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''Soldiers don't trust a thing they're told''

The use of an inadequately armoured patrol vehicle has caused the deaths of 38 British troops in Ira

When Susan Smith wants to check the date her son Phillip Hewitt joined the army, she reaches for his oath of allegiance, which rests near her phone in a silver frame. It is dated 23 July 2002, the day he joined the Staffordshire Regiment. She doesn’t need to check the date he died – she recites it instantly: “On 16 July [2005] he was on patrol in al-Amarah [north of Basra]. A Warrior had escorted them to the town but his team of five were patrolling in Snatch Wagon Land Rovers. At 1am he got a call there was an explosion near the town’s stadium so he turned the vehicle.” That was when a group of IEDs (improvised explosive devices, or booby traps) went off, kill­ing three of the soldiers and wounding the other two. “Shrapnel hit Phillip’s neck and he bled to death at the side of the road.”

Her voice falters briefly, but she has talked through these details so many times that the words may have lost some of their sting. She is a tough woman, army through and through. Her father, her husband and her son all served. Coming from such a tradition has made it hard for her to launch, with the wives and other mothers of dead soldiers, the first organised protests over poor equipment, in particular the infamous Snatch Wagon, a vehicle that has cost the lives of 38 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose continued use is alienating an already distrustful and resentful army.

The Snatch Wagon - essentially a Land Rover with light armour plating and a pumped-up engine - serves as the main urban patrol vehicle for the British army. It entered service in 1992, and was developed for use in Northern Ireland, where it was intended to offer protection from small-arms fire and small explosives. Evidence of the troops' disaffection with the Snatch can be found on the rank-and-file soldiers' online chat room of choice: the ARmy Rumour SErvice at www.arrse.co.uk. The site's operators preferred not to comment on the discussion - and asked that the identities of those posting comments remain hidden - but they directed me to sections of the chat room where the Snatch Wagon was under debate.

What emerges is a picture not simply of disappointment with the vehicle, but a wider belief that no promised kit will ever arrive.

"Snatch was designed as a patrol vehicle for riot control in the streets of NI," writes "Joe Squad". "Its armour is ballistically capable of stopping 9mm rounds, possibly 7.62 (but I wouldn't sit in one whilst someone blatted a mag from an AK to test it!) It's inadequate to say the least to counter the threat in Afghanistan/Iraq."

Another soldier, "Red-Phos", replies: "The way the present UK government has fought wars on the cheap has been nothing short of disgusting, hence our name with our American cousins - the borrowing Brits."

"What griped a lot of people was that when it was obvious to everyone the Snatch was no longer fit for the job, certain ministers kept defending it," others point out. "And they still defend it . . . The defence sec asshole announced recently that they will withdraw the Snatch only to up-armour it and reissue it. This is despite promises he has made earlier this year to provide hardened vehicles!"

Although it is hardly an extraordinary event in any army for soldiers to make complaints about equipment, these troops show themselves to be well-informed about promises made and equipment purchased and have been tracking its non-appearance with precision: "All those Iveco Panthers we bought still haven't seen the light of day", and "What happened to the 14 Mambas we sold to some private security company in 2004 - proper medium-weight anti-insurgency vehicles flogged off". Their suspicions are further fuelled by repeated public admissions that the Snatch is not suitable for purpose, which then lead to absolutely nothing being done.

In June 2006, for instance, Lord Drayson, the minister for defence procurement, acknow­ledged that the Snatch was inappropriate, but rejected alternatives. In 2006, Des Browne, the then defence secretary, announced a review into use of the Snatch, which led to a promise that the vehicle would be withdrawn from theatre. At the end of November 2008, the Defence Secretary, John Hutton, told the Commons defence committee that he would look "very seriously" at holding an inquiry into why Snatches were still in operation. The New Statesman contacted Browne to find out what happened with his original review, but he declined to give an interview.

Last November, Major Sebastian Morley, the SAS reservist commander in Afghanistan, resigned after four of his soldiers were killed when their Snatch hit a landmine in Helmand Province. At the time, Morley, commander of D Squadron, 23 SAS, blamed "chronic underinvestment" in equipment by the Ministry of Defence for the deaths, and said he believed the MoD was guilty of "gross negligence" and that its failure to supply better equipment was "cavalier at best, criminal at worst".

Adam Holloway, Conservative MP for Gravesham, member of the defence select committee and a former Grenadier Guard, recalls meeting Morley's sister unit as it prepared to deploy to Afghanistan weeks after those four deaths. "They'd been given Snatch wagons and no long-range weaponry," he explains. "The troop commander was pulling his hair out. He'd put in urgent requests, saying his men didn't want to travel in the Snatch - which had been ignored - and he was phoning round local TA units to borrow some decent machine-guns. It's clear that this government doesn't really understand the military and has politicised the upper ranks, insisting that they deliver only good news."

