Insight: A military observer’s observations of the utilisation of armour in the desert

The experience I have lived through for the 14 months from 28 July 2006 to 14 September 2007 was very interesting.
Working in Sector 2 with its HQ at Nyala as part of the armour component of the African Union Mission in Sudan, I saw how they utilised armour and what mistakes they made both in terms of the type of vehicles used and how these vehicles were employed. I do not for one moment think that I know everything, but what I have seen was obviously not how armour should be employed in the desert.
The first thing that I noticed about the African environment is that no attention was really given to the maintenance of vehicles, neither by rebels, nor observers, nor by the contingent/protection force. If a vehicle of the Government of Sudan or the rebels broke down, it was simply left there. Small children played on abandoned vehicles, risking their health and lives by uncovering ammunition and even blowing themselves up in the process.
Most of the vehicles used in the desert environment required a lot of maintenance and the personnel operating them, being from other countries as the vehicles, did not consider maintenance to be a high priority. They also lacked the technical know-how and support. The best will be to take your own equipment and trained personnel on such a mission.
Training …. Or The Lack Of It
The soldiers who had to operate on armoured vehicles had no previous training on and experience with the vehicles. They could not be properly trained/prepared in the two weeks available followed by a 6-month period of deployment during which the higher HQ expected no accidents, constantly complaining about the many accidents in the operational area. The soldiers driving the vehicles also did not get much opportunity for more hands-on learning about the vehicles. No soldier without previous experience can be expected to learn the skills of operating an armoured vehicle correctly in such a short time. Clearly this is poor practice for any force, even a Peacekeeping force deployed in a foreign country.
Because of the lack of training of the officers and crews the armoured vehicles were utilised totally incorrectly. The vehicles were not allowed to move, because the commander feared that the vehicles would be damaged and that he would be blamed. As a result armoured vehicles became static guard posts. Therefore the vehicles became static targets for who-ever wanted to attack the camp. This happened in Darfur where peacekeepers were killed and the armoured vehicles were totally destroyed, because they were not moving at all during the attack.
Desert Conditions
Although the biggest problem was the thick, soft sand, one must not always think of the desert as sand and sand dunes only. During the rainy season the thick desert sand quickly turned to mud, which was even worse than the sand. The desert can change in a few weeks to one big swampy area and everything can flood within 30 minutes, even if the rain has not fallen for 5 months in the area. Then there were the many seasonal rivers. During the rainy season there could be from 10 to 20 seasonal rivers in an area of 1km by 1km and every one flooded when the rain came down. Even if it did not rain in the area where we worked, but in the mountains, the area would be under water within 30 minutes. The rocky areas had to be avoided at all cost because movement there was very difficult for all types of vehicles.
Wheels or Tracks
Most of the area in Darfur is not suitable for wheeled vehicles, neither during the summer nor in wintertime. Wheeled vehicles do not operate to their full potential in the desert. They either get stuck in the loose sand or in the mud, or they slip out of control when it is muddy and bump into one another or into civilian vehicles or into civilians next to the road. Most of the small accidents were caused by the slippery conditions.
It was very difficult for wheeled armour to move quickly over the terrain. Wheeled vehicles always got stuck and the movement was always delayed or very slow. The sand caused the wheeled armoured vehicles to use more fuel and the differential locks were always engaged or else the wheeled vehicle would not even leave the camp to do a patrol. Some camps had to build brick roads inside the camps to enable the wheeled vehicles to move around without getting stuck.
This also lead to the commander`s decision to use the wheeled vehicles as static guard posts.
During the rainy season the environment changed quickly, putting more strain on the vehicles and the soldiers, who spent more time digging the wheeled vehicles out of the mud than negotiating with the local population or even completing their patrols for the day. When an attack occurred we needed to drive four times the distance to the place of attack in order not to get stuck in the mud. When the wheeled armoured vehicles finally reached the place, half the people were buried and the locals wanted to know why it took so long for the soldiers to come and help them. The population became very angry with the peacekeepers and did not want us close to the villages, because we did not help them when they needed us most. When other forces needed help they too had to wait too long for the promised wheeled armoured vehicles to arrive.
Most of the seasonal rivers had been dry for a long time, but quickly became a trap for wheeled armoured vehicles. The ground surface looked hard enough to cross and small vehicles crossed very quickly, but big, heavy wheeled vehicles got stuck. In my opinion wheeled armoured vehicles may have their purpose, but they were not made for deserts and swamps in Africa where too many obstacles are encountered.
The tracked vehicle that was used to pull out all the wheeled vehicles that got stuck was the BMP1 (if the AU allowed us to use them). Once again nobody in the camp had the knowledge and training at that stage to operate these two vehicles.
The main type of attack used in Sudan was the ambush. Most of the time the wheeled vehicles got stuck and that was when the ambushes took place. The peacekeepers had no protection for themselves and could not protect the military observers either. Most of the time the attackers took the weapons and the vehicles, because the peacekeepers could neither stay in the vehicles nor try to move away from the situation to get the upper hand during the ambush. Most of the time the attackers used RPG7s (not that all of them always knew how to use it). Protection in the wheeled vehicle environment was not up to standard. The protection force did not have confidence in the wheeled armoured vehicles and they felt very unsafe inside. I believe that with the appropriate technology the vehicle and the crew will be protected against any type of attack.
In my opinion tracked vehicles are far better for use in the desert. I have not seen any wheeled vehicle in the Sudanese army, excepted logistic vehicles. Tracked vehicles were mostly deployed in the Darfur area mostly to the west towards the border of Chad.
About the author: Major Olivier is an experienced officer who served 16 years in the SADF and SANDF. He held several posts amongst others Eland 90 and Rooikat armoured car Troop Commander, Rooikat Squadron Commander both at 1 Special Service Battalion (1SSB), Instructor on Junior Leader Course at School of Armour, Training Officer at 1SSB and SO2 Planning at 43 SA Bde. Although the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the SA Army Armour Formation, they are of particular significance, bearing in mind that Maj Olivier comes from a wheeled armour background and gained most of his military experience in that environment.
Editorial note by the Editor, African Armed Forces Journal: The accepted and normal military crew training provided for vehicles and AFVs is, if the driver is out of action, one of the crew must immediately take over. The same applies to the gunner, radio operator, loader or vehicle commander; and they must be able to maintain the vehicle and undertake running repairs.
While self-styled analysts, commentators and others of their ilk and of unknown authority have, from time to time, had their opinions appear in print, there has generally been little factual information available of any United Nations successful operations of a military nature. These opinions appear to be based on similar opinions, but with little informed input from the man on the ground, as found in official US journals.
The result of the United Nations Force that was cobbled together to establish ‘peace` in Bosnia Herzegovina is well recorded—peace was established by the NATO/Russian troops.
At present, and for some time, little detail and acceptable information has been available from either the Congo or the Sudan: both expensive operations. Unconfirmed rumours filter through indicating that all is not well.
An adequate force with the required command and control should be able to dispel any doubts that exist as to its effectiveness and ability to complete its function.
Both Iraq and Afghanistan may not present the best stories of military successes; but they do at least present a story of a military type of operation being underway.
The accompany article raises questions.
Republished, with permission, from the African Armed forces Journal, November/December 2008, p9.