How Afghanistan Changed the British Army, for Better and for Worse

By Chris Mills on at

We’re just a month shy now of the 11th anniversary of Britain going to war in Afghanistan. In that decade-and-a-bit, British forces have undergone a serious transformation as they’ve had to do a little bit of Darwin-style evolution. The result is a British Army that looks nothing like anything that’s ever gone before – and mostly that’s a good thing.


Fatigues and Body Armour

Take a look at the photo above. On the left is your typical infantry soldier from 2001, on the right is one from 2012. The differences are pretty stark – I don’t think there’s anything left unchanged apart from the steely-eyed stare of death. Let’s start with the clothing. The guy on the left is wearing old-style Desert DPM (that’s Disruptive Pattern Material, in case you were wondering) – great for wandering around big open deserts, but sticks out like a multicoloured sore thumb as soon as you get near buildings. It doesn’t help that the Ministry of Defence was too cheap to get matching vests, either, so the poor soldiers were stuck with equipment that didn’t match their uniforms. Nowadays though, the Army’s got a fancy new camouflage pattern. Called MTP (for Multi Terrain Pattern), it’s developed specifically for the UK Armed Forces and is designed to blend in with lots of different surroundings. This is especially important for troops fighting in Afghanistan, where they might find themselves hiding out in a desert one moment, and patrolling through verdant greenery the next. In addition, the uniform itself is new and improved, with big Velcro pockets littered at odd (but apparently ergonomic) angles all over the place. Mind you, not everyone in the army loves the new uniforms – some of the older sticklers for smartness were horrified to discover that it’s designed to be worn with the shirt untucked -- hardly the smartness of turnout the British Empire was apparently built on. Still, I think it’s maybe a good thing that someone in the Army has their priorities straight, with the whole fighting thing clearly first, and dressing smartly and marching around a distant second.

As well as new uniforms, other basics of any soldier’s kit have been revamped. New boots, helmets and gloves are doing the rounds these days, making life in a warzone just that little bit more pleasant. The biggest and heaviest change, though, is the new body armour all front-line troops now have to wear. In 2001, British soldiers in warzones wore something called Combat Body Armour (abbreviated to CBA, which is why it was often called "the can’t be arsed” by troops). It was more like a police stab-vest than ballistic armour, as it was mostly made of rubber, with an optional tiny little ceramic cup-saucer over the heart. Since we got involved in Iraq and Afghanistan though, the MoD has seen fit to issue soldiers with new-fangled Osprey body armour. Although it’s great at stopping bullets – it’ll stop the big 7.62mm round fired by an AK-47 – it’s also great at stopping troops moving, as it weighs around 20kg. Weight is actually a massive problem for troops, as they have to carry around 45kg on patrol with them. Considering the temperature in Afghanistan can get to around 50 degrees in the sun, asking soldiers to run around fighting with a huge, insulating weight of body armour and ammunition is a big ask, and explains why there are so many casualties of heat exhaustion in the summer in Afghanistan. Even without the heat, the weight is so crushingly heavy that the British troops haven’t a hope in hell of keeping up with Taliban enemies dressed in nothing more than a tea-towel and flip-flops.

Prize for funniest name for a new bit of kit has got to go to the "Pelvic Ballistic Protection" (also modelled above), which is universally known as the "combat nappy". It's there to keep the soldier's most important bits in the right place if they step on an IED -- though whether the added protection is worth their dignity is a whole different question.


Guns, Guns, Guns

Mind you, with all the shiny new weapons troops carry round with them now, maybe they don’t really need to do any running. The basic infantry weapon (the SA80 A2) has been upgraded from the base configuration, with new rails on it so that bored troops can play Pimp My Gun to see how many lasers and torches they can bolt on. More practically, they’ve also bought new optical sights to replace the venerable (but heavy and properly shagged-out) SUSAT currently in use. For extra bragging rights, some troops can also now stick a grenade launcher on the underside of their SA80, which is handy for blowing up people a few hundred metres away.

