Military With Bob Morrison
Bob Morrison uncovers the reason behind the conception of this unique Discoverybased Supacat SUV 6000 and VIPEX trailer
An Underwater Surveillance Support Vehicle that would also make a great expedition camper
I DO like a good conundrum, and this shiny black former Royal Navy 6x4 Discovery and Personnel, Accommodation and Transportation (PAT) trailer combination, advertised in spring by disposal agents Witham Specialist Vehicles on behalf of UK MOD, was most certainly one of those.
During my research into this interesting combo, variously described as an Expedition Vehicle with Event Support Trailer and an Underwater Surveillance Team Vehicle, I must admit I followed a few red herrings but my gut reaction to what this dream Land Rover might have been used for eventually proved to be correct.
In service from 2014 until just a few months ago, this unique 6x4 Discovery 4 and triple axle VIPEX Venturer trailer carried the service registration plate 46RN00, which is the first indicator to its military ownership. Last year the Royal Navy hosted the massive multinational Unmanned Warrior ’16 exercise and demonstration, at the conclusion of a protracted programme of UUV (Unmanned Underwater Vehicle) trials, and I had a hunch that this intriguing one-off probably had something to do with the process. I now reckon I was right.
Before delving further into the military use of this articulated tractor and trailer package, which I appreciate is likely to be of less interest to some readers than to our exmilitary Land Rover buffs, I am going to delve into the specifications and goodies. As expedition campers go, this one will quite probably whet the appetite of many who dream about that ultimate long-distance Land Rover trip across continents. Unfortunately it will most likely end up in more mundane circumstances after being procured by a race team or a company which regularly displays at events. Alternatively, with a few minor tweaks to the trailer, it could end up as a racehorse or show-jumping support vehicle.
Starting with the vehicle, this is an SUV600 conversion by military vehicle designers and manufacturers Supacat, of Dunkeswell in Devon, and is a sibling of their 6x4 fire tender which I covered back in our May 2014 issue. Although Supacat carried out the Discovery conversion, and also supplied one of their 6x6 MKIII All Terrain Mobile Platforms (ATMP) to go
“This one will probably whet the appetite of many who dream about that ultimate Land Rover trip”
inside the trailer, they were not the prime contractor for the project and as they were unable to disclose who this was, because they were contractually tied, I had to ferret around to eventually track down Atlas Elektronik as being the supplier to MOD.
Official government documentation describes the vehicle as being a Land Rover Discovery 4 with the addition of a third axle and uprated braking components and states an that an interchangeable rear body and fifth wheel coupling has also been fitted. That rear body was supplied by Strongs Plastic Products, whose copolymer rear hampers are found on a wide range of emergency services and public utility vehicles in the UK, and was intended to provide a more mobile remote site support vehicle for locations where the ten metre long trailer could not be taken.
Interestingly, although both the MOD and their disposal agents list this vehicle as being a 2014 Year Model Discovery 4, I have a sneaking feeling from the chassis number and the engine type that it might actually have come originally down the line at Solihull as a late model Discovery 3 and as part of the conversion process had Disco 4 panels added. Either way, the engine which powers this special is the 2933 cc SDV6 turbodiesel and it has eight-speed ZF automatic transmission with the usual rotary selector and paddles on the steering wheel.
In fact, internally this Discovery looks relatively little different from any other, with the exception of the folding tables on the back of the front seats and a locker stack with table top in between the two rear seats. As its fourman/woman crew needed to record a lot of data I suspect these were primarily intended for work rather than picnicking. Talking of data, there is also a tachograph between the front seats as when driven with the trailer the 11 tonne gross train weight combination becomes a Light Goods Vehicle.
Internally the Discovery may appear pretty conventional though externally it is anything but, as that removable fifth wheel necessitates a truncated passenger compartment, terminated just behind the rear doors, with a chassis extension and, of course, a third axle. This rear axle is not powered, hence the 6x4 description, and is there purely to spread the load when the articulated trailer is attached to the fifth wheel. Yes, I know technically it’s not a wheel and if it was it would be the seventh, but the term for this type of connector is historic and predates the automobile.
If the trailer was not required for the specific mission the crew were tasked with, or if the vehicle needed to go to a location inaccessible by the trailer, the fifth wheel and its subframe could be removed in a few hours and an expedition hamper dropped onto the rear chassis in its place. Manufactured by Strongs, this drop-on body manufactured from tough copolymer has a Robinson sliding roller shutter door in the left body side and lifting doors to provide overhead rain protection in the right side and rear; a two metre long ARB awning on the left side provides weather protection to those using the roller shutter mini-kitchen locker behind in which there is a fridge, microwave and food cupboards.
When used in expedition mode with the Strongs rear body the Discovery would carry a two-person James Baroud Evolution roof tent (stowed inside the trailer when LRM visited) and it has a 240v external hookup for accessories and lighting. According to MOD documentation, as part of the mission package three portable generators were also specified and I suspect one of these would have been carried in the drop-on rear
body, with the others being in the trailer.