Holloway warns that the so-called Military Covenant is in danger of breaking. The covenant was first officially defined in 2000 in an army publication called Soldiering. In essence, it attempts to describe the relationship between a democracy and its military. The document details the moral basis for what the army does, explaining how “unlimited liability” makes soldiering a unique activity. Soldiers, the document argues, will be called upon to make personal sacrifices – including the ultimate sacrifice – in the service of the nation. In so doing, they forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the armed forces. In return, “British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and to be sustained and rewarded . . .”

"The fragility of the military covenant today is not just a symptom of inadequate welfare," argues the former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, a member of the foreign affairs select committee and author of the Lib Dems' recent review of the military, No Choice But Change. "It indicates a deeper malaise in Britain's defence policy. What this government expects our armed forces to achieve and the financial and human cost required are no longer in balance.

"The decision to deploy simultaneous and enduring operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has stretched our forces far beyond what they are configured and resourced to undertake. This is bound to exact a human price. In my view, our soldiers have got to have the best equipment available or we are effectively cutting the ground from beneath their feet. There is no question that issues like the Snatch Wagon are making our soldiers feel divorced from their government and their country. Without a wide-ranging strategic security and defence review the military coven­ant will be irreparably broken."

While the troops are not in open revolt, it is Rights Act 1998, accusing the MoD of failing to avoid a real and immediate risk to life of which it had or ought to have had knowledge, and the ministry of negligence. The case relies on a high court ruling in April that soldiers deployed abroad retain the protection of the act. Smith's solicitors, Hodge Jones & Allen, are working with eight further families on similar cases.

"There is a tension there that the military needs to address," says a senior defence source. "Army wives are not prepared to simply follow their husbands from post to post and remain silent, as they used to 30 or 40 years ago. I'm not sure the military has worked out how to talk to this new generation of women."

Smith's determination to combat what she sees as the uncaring attitude of the British army was fuelled by the inquest into Phillip's death. She expected it to last five days; it ended after barely three hours. Any concerns she had about the Snatch Wagon, about how Phillip was warned against using it by soldiers leaving the area, and the reasons for using it in a known insurgent area, were swept aside by the coroner and the ministry.

Last November, while waiting for the court case to grind on, she and a number of other wives and mothers launched an online petition calling for a public inquiry into use of the Snatch Wagon. At the time of writing there were about 1,700 signatures, enough to demand a response, but she was hoping for more by the time the petition closed on 20 January.

This is not the shocked response of those who imagined the military life to be like an adventure playground. One signatory is Elsie Manning, whose five children - four boys and a girl - all served. Her daughter, Staff Sergeant Sharron Elliott of the Intelligence Corps, was killed in Basra in November 2006 when bombs went off under a bridge as she took a routine taxi run up to a new posting. "They knew what they were doing when they joined up," Manning explains. "But they trusted their officers and the MoD to provide the right equipment and make sensible decisions, because they were putting their lives on the line. Now the soldiers don't trust a thing they're told. They have no belief that the MoD is putting soldiers' safety first," she pauses. "It just makes me so angry."

At the beginning of December last year, the MoD issued the following statement about the Snatch Wagon: “We take the steps we can to minimise the risks whilst remembering that we must achieve the tasks required. Equipment alone is not the answer to force protection; it is also a question of tactics – how troops operate on the ground – and a small element of chance. We cannot make our vehicles invulnerable; a large enough bomb can destroy even the most heavily armoured vehicle, and any vehicle can be overmatched if faced with an overwhelming attack.

"If there was a better vehicle, a smaller vehicle, out there that we could get our hands on quickly, or could have got our hands on quickly, we would do so or would have done so. We have been going round the international market trying to see if there is another smaller vehicle - it doesn't exist. We are spending over £30m to upgrade all our Snatch vehicles on operations to Snatch Vixen, which provides the same level of manoeuvrability with increased protection. These modifications will give the Snatch Vixen the highest levels of protection for its size and weight class, compared to other vehicles out there on the market."

Susan Smith finds small comfort in this. At first she was reluctant to say why on the record, but then she changed her mind.

"The first IED blast, the one that killed my son and the man beside him, came in through the window. The second went off under the wheel arch. Neither of these places was armoured and they won't be on the Snatch Vixen.

"The only way to reduce the deaths is to find a better vehicle. And I won't stop until they do."

This article appears in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009