane's Sentinel

386 Challenger 2 battle tanks

468 Scimitar & Sabre reconnaissance vehicles

789 Warrior infantry fighting vehicles

2,764 Saxon, Spartan & other armoured personnel carriers

50 Panther armoured command liaison vehicles

15,000 Land Rover trucks (plus new order of Mastiff vehicles)

298 Artillery pieces like 105mm Light Gun

63 MLRS and other rocket launchers

2,636 81mm and other-sized mortars

840 Anti-tank weapons including LAW

478 Rapier and other surface-to-air missiles

Comments