British Army Brigadier Bob Bruce, commander of the 4th Mechanized Brigade, is unequivocal when assessing the equipment and training that his troops have received ahead of their arrival this month in Afghanistan.
“I absolutely believe that we will be the best-prepared and best-equipped British task force ever deployed on operations,” he told news media ahead of deployment to Helmand province as the 17th rotation of Operation Herrick, the British contribution to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). “And I've absolutely no doubt that our successors will be in an even better place.”
Bruce's confidence is by no means new. Despite headlines that have tended to highlight inadequacies in kit or stuttering progress in procurement, the equipment available to the British military has undergone comprehensive and continuous improvement throughout the country's post-9/11 involvement in Afghanistan.
For Herrick 17 there is a new platform: Foxhound, the long-awaited replacement for the Snatch Land Rover. As well as being the first British military vehicle to be fitted with the Generic Vehicle Architecture information technology backbone, the Foxhound procurement flagged lessons that should help inform future equipment projects.
“Over the last 10 years, the Defense Ministry has become much more adept at getting involved with the manufacturer at an early stage,” says Maj. Gareth Barry, the British Army's trials manager for Foxhound. “As a corporate entity, we understand that the best way to get the best product for both sides is to engage early and have constant engagement.”
Core equipment projects are still time-consuming, but the urgent operational requirement (UOR) process, under which much of the new equipment for Afghanistan was procured, can move with considerable pace.
“Pelvic fracture can be a life-threatening injury,” explains Lance Cpl. Stuart Goldie, a combat medical technician with 3 Medical Rgt, “because major blood vessels run through the pelvis. The pelvic binder is a very simple bit of kit: It goes round the pelvis and binds it together tightly, stopping any abnormal movement. From the moment that they said, 'Right, we need something,' to these being in our Bergens [backpacks] on operations, took 72 hours.”
The specific demands of the campaign have influenced equipment acquisition decisions. The British Army has followed the U.S. lead and now use the Benelli M4 combat shotgun; it is carried by the point man on routine patrols and the solid-shot round is sometimes used against door hinges during compound-clearance missions. Talisman, a suite of vehicles including a Talon tracked robot and a T-Hawk UAV, is in its third year of use as a route-clearance system. Three Talisman task lines are available and are based at Bastion.
A new addition to the communications suite for Herrick 17 is a-made GPS locating beacon. By pulling a plug on the palm-sized unit, an infantryman sends a distress alert to his patrol commander, who can pinpoint the soldier's position on a small monitor.
Yet improvements in how communications data are handled are arguably more significant. “Probably the biggest thing that Royal Signals have picked up, from Telic [British operations in Iraq] through Herrick, is that communications is now everybody's business,” says Maj. Tony McBean, of 204 Signals Sqdn. “The Army's information management is much better than it has been before: We're much better at storing, filing and exploiting the information that we've got. In the actual provision of tactical and strategic communications, yes, the kit changes, but the process is the same.”
Questions remain over the future shape of the British military inventory. UOR equipment is theater-specific in budgetary terms, and decisions have yet to be taken over which platforms will be brought into the core equipment program once Herrick operations end.
“Jackal, Mastiff and Foxhound are likely to come in to the core,” defense equipment minister, Peter Luff, tells Aviation Week, referring to the three main armored vehicle types bought under UOR. Some equipment may be gifted to the Afghan security forces when the U.K. leaves, but platforms bought for Helmand seem likely to form the backbone of the British military fleet for years to come.
“That's being looked at very carefully,” says Luff. “We want to make sure that [any equipment left behind] is appropriate to the level of tactics, training and procedures that they [ANSF] will use. But I think most of the sophisticated equipment that we're using, and that the taxpayers' money has been spent on, is likely to come back to the U.K. and be used by the armed services in future operations.”