“Mad Max” style DIY armour in Iraq

by Simon Chambers


When I first joined the Parachute Regiment in the early 70’s we thought nothing of driving around the bad streets of Belfast in soft-skinned Land Rovers and Bedfords.  Until we started to take casualties from home-made claymore mines and blast bombs…


As a result Shorts started to produce light armoured vehicles for the British Army.  Macrolon armour was clipped onto existing Land Rovers and four-ton trucks had their canvases removed as an anti-ambush precaution and GPMGs were added in the turret ring. Now our troop transports had become fighting machines. Or so we thought…


Many years down the line and I find myself in Iraq where “Mad Max” and his mode of transport is normal. When our troops first started fighting in the Gulf, explosive reactive armour was the buzz word. Everyone looked at the main battle tanks as the tip of the spear as they had the latest armour added for their protection. They did a good job and defeated the Russian armour graciously donated by the Soviet Union. Maybe the Soviets saw it as a cheap way of battle testing their latest tanks by putting them in a head-to-head with our latest battlewagons – but in somebody else’s backyard. But their tanks were no match for our’s, and they got slaughtered as our depleted uranium ammunition tore through their armour.


The locals however proved quite inventive, and with additional ordnance expertise from Iran, discarded tank and artillery munitions that were in plentiful supply were put to a good use as IEDs (improvised explosive devices). In particular, they seemed to like the “Explosive-Formed Penetrator” which was easily produced and could be quickly placed in the path of an oncoming convoy or PSD team. This was a tank killer and not easily defeated.


Suddenly the military found itself facing a scenario they hadn’t prepared for and better armour protection was needed for the humble troop carrying vehicles as well as the heavy armour. But as the military struggled with the problem and started to produce clip on armour kits that could be attached to HUMVEE’s and existing trucks, the Contractors operating in a supporting role were left to fend for themselves.


So the scrap heaps on the main camps were searched for as much armour plating as could be salvaged… HUMVEE armoured side windows were welded onto gun turrets to give the gunner on a PSD vehicle better all round vision and protection against small arms fire… Ordinary transport trucks had armour attached to the cabs… GS wagons were fitted with armour plated cabs and fifty-calibre machine guns were mounted on the turret rings.


Meanwhile, South African companies – who had had sixteen years of counter-insurgency warfare experience to develop their own mine-proof vehicles – started selling to some of the private military companies. Soon, “Revers”, “Wolves”, “Mambas” and “Strikers” became common sights on the Main Supply Routes.  In particular, the “Casper” proved to be such a reliable bomb-proof vehicle that it was purchased in large numbers and used by the US Army’s EOD (bomb disposal) units. I remember seeing one that had been hit by a massive bomb – the vehicle was in bits, but the main crew compartment had remained intact and the crew walked away from the wreck – shaken but not broken.


The contractors also began to implement basic counter-measures such as fitting “Rhino horns” to the front vehicle of all convoys. These were designed to set off the IED that crucial fraction earlier so that the vehicle would only be hit by some of the blast and the main blast and shrapnel would miss the driver and commander. This worked pretty well and cut down the number of casualties the contractors were suffering.


On a personal note: I spent two years on convoys through the centre of the Sunni Triangle and was attacked nearly every day. Our two teams clocked up almost 160 contacts in one ten-month period. My main job was “Trunk Monkey” (rear gunner) in the rear vehicle and our “Rever” saved my life three on three occasions when we were hit by IEDs. However, on the last occasion I was cas-evacced back to the UK for treatment of minor injuries I received. I was soon back in action; however, two of our other vehicles were hit at the same time resulting in two of my friends being killed and another one wounded. The culprit was a well placed EFP which ripped through the vehicle like a hot knife through butter. Nonetheless, two of the four man “Rever” crew survived.


Around the same time I witnessed a “Striker” armoured vehicle completely destroyed by a massive anti-tank mine planted in a culvert under a road. The only good thing if you can say about it was that the six man crew did not know what hit them as they were all killed instantly.


Mine-resistant vehicles are now being produced and delivered in their hundreds to Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no doubt they are saving lives, but as usual it has taken far too long for the British Government to catch up with the times and British soldiers are still going forth to face the enemy in highly vulnerable old “Snatch” Land Rovers. They are a good bit of kit for undertaking fast operations in urban environments, but this is the wrong war and they are the wrong design. Until our MOD gets its finger out and gives our soldiers the right kit to protect themselves and defeat a determined enemy, we will continue to lose soldiers unnecessarily.


Many of the locally produced armoured vehicles used by the civilian contractors are also not up to scratch. Many of the PMCs use local Iraqi workers to up-armour their vehicles. Unfortunately the workmanship is poor, the metal used is sub-standard and many of the “improvements” are faulty designs. Although many of the “Mad Max” designs might look good, they have disintegrated under the pressure of an IED blast. Better – and more – proper mine-resistant vehicles are needed, better armour is needed to modify the existing ones, and better counter-measures need to be supplied to the troops. All of this technology is available – and a lot it can be bought “off-the-shelf” on the commercial market (especially the excellent South African vehicles) but as usual it comes down to cost and politics.


Personally, I don’t think you can put a “cost” on a soldier’s life – but soldiers don’t have powerful industrial pressure groups supporting them. However, if we really want them to defeat the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan – and keep their friends off our soil – then we’d better spend the money to properly equip our troops to protect themselves and do their job.

Photo Gallery (all photos taken by author during tours in Iraq):

a_closer_view  alpha_moving_out_with_oil_waste_convoy  armor_group_rock_armoured_vehicle  armour_group_gun_truck_destroyed_by_ied  blackwater_mambas_parked_up_at_the_airport  close_up_of_wing_damaged_by_shrapnel  diy_up-armor_kit  diy_up-armor_kit_2  even_the_trucks_are_armoured  gurkha_front  lot_of_money_but_it_was_badly_made_2006  near_miss  on_the_road_again  pepper_anyone  proper_armour  rear_gunners_position  the_rhino_armoured_bus2  truck_with_armoured_cab

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