Thursday, January 21, 2010

There are none so blind as those who will not see

A couple of weeks ago, a few of us in the blogosphere were e-mailed by a journalist in Kabul who was looking to do some research for a story he was writing about military vehicles and IED deaths in Afghanistan. The thesis he ran by all of us was that "non-US coalition partners (Canada included) are taking casualities because they simply are not driving vehicles that are effective against the IED."

We tried to gently turn his head from that over-simplistic notion. And at the time, I naively thought we were doing a decent job of it.

We corrected his vehicle types and numbers, since he didn't know we had any MRAPs in theatre. We explained that more armour doesn't necessarily make for a more effective vehicle for every mission: that's why Canada operates a full spectrum of armoured vehicles from Leopard main battle tanks, to LAVIIIs, to RG-31s. We reminded him that different troops in different areas of the country conduct operations differently and that their exposure to IEDs was therefore different.

And he dutifully paid lip service to those ideas. But here's what Tom Day and McClatchy newspapers decided was worth publishing:

Canadian reporter Michelle Lang spent her last moments in a Canadian Light Armored Vehicle rolling down a muddy path in Kandahar province on the day before New Year's Eve.

The improvised explosive device that killed Lang and four Canadian soldiers flipped the 23-ton LAV upside down, according to the Canwest News Service, Lang's employer. The Canadian LAV-III and LAV-25 closely resemble the American Stryker, an armored vehicle that U.S. soldiers have nicknamed the "Kevlar coffin."


The MRAP, however, is still far superior to less heavily armored vehicles such as the Stryker and the Canadian LAVs. No MRAP has ever lost its entire crew to an IED, and if Lang and the soldiers who died with her had been in one, it's less likely that the bomb would have killed them all.


The new armored vehicles are arriving as President Barack Obama has ordered an additional 30,000 or more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and as the frequency of IED attacks has skyrocketed. In 2003, there were 81 recorded IED incidents in Afghanistan. In 2009, there were 7,228.

Canada and other NATO partners have lagged behind the U.S., however, and the casualties their forces have suffered have increased domestic pressure on their governments to limit offensive operations in Afghanistan, resist U.S. requests to send additional troops and in some cases even to consider withdrawing their troops.

After MRAPs began trickling into Afghanistan in 2007, American troops became far less likely to be killed in IED attacks than their Canadian and British counterparts were, according to figures compiled by the Web site, which tracks casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. U.S. fatal casualties due to IEDs, as a percentage of combat fatalities, have decreased precipitously as more blast-resistant vehicles have entered the theater.

In 2008, about half of the British, Canadian and American troops who were killed in action died in IED attacks. In 2009, the percentage of American troops who were killed in IED attacks fell to 40 percent from 50 percent, while the odds of a successful IED attack against their two largest NATO partners increased dramatically.

During the same period, the percentage of British combat casualties due to IED attacks grew to 70 percent from 58 percent. IEDs killed 27 of the 32 Canadian troops who died in combat in 2009, or 84 percent.

According to figures compiled by The Guardian newspaper in London, the Canadians have had 5.1 percent of their total deployed force killed in action since 2006. The British have lost 3.6 percent and the Americans 2.5 percent. [Babbler's emphasis]

First of all, the RG-31 is a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, and it has indeed lost an entire crew in an IED attack. Day just flat out got that wrong.

Of course, his mathematical proficiency is no better. If one takes the 139 fatalities suffered by the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan since 2002, and divides it by the roughly 2,800 currently deployed personnel in country, one comes up with a number just shy of 5%. But dividing a current number by a cumulative number is a nonsensical operation. A less innumerate exercise would be to divide the total number of fatal casualties (139) since 2002 by the total number of deployed personnel since 2002 (somewhere north of 25,000 by my rough estimate). Call it about one half of one percent. Epic fail on the high-school math.

And those heavier MRAPs Day was going on about - the 30-some-odd ton beasts? Fantastic protection. But as I mentioned to him in the e-mail, Afghanistan's roads are barely worthy of the name. Many of them are more like tracks. Even "light" vehicles like LAVs have a tough time not getting stuck (watch the video I took of one trying to tow another out of the mud after it slipped off the side of one such road).

So how do you think heavier vehicles fare? The U.S. government - y'know the one that according to Day's implication is showing oh-so-much more concern for the welfare of its soldiers by providing them with better vehicles than we backward Canadians - came to its own conclusion a year and a half ago:

“The roads are caving in. If we could have all the survivability that an MRAP gives you at a lighter weight, the roads would not cave in. We want it to weigh less than it weighs now,” the official said.