Turning now to the PAT trailer, which was manufactured by VIPEX (now Neat Vehicles), this is a three-axle Venturer developed specifically for the Royal Navy; others in this range, including World Health Organisation mobile clinics towed by Defender 130s with fifth wheel, had just two axles and were much shorter. This specific design allowed a black Supacat 6x6 ATMP (All Terrain Mobile Platform) to be carried in the rear, on removable ramps, with a pair of REMUS 600 submersible UUVS (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles) stowed underneath on their own lightweight trailer. The ATMP was used as a recovery vehicle for the submersibles and had a small Palfinger hydraulic crane at the left rear.
In addition to transporting the recovery vehicle and submersibles, the PAT trailer could also be used as a self-sufficient office, workshop and accommodation facility, which could be towed to a remote site by the Discovery and then parked after its front legs had been wound down. With the ATMP and submersibles unloaded, using lightweight ramps carried in the trailer, two bunk beds on each side wall could be dropped down to provide sleeping facilities and the separate office/ kitchen compartment at the front end, with another fridge and microwave plus wall mounted widescreen monitor, contained a table and seating combination which could be converted into a double bed.
Access to the doors in the left side of the PAT trailer, a single for the front office and kitchen and a two-piece folder for the main compartment, is by way of lightweight steps stowed in the rear and there are twin full height rear doors for unloading the cargo. A wind-out awning with attachable sides, running the length of the main rear compartment, gives external working and living space and a rooftop air-conditioning pack provides climatic control inside the trailer when it is closed down against the elements.
This Land Rover and trailer combination has clearly been well thought-out, though hardened Land Rover off-road campers will be able to spot a few things which could have been done better if this combination had been intended for expeditions rather than its specific tasks. For example the electricity supply choice and the lack of legs to allow the removable rear body to be simply jacked up for speedy de-coupling. However, this high specification package was designed to fulfil a rather unique role rather than being conceived as an ultimate camper.
So why was a Discovery tractor and long thin PAT trailer procured rather than a more conventional articulated truck unit? My suspicion is that not only did the Royal Navy’s Maritime Autonomous Trials Team (MASTT) want a vehicle capable of being driven on an LGV rather than HGV licence, but they also needed a combination which could be taken long distances down certain single track roads with passing places which no HGV could tackle.
The prime contractor, as mentioned earlier,
“My suspicions about this combo being conceived for underwater trials surfaced”
was Atlas Elektronik, who during unmanned underwater and surface vehicle trials operated the ARCIMS (Atlas Remote Combined Influence Minesweeping System) at different locations around the UK. My gut reaction on first seeing the SUV600 and PAT trailer was that it was most likely designed for use up at the BUTEC (British Underwater Test & Evaluation Centre) ranges in the Inner Sound to the north of Kyle of Lochalsh and, as anyone who has visited the remote Applecross Peninsula or the island of Raasay on either side of the test range will know, only a narrow combination like this can be driven on roads in that part of the Highlands.
Final confirmation that my initial suspicions about this vehicle combination being conceived for underwater trials support eventually surfaced, no pun intended, when I first uncovered a support contract tender request on behalf of the RN Mine Countermeasures Hydrographic Capability Project Team for the vehicles and associated equipment and then saw a photograph of the black ATMP on the quayside at Kyle of Lochalsh. This photo was taken by my good friend Trevor Sheehan at the media facility held near the end of Unmanned Warrior last October, which unfortunately I could not attend due to other assignment commitments.
Trevor does not remember seeing either the SUV600 or PAT there, and while he wasn’t focussing on land vehicles but photographing surface vehicles and underwater systems, that does not mean it wasn’t there. It could also have been at one of the more remote BUTEC facilities, for example a small base with a slipway up near Applecross, which is a location this working combination would be ideal for. How I wish I had been free to spend a couple of days up in the Western Highlands during this interesting exercise.
Now to the big question. How much would this remarkable combination cost you if you fancied using it as the ultimate Land Rover expedition vehicle. The guide price, set by the MOD and not Withams, is £85,000 plus VAT. Bearing in mind that a civvy vehicle of similar age with normal mileage would probably set you back around 40K and this 6x4 has covered well under 6000 miles, that guide price for vehicle, expedition hamper and trailer is probably quite realistic.
If I were to win the lottery, which I realise is highly unlikely, I think I would buy the combo and then sell on the fifth wheel and trailer leaving just the four-seat 6x4 expedition vehicle with Strongs rear hamper and Baroud roof tent as my assignment transport. One can but dream.
From left to right: It is believed this long, slim combo might have been intended for narrow Highland roads; Discovery front compartment was pretty standard but a tachograph was fitted; The fifth wheel can be removed in a few hours to allow a camper...
The Discovery third axle is not driven and merely shares the load of the nine tonne GVW trailer
A Supacat ATMP and two submersibles stowed inside the trailer [© Nigel Townsend]
With fifth wheel removed this camper body can be fitted [© Richard Fenton]
Trailer front compartment contains a multi-purpose kitchen / office / bedroom