How Afghanistan Changed the British Army For Better And For Worse

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 the British 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 50C 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.

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 stuff 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 Shar