DoD plans to buy roughly 1,600 MRAPs by the end of the year, completing the planned purchase of up to 15,000 MRAPs, said Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin. These will include standard MRAPs, plussed-up MRAPs with extra armor, and the new shorter, lighter MRAP, the official said.

On July 17, the Pentagon announced the first part of the 1,600: 773 General Dynamics Canada RG 31 MRAPs for $552 million. Buyers chose the RG 31, slated to go to Afghanistan, because it was smaller than other entries, the official said.

The Army also placed a $60 million order for 36 BAE Systems RG 33 MRAPs to replace other vehicles for U.S. Special Operations Command.

The Pentagon will not purchase the 30-ton MRAP II vehicles, despite spending more than $25 million over a year to develop them, because of mobility and safety concerns, he said. [Babbler's emphasis]


Look, we're all interested in making sure our men and women in harm's way have the best protection possible. We want them to come home safe, and having accomplished their mission. Debating the proper balance between armour and other requirements in a vehicle is a worthwhile discussion.

Unfortunately, Day's willfully obtuse piece adds nothing to that discussion.

He started off right by asking questions. Too bad he didn't listen to the answers.

Update: The response from a guy who's been there and done that...

This guy is a tool. Yes, we have had catastrophic kills in LAV 3s. The "Easter Blast" virtually wiped out a section in an instant: only the air sentry survived from the back. Now, he used the term "LAV 3" and "LAV 25" in the same breath. Poofter.

Of course, in July 07 we lost 6 in an instant as well, plus an interpreter. All in an RG-31, as I recall. One of those "mine resistant" vehicles.

This dude is a putz.

I'm surprised he didn't say "If Michelle Lang had been in Canada at the time, she would have survived".

This one line is classic:

"a few of the troops who were killed by IEDs may have died while they were on foot patrols"

I suppose that he couldn't be bothered to investigate?

And I thought I was harsh on him...


Blogger Chris Taylor said...

I think there are some points worth clarifying here.

The RG-31 was actually part of the MRAP II competition, but was not the winning design. DoD sank MRAP II purchases because it wanted lighter vehicles, and the bulk of MRAP II competitors were heavier than the original MRAP I designs. The RG-31 was, however, very light compared to the others, and US special forces obviously see some benefits to a lighter, nimbler vehicle.

But the bulk of DoD MRAP purchases in 2010 will not be anything listed in either quoted article; the department will actually buy over 5,200 Oshkosh M-ATVs, weighing in at around 25,000 lbs.

The M-ATV purchase is easily the second-largest MRAP-type order, exceeded only by the 27-29,000 lb International MaxxPro (which has about thirty more orders than the M-ATV)

So while we may not like the way in which it is being said, I think it could be argued that DoD is taking definitive steps toward modernising the bulk of its MRAP fleet with lighter and still quite amply-protected M-ATV vehicles, while the CF retains its lighter-armoured Nyalas and armoured-but-heavy Cougar HEs.

DoD has actually identified desired performance and specs from a new class of vehicles, and has placed an order to buy them all by the March of this year. And the Canadian Forces has not.

Whether the CF feels the need to do so, and if not, why not, is fair game and would make for an interesting discussion. That might have been the reporter's intent, but his lack of familiarity with the in and outs of the vehicles and purchasing decisions certainly makes it look like he's pursuing a whole other angle.

2:20 a.m., January 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just another terminally stupid reporter with an agenda that overrides honesty and truthfulness.

And people wonder why the Lame Street Media is going out of business. The sooner fools like him and all his kind are unemployed, the better.

8:24 a.m., January 22, 2010  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Fair points, Chris. As I understand it, the RG-31 wasn't actually accepted for testing in the MRAP II competition, but I could be wrong.

I think the bigger point is that the M-ATV's are more comparable to a Nyala than to a LAVIII. Total crew of five, but heavier than the RG.

But you're right, that's a different discussion than the reporter was interested in having. See the update.

8:32 a.m., January 22, 2010  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Comment by DBF at the topic thread:

"The journalist was a SGT with the 101st Airborne Division during the Iraq invasion (albeit as a military journalist for the division). You would think that with his background he would know better."


5:42 p.m., January 22, 2010  

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