Troops on front-line duty in Afghanistan are trusting their lives to a vehicle which helped guarantee a bright operational future for the Royal Marines. Report by Steve Moore.
Viking has been in service with the Marines for around six years, and has become one of the vehicles of choice for Army soldiers for the first time as they work to bring stability to volatile Helmand province.
Deployment of the All-Terrain Vehicle (Protected), to give it its military title, began with the arrival of 3 Commando Brigade in Afghanistan. Although the Marines are now on regular deployments of six months, the Swedish-built vehicles and their two-man operating crews have remained on the front line, the two-unit tracked vehicles becoming a familiar sight to friend and foe alike:
"Viking has proved indispensable and we are fixed in theatre for the foreseeable future," said Major Jez Hermer of the Royal Marines' Armoured Support Company at Bovington, Dorset. "Since the beginning of the Afghan conflict everyone has woken up to the success of Viking. It is now very important to Operation HERRICK.
"It has opened up Helmand province and given commanders a broader range of options than they would have had available to them. It will remain an important asset alongside other new assets such as Vector. I see it remaining in Afghanistan and I don't see it coming back until the end of the commitment."
The forces' inventory of armoured vehicles has come under serious examination in Afghanistan and Iraq. With excellent protection, an ability to operate in all weathers across all terrain, including to 'swim' in water, and to withstand a range of threats, Viking has performed well:
"It provides protected mobility, moving troops around the battlefield faster," said Maj Hermer. "There is no vehicle in the world, in my opinion, which is more mobile than this. It will go literally anywhere.
"I have been heavily involved in the project from the start so I am probably very biased about the vehicle but it does what it is supposed to do and a lot more. And it came in on budget to the dollar and on time to the day. It is a pretty good reflection on the company who makes it."
It has also been very reliable over the 164,000km Viking has covered in Afghanistan: "We have a 96 per cent mission success on operation Herrick which for a vehicle like this is pretty much unprecedented," Maj Hermer added.
As well as performing a service for British troops its reputation has spread to the enemy: "We have listened in to what the Taliban have been saying about us and they call the Viking a tank. We've been on manoeuvres with 13 Vikings and the Taliban have been heard talking about up to 70 tanks which shows the impression the vehicle can make," explained Maj Hermer.
Viking's existence came from the corps' lack of effective protection and mobility at the end of the Cold War. It was essential to find a solution to that gap: "Throughout the 1990s the Army was busy in the Balkans, Kosovo, Africa for instance and, to some extent, we were left out. It was a potential disaster for us," explained Maj Hermer.
The answer was to procure a vehicle which could get the Royal Marines into theatre by any means while having an effective mix of strategic, operational and tactical mobility, plus adequate capacity, protection and flexibility. It had to be able to cope with any terrain. Marines had been using the BV206 made by Hagglunds in Sweden (a BAE Systems company) which was a vehicle for use in the Arctic snows.
From the same concept the BVs10 was developed, an All-Terrain Vehicle (protected), soon to be dubbed Viking, thanks to its Scandinavian roots, and the Marines took delivery of 108 in July 2003.
"For the Royal Marines it was a bit of a leap of faith, said Maj Hermer. "At first, some of the corps didn't want Viking. Now the guys who operate it could not go on operations without it."
Which is good news for industry: "We are delighted the Royal Marines like their Vikings so much," said Roger Hornqvist, Hagglund's UK sales director. "The vehicle and the capability it provides is the result of a real team effort between the Royal Marines and industry – both Hagglunds here in Sweden and our BAE systems colleagues in the UK who fabricated the hulls for the front and rear cars as well as the bar armour for theatre."
According to Major Hermer, the MOD is looking for another 21 Vikings from BAE, to be delivered from the second half of next year: "The bottom line is, if you want to give a force mobility and flexibility as well as a certain amount of protection, then you can do a lot worse than Viking."