The upgrades to the SA80 are just the tip of the iceberg though. Completely new weapons have also been purchased to give troops additional firepower/better Terminator-style profile pictures. The Minimi light machine gun pictured above (light being a relative term here; it still weighs close to 7kg, which is still a fair bit to be lugging round all day) has been introduced on a fire-team level, meaning there’s one in every four-man group of soldiers. For occasions when a light machine gun isn’t quite enough, the Army also has a new addition to the lineup in the shape of a 7.62mm-firing variant on the Minimi, a little bit heavier than its 5.56mm cousin, but a heck of a lot more lethal. There’s also a new semi-automatic 7.62 Sharpshooter rifle (pictured above) for those pesky long-range shootouts. The real standout here, though, has gotta be the new Grenade Machine Gun. It does what it says on the tin – fires 40mm grenades a very long way, probably ruining someone’s day in the process. So really, there’s not a whole lot left untouched here – most of the Army’s small arms have undergone a quiet, slow revolution to make them super-duper-deadly.



Sadly, the innovation isn’t all one-way in this war. The overwhelming firepower of the Coalition ISAF troops have led the Taliban to get all sneaky-beaky, using a tactic the Americans call asymmetric warfare – guerilla warfare to the rest of us, and in particular, burying Improvised Explosive Devices – homemade bombs – under the road surface to destroy vehicles passing over top. This has proved to be the biggest source of casualties for British forces in Afghanistan. Don’t imagine that the Army’s taken this lying down, though. Vehicles have seen the biggest change of anything in this war, with an entirely new category of “Protected Patrol Vehicles” being designed and built on the hurry-up to provide a (very expensive) technological solution to IEDs. There are too many to really mention here, but there’s a few standout stars.

The Jackal is basically the ultimate military jeep. It’s fast, maneuverable, with great all-round visibility (a must for your discerning soldier), but more important totally deadly. It mounts two machine guns, plus has computer-designed armour on the underside to dissipate the effect of any bomb blast.

Slightly more pedestrian is the Mastiff: it’s a troop transport, designed to carry soldiers in a nice cosy safe environment; it’s even got aircon and internal TVs linked to cameras so they can look at the view. (Or, err, maintain situational awareness. But I think they just like looking at the scenery.)

As advanced as these vehicles are though, the Army is still pressing forwards with development. Seeing the Android-style fragmentation that you get by having a bunch of different vehicles to maintain and have troops familiar with, they’ve just completed a deal with a Spanish vehicle designer to design (and then build in the sunny UK) new modular troop carriers, called Foxhound. They have a fully changeable design, so they can be configured as a badass machine-gun-toting jeep of doom, or as a troop or supply transport. More impressively, they’re designed to be easy to maintain and even to be able to drive away from an IED strike with only 3 wheels left attached. All in all, it’s a long way from the fiberglass-coated Snatch Land Rovers the Army was driving around in less than a decade ago.


Saving Lives

It’s not just weapons and vehicles that have seen a major change though – as well as becoming one of the best equipped armies in the world for taking the fight to the enemy, the emergency care procedures of the British Army have taken a quantum leap since 2001. Nowadays in Afghanistan, if a soldier is injured, a helicopter will be dispatched to whisk the casualty back to the main British base and hospital in Camp Bastion. This isn’t your average air ambulance though; in the back is a full team of nurses and doctors, including specialist trauma and emergency care surgeons. They keep the casualty alive until they arrive back at Bastion, where the world’s best ER springs into action. Waiting time hovers around 30 seconds from out of the helicopter into the operating theatre, where a team of specialist surgeons go to work to not only save the soldier’s lives but also preserve as much function as possible – this team even includes top London plastic surgeons who give their time up to volunteer in Afghanistan. All told, the Army’s standard of medical care is several miles removed from what it was before, proving that war doesn’t have to just bring about innovations in killing people.

So overall, it’s fair to say that British forces – and this is true for most of the armies that have been involved in the Afghanistan conflict – have undergone a massive change in how they fight wars, and consequently their equipment has changed with it. Mostly that’s a good thing, with our troops generally now having the best kit money can buy, and being safer as a result. There’s a bit of a sense, however, that modern troops are carrying way too much stuff round, and being slower and more vulnerable as a result. I’ll be hoping, therefore, that the next round of new kit isn’t just more protective, but a hell of a lot lighter as well.

Image credit: all images from Defence Imagery