x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

From the era of apartheid, a lifesaver in Afghanistan

Mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, used in South Africa during apartheid, are becoming the symbolic war machine of the Afghan conflict.

The mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle is now the transport of choice for allied forces in Afghanistan.
The mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle is now the transport of choice for allied forces in Afghanistan.

JOHANNESBURG // The insurgents had a simple, lethal strategy. Bury high explosives along tracks used by security forces and lie in wait, AK-47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades at the ready. Any vehicle that came along and triggered a landmine would be reduced to flaming metal, its occupants dead or maimed.

Thirty years ago, for the army of the South African apartheid regime fighting on the northern border of South West Africa, later Namibia, such ambushes produced a constant toll of blood. The conditions were not unlike those currently faced by coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq who are embracing the same life-saving technology South Africa once used. Mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles are becoming the symbolic war machine of the Afghan conflict, much as the Humvee was during the Gulf War. They are operated by the armies of the US, the UK and Canada, as well as the UAE.

"In Iraq, insurgents used artillery shells linked to a trigger device, but in Afghanistan it's mostly fertiliser bombs," said Lt Ken Kunze of the 1st Marine Division, who survived a bomb attack after his patrol was targeted by an explosives-laden truck in Kandahar province in Afghanistan last year. He attributes his survival, and that of his comrades, to the South African-built RG31 MRAP in which they were travelling.

"It was amazing, the size of the blast," he said. "One moment we were driving along and the next there were flames and dust everywhere." The marine convoy comprised three vehicles, and the attacking truck drove straight into the centre of the convoy, aiming directly at Lt Kunze's MRAP. "Our gunner was exposed at the top of my vehicle, and he was the only one to get hurt. But even he walked away from it. He's OK now."

The blast was so powerful that only fragments of the attacking vehicle's engine could be found. "If we had been in a Humvee, it would have been a very different outcome," Lt Kunze said. "We had three flat tyres and an injured man, but we were all alive." The United States has ordered 15,000 MRAPs to replace the Humvee as the workhorse troop transport in war zones. According to a research document prepared for Congress by the US department of defence, the casualty rate of MRAPs is six per cent, "making it the most survivable vehicle we have in our arsenal by a multitude." By comparison, the document says, the heavily armoured M-1 Abrams main battletank has a casualty rate of 15 per cent, and the up-armoured Humvee one of 22 per cent.

Arms manufactures around the world are now scrambling to produce their own versions of the MRAP, after years of dismissing them as a quirky but non-essential system. But the oldest, and possibly the most commercially successful producer, is a factory west of Johannesburg in a drab industrial town whose principal claim to fame is as the birthplace of the Hollywood actor Charlize Theron. The BAE Land Systems plant in Benoni manufactures the RG series of vehicles that form the backbone of MRAPs deployed around the world, including the 76 it sold to the UAE.

"Our expertise from supporting our local defence force over many years, now combined with the backing of BAE, make it possible for this brand of vehicle to save lives of soldiers in other theatres of conflict," Johan Steyn, BAE Systems managing director for Land Systems in South Africa, said. The earliest attempts by South African engineers to create ambush-proof vehicles were hit and miss. Mechanics took apart trucks and refashioned them using whatever they could get their hands on, in the same ad hoc fashion that US troops took to up-armouring their Humvees. Army engineers even experimented with water-filled tyres, to absorb the heat of explosions. Frequent blowouts rendered these impractical and the idea was soon dropped.

Eventually, a formal programme to build a mine- and ambush-proof vehicle was established. What emerged was a category of vehicles with a V-shaped hull, to redirect an enemy blast away from the passenger cabin. Hull armour protected against small-arms fire and eventually gun turrets were added to later models. The first mass-produced MRAP for the army was the Buffel (Buffalo), which resembled an upturned milk carton. It was open-topped, exposing passengers to the elements, and impossibly uncomfortable. Taking a corner faster than 60km an hour would capsize the top-heavy Buffel, spilling hapless conscripts on to the road.

The Buffel was mercifully retired in the early 1990s, and many were snapped up by Safari ranches, where their height and cross-country ability makes them excellent vehicles for game viewing drives. More successful was the Casspir, a covered armoured MRAP, that featured in the Oscar-nominated film District 9. The Casspir was designed for the feared South African police special forces unit, Koevoet (Crowbar). It was the Casspir that became the template for modern MRAPs. Gun turrets, some remotely operated from within the cabin, are a standard feature. Seats are padded not merely for comfort but to provide lumbar protection in a blast.

Some of the problems that bedevilled the original designers still remain. Rollovers are a hazard, as is electrocution from low-hanging power lines. foreign.desk@thenational.ae