Military experts yesterday called into question the safety of the latest armoured vehicles to be supplied to British troops in Afghanistan after three soldiers were killed by an explosion while travelling in a Jackal vehicle.
Yesterday the Ministry of Defence named the dead soldiers as Corporal Kevin Mulligan, Lance Corporal Dale Hopkins and Private Kyle Adams, who also came under attack from small-arms fire. A fourth soldier was seriously injured in the attack north of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province.
The deaths brought the toll in Afghanistan to 195 since 2001. Yesterday the new head of the Army, General Sir David Richards, said it was likely that British involvement in Afghanistan would last for 40 years.
That the men were killed while riding in a Jackal is "particularly worrying", according to the defence expert Dr Richard North, author of Ministry of Defeat, about Britain's role in Iraq.
The Jackal was supposed to offer greater protection to British troops than the much-criticised Snatch Land Rover, in which at least 37 personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet 13 soldiers have now died in Afghanistan in a Jackal, which is based on a Land Rover design, since September. It is "fundamentally flawed", according to Dr North.
The driver sits over the front wheel, the most vulnerable part of the vehicle which is also the most likely to trigger, and so take the full force of, a mine. The bottom of the Jackal is flat, meaning the blast is not dissipated. Reinforcing the bottom with more armour – as with the Jackal II – means that the vehicle will flip over with the force of a blast and crush its passengers.
One soldier writing in a blog last week said: "I was out there using them last year they are very dangerous and very difficult to work on! You would think that in the 21st century we could develop a MRAP [mine-resistant ambush-protected] vech with an open top." Upgraded Jackal II and Coyote vehicles due to be deployed last month will not address this flaw, Dr North added. "It is manslaughter to send troops out in a vehicle which you know cannot meet the threat."
The Jackal is just the latest failure by the Ministry of Defence to provide a mine-resistant vehicle to both Iraq and Afghanistan. A quarter of the 195 service personnel to have died in Afghanistan were travelling in poorly protected vehicles. Such is the problem from mines that convoys travel at four miles an hour, with a minesweeper on foot walking in front.
Two hundred Vector vehicles – dubbed the "coffin on wheels" – were ordered in 2007 at a total cost of £100m, but are being withdrawn because of their vulnerability to roadside bombs.
An order for 401 all-terrain Panther vehicles was made in 2003 as a replacement for the Land Rover at a cost of £400,000 each. In July, the Government revealed the vehicles needed upgrading for use in Afghanistan and only 67 have had the work carried out. The MoD's 10-year £16bn plan to provide a fleet of new armoured vehicles has also been mired in delays.
A leaked report last week lambasted the MoD over its equipment ordering, saying it did not know the "price of any kit". The MoD did deliver 127 highly regarded Mastiff vehicles to Afghanistan by the end of June, but should have delivered 174. The rest were due to be in theatre "later this year". Its best vehicle, the Ridgeback, is also being used in Afghanistan, although it emerged last week that nine were marooned in Dubai because the MoD did not have enough planes to fly them to theatre.
"We are not the predators," Dr North, who also edits the Defenceoftherealm website, said of the British role in Afghanistan. "The Taliban are. We are visible as soon as we leave base, so concealment is no longer an issue. The threat now comes from underneath. So we need to design a mine-resistant vehicle from scratch."
Paul Beaver, a defence consultant, disagreed. "The threat is constantly evolving and the MoD is doing a good job of meeting each new level," he said. "My only criticism is that it takes civil servants too long. But we do have the answers."
Speaking yesterday, the new head of the Army, General Sir David Richards, said: "It is impossible to say whether having more equipment of a particular kind would lead to fewer casualties, and pretty fruitless speculating about it. The enemy's tactics will always reflect, and try to exploit, how we operate."
An MoD spokesman said: "We take the protection of our troops very seriously. We take the steps we can to minimise the risks while remembering that we must achieve the tasks required. We have now spent well over £1bn on new vehicles for operations."
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