Desert Caterpillars

September 8, 2007

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I returned from Gereshk in a convoy of “Vikings”.  The Royal Marines left behind these strange looking vehicles when they were here last winter.  Each vehicle has two pods and wide tracks.  They are highly manoeuvrable and as useful in the desert as the arctic. I am told that they can also swim.
Nobody in the Army knows how to look after them so the Royal Marines left some people behind to do so.  I got into the front of one and going across the desert felt like some sort of lunar expedition.
When we had to go through the town of Gereshk, for security, the convoy of “moon” vehicles turned off all lights and we were able to drive through in the dark. There was no need to announce our journey:  British military vehicles have been attacked while driving through Gereshk town.
Half-way through the journey we ended up towing another Viking and a Viking towing another Viking looks even more peculiarly caterpillar-like. But to save the engine, which gets very hot towing a second vehicle, the driver turned off the air-conditioning. Within 10 minutes we were soaked in our own sweat.
Later in the journey we too broke down and had to be towed. Fuel leak. Again, no aircon. I longed for one of those climate-controlled astronaut suits. The journey took twice as long as we had planned. The Viking vehicles have all done 3 times the number of operating hours that they should have done according to their proscribed maintenance schedule.
Three of them broke down and needed to be towed by other Vikings. A fourth turned over on bad ground while driving in the dark and also ended up being towed.  I was going to get out and film it but the driver in my vehicle was uncomfortable with me getting out as he couldn’t wait for me to get back in if the vehicle in front started moving again.
The wear and tear on vehicles and helicopters, the expensive kit, is problematic. It is causing difficulty and aggravation. Commanders miss briefings, soldiers are late on leave and journeys like mine take longer than they should.
It is hard to estimate the cost to operational efficiency caused by a shortage of working helicopters and worn out vehicles but it is a real problem. It was not clear to me that the solution was simply, and expensively, to provide more helicopters and vehicles. Each helicopter and vehicle requires an expansion of the existing logistical support and it may be that there are ways to keep existing equipment working better.
Most of the equipment that the British soldiers have in Afghanistan is very good. The personal clothing and equipment is excellent, the weapons work and there are lots of them. But some of the radios that the soldiers carry are too heavy.
When I was a soldier… 20 years ago, the boots were awful. Green army underpants rode higher than was comfortable and there were these hairy shirts that felt as if they were lined with sandpaper. On my first week in the Army, while getting used to a new one, I had to resort to rubbing Vaseline on my neck and protecting my nipples with plasters. Great fun.



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