Project TITHONUS was a mid-life extension programme which gave UK Forces what was effectively a short-lived sheep in wolf’s clothing, writes Bob Morrison.
UK defence procurement is seldom noted for taking a common sense approach, and at times it seems to cynical observers that its primary goal is to keep seat-polishers in perpetual jobs (Self-licking Ice Cream Cone Syndrome?) rather than speedily providing the armed forces with the materiel it needs; the TITHONOUS Land Rovers appeared to be a typical example of this.
To complicate matters, while Project TITHONUS* was on the drawing board it was decided to merge the Army Base Repair Organisation or ABRO (in simple terms the Army’s civilian-manned workshops network in the UK) with the Defence Aviation Repair Agency or DARA (which operated equivalent Royal Air Force and Royal Navy plus Army Air Corps aircraft workshops) into the Defence Support Group or DSG. When TITHONUS was unveiled at the 2007 Defence Vehicle Dynamics expo at Millbrook Proving Ground, just five weeks after DSG was announced to Parliament, some cynical observers pondered on whether the project might have been little more than an expensive exercise to provide future work for some ABRO workshops (predominantly Catterick and Stirling) to ensure jobs were not lost as part of the forthcoming merger.
So what exactly was Project TITHONUS? When the UK MoD procured the current military Land Rover fleet in 1996, the coil-sprung turbo-diesel inter-cooled engine Defender HS/XD or ‘Wolf’ version which primarily replaced the last of the leaf-sprung and petrol engined Series III fleet mostly built between 1971 and 1984, they also had on strength several thousand naturally aspirated diesel engine pre-Defender (mostly) long and short wheelbase Land Rovers mainly built around 1985-87. As these mid-80s vehicles had a planned service life of 15 years plus an expectation of a few more years in reserve stocks, only 8,000 of the Wolf model (plus 800 similarly engined stretched wheelbase Pulse Ambulances) were procured. However by 2006/7 the roughly 4,000-strong pre-Wolf fleet was both overdue for replacement and also assessed as being no longer compliant with the latest road safety regulations. TITHONUS was a means of temporarily solving these issues without buying a fleet of new vehicles.
There is no doubt that UK MoD got its money’s worth with the pre-Wolf Land Rover fleet, which saw active service in quantity in the 1991 Gulf War and on following operations in the Former Yugoslavia, though it was mostly the Wolf which stepped up to the plate for the later conflicts in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq; but by 2007 the now 20-year old fleet was getting a little jaded and most of the short wheelbase (Ninety) models had been replaced by their younger Tdi-powered siblings. However the option of buying more Wolf Land Rovers was no longer on the table, as not only had this model only ever been produced for the UK Forces and that part of the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps designated to work alongside the Royal Marines, but once the original contract was fulfilled UK MoD expressed no willingness to support Land Rover in keeping the specialist Wolf jigs and pressings in store for future contracts. In 2007 there was no budget available to allow competitive trials, as required under EU rules, for a new vehicle fleet. The option of a mid-life upgrade for the best of the ageing fleet was, however, deemed viable.
It was therefore decided that around £10 million would be spent on cosmetically sprucing up the best 3,700 or so of the remaining pre-Wolf Land Rover fleet to theoretically extend in-service life to over thirty years. That figure, which works out at around £2,700 per vehicle, had to include fitting a new Wolf-style roll-over cage and bodywork strengthening fitments to the rear compartment plus fitting either a new Wolf-style hard top or canopy, and external protection bars also had to be added to the cab as well as a new paint job applied to make the vehicles look a bit smarter. I suspect that the £10 million figure did not include ABRO staff wages and when the project team were questioned at DVD 2007 they admitted there was no money in the budget for major mechanical upgrades. The brief was simply: To repair the vehicles to field standard, refurbish bulkheads and chassis, renew all brake components, wheel bearings, hub seals and shock absorbers, wax inject chassis and bulkhead, repaint the vehicle and underseal the chassis.
The external inverted safety hoop over the windscreen was bolted to the the door and windscreen hinges and through the wing top and the two welded tubes which ran above and parallel to the door tops were connected through the new hard top (or canopy) to the front internal roll cage hoop by a single bolt. This bolted construction allowed for top / canopy to be removed and the vehicle to be stripped down to waist height for reduced silhouette in combat environments, where safety from enemy attack naturally takes precedence over peacetime road safety considerations.
Turning to the rear roll cage cum canopy support, this looked quite similar to that of the 1997/8 Wolf model, but it was actually re-engineered by Ricardo to make it stronger. Marketed by the company as ROPS (Roll Over Protection System) the most noticeable internal difference of strengthening was the cross-bracing behind the cab.
The vehicle in our main image is the demonstrator unveiled at DVD in June 2007 and there is no denying that from a distance it looked quite pretty, albeit a little unusual with its external roll protection tubes to the cab area. Open the cab doors, however, and the interior was not quite so smart with rust and wear in evidence, though nice new Defender floor mats had been added. When I tried to open the rear door, however, the handle came away in my hand and close examination showed it had merely been painted over when the mechanism was clearly rusty. My mother late mother, who just like the Queen drove a military ambulance towards the end of WWII, had a phrase for this kind of practise where external show is more important than substance… “Lace curtains, but nae knickers”.
I don’t believe I ever managed to photograph a soft top TITHONOUS in the field, but I did run into a few hard tops on pre-deployment exercises in the UK in 2011. Although in 2007 it was said that the best 3,700 pre-Wolf Land Rovers would be upgraded under TITHONUS and the remainder would be cast, as late as January 2011 I spotted unmodified vehicles on Exercise PASHTUN DAGGER on Salisbury Plain. This was no great surprise, as at the previous DVD expo in June 2010 it was stated that the three-year TITHONUS project had concluded with just 1,230 vehicles successfully upgraded; with £10 million available in the pot, it looks like the upgrades may actually have worked out at something in excess of £8,000 per vehicle.
The defence cutbacks and armed forces downsizing following the October 2010 Strategic Defence & Security Review led to most of the TITHONUS fleet being speedily cast, with almost all appearing in the yard of the Government Disposals Agent (at that time Witham Specialist Vehicles) by the end of the 2012 fiscal year. Many of these ended up being bought by Land Rover aficionados and a few, like the hard top and soft top seen here owned by Alan Walsh and Jake Smith respectively, turn up at military vehicle shows each summer. Before being demobbed, many had aluminium chequered plate strengthening panels added to wing tops and door sills and most were fitted with new Wolf-style pierced steel wheels from a batch supplied in 2010.
As for the remaining, almost entirely Wolf 110, UK Forces Land Rover fleet it is still intended that it will remain in service until 2030. To provide roll-over protection to cabs of these newer vehicles, under Project REMUS an internal Front Roll Over Protection System (FROPS) cage was added from around 2010; DSG, the former ABRO, undertook this work also.
*In Greek mythology Tithonus was a Trojan prince, lover of the goddess Eos who asked Zeus to grant him immortality… but forgot to ask for him to also be granted eternal youth. Oops!
[images © Bob Morrison]