UK troops leave Afghan mission with better equipment

British troops in Afghanistan Image copyright PA

British troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan this year.

All UK combat operations are due to finish by the end of 2014, with responsibility transferred to Afghan forces.

It's still unclear as to what they'll have achieved, but one thing is certain - they leave much better equipped than when they first arrived.

'Transformed' rifles

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Media captionStaff Sergeant Nick Brown on the changes and improvements made to the standard issue personal rifle, the SA80

At a British military base, just outside Kabul, Staff Sgt Nick Brown, of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, shows me the improvements made to his personal weapon.

The standard issue rifle, the SA80, has not always been a soldier's best friend.

There were problems with the early models jamming when fired or simply falling apart.

But Staff Sgt Brown says it has been "transformed".

He points to the new grips for close quarter combat, the flash eliminator on the barrel to avoid being seen by the enemy, the laser light module to help target and fire in the dark, and even a window built into the magazine to count the rounds left.

Multi-terrain camouflage

Back in Bristol, at the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) Equipment and Support, teams have been working hard throughout the conflict to improve personal kit.

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Media captionColonel Mike Ross of the MoD's Equipment and Support Organisation explains how Army clothing evolved in Afghanistan

Soldiers now have a new set of multi-terrain camouflage, suitable for both desert and Helmand's "green zone".

Whereas once they may have felt they would be better off buying their own boots, now there is a wide selection.

And most importantly there is much better body armour, from the Osprey Jacket to the nappy that gives them ballistic protection round the groin.

But it's not come cheap. More than £6bn has been spent on what is called Urgent Operations Requirements, or UORs.

That's money in addition to the MoD's annual budget of around £34bn. And mistakes have been made.

'Mobile coffins' replaced

Image copyright Crown Copyright
Image caption The first of the British Army's Foxhound vehicles arrived in Afghanistan in 2012

Take armoured vehicles. It has taken the MoD the best part of a decade to equip the military with the new Foxhound patrol vehicle.

Troops went into Iraq with the totally inadequate Snatch Land Rover, dubbed the "mobile coffin".

That was then replaced with the Vector, but it too proved to be vulnerable to the roadside bomb.

Richard North, author of Ministry of Defeat, has been highly critical of the decision-making process within the MoD.

He says while soldiers have been fighting real battles, senior officers and officials have been fighting pointless ones over kit.

In then end, he says the British Army will be left "with a junkyard of different vehicles which will become a nightmare in terms of logistics and maintenance".

The experience of the US military highlights the problem.

They bought more than 25,000 mine protected vehicles (MRAPs) for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but will be keeping only about a third of that fleet.

They will also have to spend around £1bn on modifying and maintaining the vehicles they retain.

Pistol 'waste'

Image copyright Andrew Linnett/Crown Copyright
Image caption The MoD opted to replace its ageing Browning pistols with the Glock

And it is not just vehicles. One UOR during Afghanistan was for 6,000 Sig Sauer pistols.

The MoD won't say how much that cost, possibly because of the embarrassment of then ditching the Sig Sauer in favour of the Glock pistol instead.

After extensive testing, the MoD opted to replace all its ageing Browning pistols with the Glock in a contract worth £9m.

Maj Richard Streatfield, who served in Helmand with the Rifles, says the purchase of the Sig is an example of waste.

"What we've been having," he says, "is the military equivalent of a fast-food diet".

He believes the splurge of spending through UORs has shown the British Army has been missing long-term capital investment.

After Afghanistan, he says, it needs to "get back to a more sustainable, balanced diet".

But Maj Gen Richard Semple denies that public money has been wasted.

As the head of the Army's Logistics and Support, he insists that most of the kit bought back from Afghanistan will be used.

"The vast majority we will keep," he said.

"Some we will not because it's worn out or because the threat may have moved on."

But he won't say, for example, how many vehicles will be scrapped.

As for the pistol, he says the Sig has already served a function in Afghanistan and at least some of the money spent "may well be recovered when they're disposed of".

David Cameron recently stated that Britain now has some of the best trained and equipped soldiers in the world.

Few would disagree. Members of the armed forces and their families now have little reason to spend their own money on equipment.

Nor do they need to beg, borrow and steal from the Americans.

But these advances have not come cheap.

And it has not just cost money. Lives have been lost because of inadequate kit.

There is a military maxim: "Train as you mean to fight".

It's taken a long time - more than a decade - to get there.