Sunday, August 8, 2010

Humvee an IED death trap

In the wake of the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell the Army is examining whether its use of the "armoured" Humvee was the best option for its security patrols in Bamyan Province, Afghanistan. The short answer is simple. It wasn't.

The American Army has been seeking alternatives to the "armoured" Humvee ever since 2003 when the politicians discovered, what most commanders already knew: the Humvee was never built to protect its occupants against mines and Improvised Explosive Devices. The Humvee was designed in the 70s to be a replacement for the jeep. Despite its reputation for size and gas guzzling, it is actually a light vehicle in military terms and unfortunately bolting on armour and spall lining here and there does not overcome the fact that its wheel arches and body shape just weren't designed to deflect explosive forces away from vehicle occupants.

On the other hand one must be reasonable. Some Improvised Explosive Devices in Lebanon have destroyed Merkava III tanks, and armoured protection doesn't get any better than that. The simple fact is that when one group of people lie in wait to ambush another group of people in vehicles armed and everyone is armed with machine-guns and explosives the liklihood is someone is going to get hurt. To date New Zealand had been very lucky no one has been killed. Sadly for Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell and his family and friends, our luck finally ran out.

But that doesn't get the armed forces completely off the hook. Had the lead vehicle been an RG-33 as recommended by my study it is possible that Lieutenant O'Donnell would still be alive. The RG-33 has a good track record of resisting mines and IEDs and is certainly better protected than the armoured Pinzgauer or armoured Humvee. So looked at from this perspective the question that has to be asked is not could the vehicle provided better protection but what led to the situation which we find ourselves in where it did not?

The first and most obvious point is that none of the vehicles on that patrol were bought by the New Zealand Army. They were leased. This raises difficult questions.

Why is the New Zealand Army paying a 10% capital charge on $750 million worth of Light Armoured Vehicles which haven't been deployed to Afghanistan PLUS leases on poorly armoured vehicles which have been deployed to Afghanistan?

Why are New Zealand troops not using Pinzgauers (except the SAS) and would they be any safer if they were?

The answers to most of these questions are quite simple. When the Army bought its vehicles the problem of deploying them economically was not part of the equation. The Defence Force talks up its engagement around the world but aside from its frigates can't deliver much more than pedestrians with 50kg of kit to lug around.

This isn't the Army's fault alone. It is the entire Defence Force's fault. When shopping time rolls around every thirty years or so it focuses too much on high-tech bang-bang and not enough on simple logistics.

The fact is our infantry are now, and have always been, our most important force. We are not the kind of nation that launches Tomahawk missiles at people thousands of miles away guided by satellite spies and robot drones. New Zealanders are up close and personal soldiers where as much is achieved by jaw-boning as it is accurate shooting. That means the whole military side of the defence force should be built around delivering and supporting our infantry while they carry out their mission.

The system should be capable of delivering infantry to the deployment zone along with their vehicles and equipment both by air and by sea. Unfortunately we don't have heavy air transporters and we don't have low cost sea transport either. Without this core logistical backbone we simply can't derive any value from our own vehicle fleet. We end up being dependent on other armies cast-offs to protect our soldiers.

My study had two suggestions for long range heavy transport. One was this Landing Ship Tank which can carry 24 tanks 6,000 nautical miles at a go at a relatively low cost. The other was the IL-76 aircraft which is routinely leased by the United Nations for humanitarian work. With a bit of squishing the IL76 could carry three RG-33 per flight. Neither of them are as fancy as the HMNZS Canterbury, or the Boeing 757, but they are far better at carrying tonnes of stuff, long distances.

That way you could deliver a full range of vehicles and helicopters we have already bought and paid for, to protect our troops that need them, rather than paying to use some-one else's, while our own store of capital equipment never leaves storage.

But would that, in the end, have saved Tim O'Donnell's life? One has to be honest and admit possibly not. An ambusher always has the advantage and can pick the time, the place and the target. My study does not envisage patrols purely of armoured Behemouths rumbling around. I have always supported the use of Toyota Landcruisers simply because they are easy to fix in the field. If an IED was fired at a landcruiser its occupants wouldn't stand much chance.

Could the Defence Force do better? I think so. Would it guarantee our record of remaining casualty free in Afghanistan? No other military force has ever escaped that country as lightly as we have to date, so I rather think not. Afghanistan has defeated every empire that has tried to crush it. The odds of our "winning" there, are poor.