Special Report: Protection of personnel and platforms – a subject close to home
17 October 2012
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought home to the nation the importance of physical protection for deployed forces. Preparation for the wrong war, a highly innovative enemy, lack of experience in high-intensity counterinsurgency operations and the progressive impact of squeezed funding on the land programme conspired to expose the frailties of the army's personal protection equipment and armoured vehicles.
Since 2005, there has been an incredible deployment of new capability, which has significantly enhanced the survivability of our forces and saved many lives as a result. Delivery of this capability has seen great advancement in armour technology and the design of armoured vehicles. The small and tight-knit armour community in both government and industry pulled together and delivered when it was most needed. Whilst technology will continue to advance, there are some enduring lessons that should not be forgotten.
Physical protection is primarily a national business because it involves a deep knowledge of the enemy threat and the national approach to dealing with it. This type of information is classified, which means that technical responsibility resides within government as well as in industry and there must be an unusually close relationship between the two. Whilst the import and export of technology is important, the core knowledge and capability must reside in the UK.
The Physical Protection Group in Dstl is a national treasure. The knowledge, expertise, professionalism and commitment of those within it are without parallel. The breadth and depth of their experience has developed over many years and it is not easily recreated – it must be managed carefully and nurtured.
Normal rules of competition should not apply. Cooperation and knowledge transfer between government scientists and industry are essential and wholly appropriate in this context. Given the nature of the business, imperative trumps the perception of commercial purity. It should be emphasised that business is wholly proper, but one cannot go to open competition when it is only possible to describe the rules to a select few.
Survivability is generally not well understood. Given the nature of its elements, this is perhaps not a bad thing, but it does present problems, particularly in procurement. Procurement staff should be aware of what they do not know and actively seek the right guidance from the experts.
Under or over specify vehicle requirements at your peril. Vehicle survivability is a complex subject and many factors impact on it. Decisions made early on in vehicle design can and frequently do constrain the capability thereafter. This poses a real challenge with considerable scope to get it wrong. Requirements may need to be specific in order to aid procurement, but they must be set in the context of uncertainty rather than certainty.
Growth potential in terms of weight and power should be prerequisites of all future vehicle requirements. The enemy has a vote and will exploit weaknesses, which requires platforms to be modified – this generally requires the addition of armour and electronic systems.
In a high-threat environment, personal protection really matters. The army was caught flat-footed in this area and it was saved by the rapid technical development, manufacture and fielding of new capabilities. A continued and properly funded technical development programme
would be an invaluable low-cost insurance policy allowing rapid delivery of the next generation of equipment as and when it is required.
With close cooperation between capability managers, government experts, procurement staff and industry, it is possible to move at great pace. Enemy action has provided the impetus in recent years. Moving forward, we must find a way to maintain the impetus and focus if we are to stay ahead of the enemy.
The challenge for the department is to continue the pace and success of the war-time survivability technology development and procurement programmes. If the challenge is to be met, the department must overcome its natural tendency to rely on process rather than a clear capability strategy, well-targeted research objectives and the expertise of those who know best. It must also find the money and resource to invest in finding technical solutions to protect servicemen from the most likely and most dangerous future threats, even if they are not causing a problem right now.
John Reeve is director of Araldo