Ridgback armour secrecy deprives British troops of Afghanistan vehicles

Afgan4by4PA_450x300Secrecy sounding the armour on new vehicles destined for British troops in Afghanistan is preventing them from being flown into the conflict zone.

The cladding on the Ridgbacks has been classified as so secret that only British transport aircraft are allowed to ferry them to the troops in Helmand province.

As a consequence, the much-needed vehicles have been queuing up in Dubai, with long delays before sufficient UK transport aircraft can be found to take them to Afghanistan.

The four-wheeled Ridgback which is a smaller version of the six-wheeled Mastiff armoured vehicle, was bought from the Americans, partly to replace the Snatch Land Rover. Thirty-seven service personnel have been killed in the Land Rovers, which proved to be no match for the increasingly powerful roadside bombs.

During the time it has taken to deliver the Ridgbacks to Helmand, eight soldiers have been killed from explosions in Helmand. Two of them are known to have been travelling in ageing armoured tracked vehicles.

Under normal arrangements, all previous armoured vehicles bought to provide extra protection for the troops in Helmand have been flown by a mixture of British and civilian chartered aircraft. The most heavily used aircraft have been Russian-made Antonov planes — the giants in the air transport business.

However, the new American-designed Ridgbacks have been given a secrecy classification of “UK Eyes only” which automatically bars the use of foreign-owned transport aircraft to carry them to Afghanistan.

The RAF has been forced to use only the British-owned C17 Globemaster fleet, consisting of six aircraft, which can take two Ridgbacks at a time. But the Ministry of Defence said the C17s were already working at full stretch, taking all heavy supplies to Afghanistan.

At any given time only four out of six C17s are operational, and some of the aircraft have had to be used to complete the final withdrawal of kit and stores from Iraq as part of Operation Brockdale – codename for the pull-out from Basra.

ridgeback_597889aNine Ridgbacks had been waiting for three weeks in Dubai — the normal stopping-off point for trips to Afghanistan — since they arrived there on July 16. An MoD spokesman said five of the 19-tonne vehicles were now in Afghanistan and the remaining four would be there by Friday.

The vehicles have been used by the Army in Afghanistan since June. A total of 157 have been ordered.

July was the bloodiest month for British forces in Afghanistan since the mission began eight years ago, with 22 soldiers killed and more than 50 wounded in action.

The Ridgback is the British version of the American 4×4 Cougar produced by Force Protection Industries Incorporated in South Carolina. The company also makes the Mastiff.

The vehicle can carry 12 troops and can run on flat tyres at 55mph. It is described as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. It has a shaped hull and protected cabin made out of composite armour systems. The troops sit on specially armoured seats.

Ridgbacks are armed with a heavy machinegun, a 7.62mm general-purpose machinegun and a grenade-launcher.

Fifty more Ridgbacks are expected to arrive at Al-Minhad air base in Dubai in November.

Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary, said: “As our troops are being targeted by Taleban roadside bombs, to have these military vehicles parked in the desert doing nothing is a crass betrayal of our Armed Forces’ bravery. If we have trouble moving nine Ridgbacks, how much more trouble are we going to have to move the 50 which will arrive in November?”

“This Government needs to ask our allies to help us get these much-needed vehicles into theatre. But because these are classified as ‘UK Eyes only’, so far the Ministry of Defence hasn’t let our coalition partners help us transport the equipment we need to keep our troops safe,” Dr Fox said.

He has written to Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, to ask for clarification on the planned transport of the further Ridgbacks.

Ridgeback

Ridgeback

An MoD spokesperson said: “These [the Ridgbacks] vehicles were never destined for use by 19 Light Brigade who do not have enough trained drivers to operate them.

“This is because the vehicles were only delivered to the Army in May, a month after the brigade deployed. They are being shipped in time for the arrival of their successor formation, 11 Light Brigade, which has spent all summer training on the new vehicles,” the MoD said.

The spokesperson added: “These are complex pieces of equipment that will operate in an extremely demanding and dangerous environment. We will not put lives at risk by asking soldiers to drive these vehicles without the necessary training.”

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