|Waiting for a lift home|
The cost of returning more than £6 billion-worth of British military equipment from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 – including 3,500 hi-tech and heavily armoured reconnaissance and troop-carrying vehicles – could reach half a billion pounds, according to evidence submitted to a Parliamentary inquiry published this week.
The Commons Defence Select Committee notes that there are presently more than 11,000 container-loads of military equipment in Afghanistan, including 350 Foxhound reconnaissance vehicles worth almost £1 million each, storerooms full of weapons and ammunition, dozens of rotor and fixed wing aircraft – and everything else Britain’s 9,000 troops need to function efficiently.
For the US forces, the problems are even more stark; with an estimated $36 billion-worth of equipment in country – made up of 750,000 pieces of major military equipment - it is likely to cost something in the region of $6 billion to bring back home. A detailed assessment of the issues, from the US GAO can be found here.
With just over 18 months to go before British troops withdraw, equipment is still arriving in country. A plan for bringing the equipment home is not expected to be announced for another six weeks, according to the MOD. Negotiations with countries to the north of Afghanistan over transit routes are not expected to be completed until July at the earliest. A new transit deal with Pakistan has recently been agreed, but it remains a dangerous route.
Unlike the British withdrawal from Iraq, where much of the equipment was transported by road before being loaded onto ships in Kuwait, Afghanistan is a land-locked country with poor infrastructure. Equipment can only leave via one of three long and dangerous land routes, or via an expensive air bridge. “There’s little point in bringing back gear that costs more to transport than it’s worth,” said an MOD official.
MOD officials told the committee that ‘only’ 6,500 containers will eventually be brought home, with the contents of the remaining 40 per cent being either destroyed, donated, sold or consumed. Much of the remaining ‘warlike’ equipment will not be allowed to travel northwards through Uzbekistan and then by rail through Russia, whilst other equipment is too secret or strategically important to trust to the roads, where it could be attacked or stolen by insurgents.
Instead, Britain will have to compete with other ISAF countries to charter one of the small number of massive Antonov AN-124 transport aircraft that are available on the commercial market. If the equipment of all ISAF forces is taken into account, it is estimated that more than 100,000 containers-worth of military equipment will have to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The Defence Select Committee report does not provide an overall cost for removing military equipment from Afghanistan, although it says each container load can cost up to £12,000 to send by road and rail and up to £30,000 if it has to be sent by air. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond initially said the total cost will be around £100 million – later updated to £300 million - but evidence from Brigadier David Martin, who retired last year as head of the Army’s Support Chain Management, says such a figure “looks very optimistic”. He believes that a total of £500 million will be closer to the mark, although even that figure may eventually be too low.
Defence analyst Francis Tusa, who also gave evidence to the select committee, was equally sceptical about both the MOD’s costs and the timetable: “If you were just to rely on the airlift that the UK could reasonably call upon and you assumed everything else was benign, and we could move stuff from out bases to Camp Bastion with no obstruction, it would still take the best part of three complete years to draw all the equipment. Forget the people; the people would be extra. Three complete years to withdraw the equipment we have in Afghanistan.”
He pointed out that the permanent joint logistics HQ was recently very pleased that it had managed to ship back 120 containers in one six-month period. “The air bridge is working great at getting stuff out there. The problem is that the imperative is always to get stuff out there.” Getting it back is a different problem.
Tusa, who thinks a minimum figure of around £600 million is likely, pointed out that the far less complex operation to draw down from Kuwait, conducted in an entirely benevolent environment and with much of the equipment previously withdrawn, still cost £170 million. In that case there were fewer than 4,000 containers of equipment to be disposed of, compared to the 11,000-plus in Afghanistan – and only 500 vehicles compared to 3,500.
Tusa added that just refurbishing the vehicles that are brought back, in order to make them fit for service, will cost close to £2 billion. At present there is no budget for this level of expenditure.