The infamous Snatch Land Rover, nicknamed the "mobile coffin" by soldiers in Afghanistan for its lack of protection against roadside bombs, is now instrumental in saving the lives of the men and women it once put at risk.
The vehicles, now unmanned and driven remotely from another, heavily protected vehicle following behind, are used as sniffer dogs to detect and neutralise deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
They are the outcome of an innovative collaboration between the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and PA Consulting. And it could be the template for a new, faster and more flexible procurement system for the MOD.
At the height of the outcry over the number of casualties being sustained as a result of the Snatch Land Rover's vulnerability to IEDs, the Army was looking for ways of detecting and clearing the devices from vital supply routes. There was a clear need for a sensor capable of looking below the surface for buried bombs.
The MOD set up a team to solve the problem and brought in PA to advise and assist. Time was not on their side. "We didn't have an effective way of detecting buried IEDs: soldiers were mainly using handheld metal detectors. We were losing a person a week and five or six critically injured a day," says Lieutenant Colonel Adrian Parker of the Royal Engineers, the leader of the MOD team.
It was quickly established that existing ground sensing systems did not meet Army requirements, mainly because they had to be controlled by soldiers on board who would be exposed to unacceptable risk. "I was very keen to put a maximum degree of separation between the detector and the operator," Parker says.
It was decided to develop a remote control vehicle and mount a USmade sensor on it. The next step was to establish a programme to build it, which usually involves getting one of the defence companies to do the work.
"Appointing a prime contractor is the traditional way of doing business but you do pay a premium for that," Parker says. "Controlling the integration ourselves was a less risky solution, as we would have more control."
The MOD decided to manage the programme itself, with expertise from PA Consulting.
David Walters, leader of the PA team, says: "There was a real feeling that the traditional prime contractor approach was not appropriate for the project. We were bringing in technologies from everywhere and we couldn't hand over the risk because the decisions had already been taken."
It was also imperative for the MOD to work very closely with the suppliers, which would be difficult with a prime contractor in the middle. "Given the tempo and speed of the programme, we needed to engage directly with the supply chain," Walters says.
"The MOD were, I think they will admit, very nervous about stepping outside the default setting but it did prove its worth. We helped them with our knowledge of how big programmes work, how the MOD works and how the technology works, so the delivery team could strike the right balance of accountability and responsibility."
Snatch Land Rovers were introduced in 1992 for use in Northern Ireland. They earned the nickname because of their use in picking up rioters from the streets during the Troubles.
The unexpected decision to use them for the programme was not just because the MOD had a lot of them lying about unused. "There is a whole generation of technicians who are trained in their maintenance," Walters says. "There is a supply chain for the parts, all the manuals are written and all those thousands of parts are already codified to Nato standards. Using our scoring system, the Snatch came top."
After a demonstration day in which three remotely controlled Snatches from rival companies were tested, MIRA was chosen as the supplier.
Now known as Panama, the Land Rover is towed behind the armoured vehicle carrying the driver and sensor operator. When needed, it is unhitched automatically so the crew do not have to leave the relative safety of their cabin, and driven remotely to investigate the road ahead. The operator sits in front of a computer display with a controller that will be familiar to any computer gamer. "Soldiers can pick up how to use it in an hour," Walters says. "If they can play a video game, they can drive the vehicle."
PA's project management expertise was key to the success of the programme, Walters says.
The company's programme has been recognised by the MCA's top Platinum award, together with the prize for innovation.
"We recognised that it was a particularly contentious programme for the MOD and we needed to get it right first time," Walters says.
To find out more about PA’s award-winning work on Panama and our wider innovation, technology and defence experience, please contact us now.