Day of the jackal

The iconic Land Rover has been replaced in Afghanistan by a new all-terrain fighting vehicle. Stuart Nathan reports.

The face of Army patrols in Afghanistan has changed over the course of this year. Where previously soldiers had set out in armour-plated, weapons-bristling Land Rovers, since June they have had access to a very different vehicle. Dubbed the Jackal by the MoD, the patrol vehicle brings a fresh set of capabilities to the arduous conditions of Afghanistan.

The Jackal is a type of vehicle known in Army parlance as a Mobility Weapon-Mounted Installation Kit or MWMIK. In essence, it is a mobile weapons platform; a four-wheel-drive, all-terrain truck, armed with machine guns and grenade launchers.

Developed by Devon-based all-terrain vehicle specialist Supacat, it has a greater range than the Land Rover and can carry more of a payload.

‘The Land Rover WMIK has the same ethos as the Jackal in terms of the upper, fighting area, with the mounting ring for a heavy machine gun and other gun emplacements,’ said Sean Limbrick, Supacat’s chief engineer.

‘But the problem with the Land Rover was that they couldn’t add armour, because it had no load capability, and they couldn’t carry the extra payload that would be needed for longer-range patrols, in terms of water and fuel. So the MoD was looking around for a long-range vehicle that could carry more.’

The solution, in terms of the Jackal, was a Supacat vehicle that had also been developed to fill a gap in capabilities. Nick Ames, Supacat managing director, said: ‘We have an older vehicle, which we now just know as the Supacat, but the military call it the ATMP or all-terrain mobile platform.’

The Supacat is a six-wheeled, all-wheel drive amphibious vehicle used to carry cargo, including ammunition, which went into service in 1988. ‘It’s an excellent off-road vehicle, and there are now over 200 in service, all around the world. But in the mid-1990s Supacat began to think there were limitations to the vehicle that could be addressed. The users said they wished it could carry more weight, they wanted it to be able to go faster in an off-road situation, and they wanted a vehicle they could fit into a Chinook helicopter. Those became the design constraints for the next vehicle.’

The answer to the constraints was Supacat’s High Mobility Transporter or HMT, which is the automotive backbone of the Jackal. Developed by Supacat through a subsidiary called HMT Vehicles (now owned by Lockheed Martin, which has licensed the design back to Supacat), it does not look like a Land Rover but a small truck. And that is exactly what it is, said Ames.

‘Its basic design is a cargo vehicle. What you might call the fighting platform, the bit that goes on top of the chassis, is user specific and designed for each user’s individual requirements. But the HMT is an all-purpose design; it’s conceived as a good all-terrain vehicle.’

The differences from the Land Rover are not just cosmetic. ‘We’ve used a space-frame chassis, which is very stiff,’ said Limbrick. This is built by Somerset-based Universal Engineering.

‘We have independent double- wishbone suspension with air springs, so we have variable height, which we can adjust for road use, off-road use or extreme off-road; those setting are selected by the driver and can be done on the fly.’

Based around an air-bag design, the suspension system can lift the chassis up to a metre off the ground which, in the Jackal configuration, can also be used to give the crew a better vantage point to view their field of operations, and help to stabilise the vehicle when its crew are firing the onboard weapons while the vehicle is moving.

The powerplant for the seven-tonne vehicle is also formidable, with 185bhp of power coming from a 5.9 litre straight-six diesel engine from US company Cummins, more commonly used in school buses. ‘It’s mid-engined, and it has a much higher power-to-weight ratio than the Land Rover,’ Limbrick said. Even carrying armour, this means the Jackal is capable of speed. On the road, it can maintain 50mph (80kph) and can hit a top speed of 81mph.

It has automatic transmission, rather than the manual Land Rover; this, Limbrick said, means the driver does not have to concentrate on tricky off-road gear selection. ‘It’s optimised for off-road, in that respect, because it means the driver can concentrate on the driving, not the terrain.’

However, all these mechanical features are common to all vehicles in the HMT series. ‘Essentially we have a base platform, which is adaptable in terms of the cab you put on top,’ said Limbrick. In the case of the Jackal, the upper system includes built-in rollover protection for the driver, commander and crew, as well as the all-important armour.

‘The biggest issue we had with the design was the application of the blast and ballistic protection,’ Limbrick said. ‘They needed to have a removable system, so they could be run either with or without.’

The exact nature of the armour is classified, but Ames said it meets specified levels of blast protection, including protection from mines and ‘a measure of IED (improvised explosive device) protection’.

The design’s main difficulty was in providing the necessary fixing and mounting points, with the associated need for extra strength in the chassis and frame to carry the weight and bulk.

‘It was originally designed as a highly-mobile vehicle,’ Ames said. ‘As it is now required in theatre to perform in a highly mobile way, we’ve had to integrate armour on to it to meet the demands of the modern battlefield, and that’s the way it’s been approached. There were standards that were specified, and we’ve met those.’

In terms of armaments, the Jackal carries a .50 calibre machine gun, and can also carry combinations of Heckler & Koch 40mm grenade launchers and general-purpose machine guns.

The Jackals are being assembled by Babcock Marine at Devonport dockyard in Plymouth, with help from Royal Navy engineers, who are more used to working on ships and bring specialist skills to the project. The company was originally contracted to make 130 Jackals; in June, the order was increased to include another 72 vehicles, which will be delivered by the end of this year.

The first Jackals arrived in Helmand province in early April, where several are now being used for training. Despite an enthusiastic reaction reported by MoD publicity, there has been some criticism from industry observers; one blog noted the 41 per cent increase in weight that came from armouring the vehicle, calling it an ‘overweight truck’.

Ames, however, dismisses these criticisms. ‘You can call anything a truck,’ he said. ‘In terms of classification, it’s undoubtedly a truck. But it’s mid-engined, with double-wishbone independent suspension all round, and it has a torsionally stiff space-frame chassis. There isn’t a truck anywhere in the world which combines these features. It’s a very highly mobile, high-performance truck.’