12 May 2007

Unfinished business

It must have rained in Outer Mongolia because, contrary to our predictions, one newspaper has run a short report on FRES, none other than The Daily Telegraph.

However, as is so often the case in contemporary reporting of defence issues, we have the extraordinary situation of this being reported in the business section, rather than in the mainstream (entertainment) section.

Given the political implications of this system, to say nothing of the impact it will have on the future of the Army, it really is bizarre that the newspaper cannot find space to do the subject properly, and gives it to a business reporter rather than handing it to their defence correspondent.

As you might expect from a business report, therefore, the key issues are missed entirely and the reporter, Russel Hotten, merely cribs from the Defence Committee hand-out, majoring on the delays in introducing the system, portrayed in its usual simplistic terms as "a £16 billion contract for much-needed new vehicles for the Army".

Thus writes Hotten, under the headline, "£16bn Army contract delay our fault, admits Whitehall", that defence ministers "have bowed to criticism from MPs and industry" and admitted that the award of a £16bn contract for much-needed new vehicles for the Army "has taken far too long." He then homes in on the Defence Committee's criticism that FRES, had been a "sorry story of indecision, constantly changing requirements, and delay."

Then we get the Committee's view that, six years after the MoD identified a need for the new vehicles, "which would have been invaluable in Iraq and Afghanistan," FRES remained little more than "a concept".

It really is terribly disheartening going to all the trouble of understanding the nature of the system, writing at length on what is at stake, only to have this juvenile level of analysis and reporting, first from a House of Commons committee, and then from a newspaper.

In years to come, when decisions made now and in the near future come to fruition – and, as it looks, the wrong decisions have been made – the media will be joining the hue and cry, and we will get pompous declamations from MPs but, at the time when it mattered, the people who should have taken an interest are silent. If we are still around in those years to come, we will no doubt be reminding our readers of this, possibly to the same (lack of) effect we are having now.

Nevertheless, it is worth looking at a couple of the issues raised by the Committee, its claim that the new vehicles, "…would have been invaluable in Iraq and Afghanistan", and its charge that the project has been unduly delayed.

Taking the first claim, the fact is that if FRES vehicles had been built in conformity with the original concept, they would have been lightweight (less than 22 tons) armoured vehicles, bristling with sensors and electronic kit, and hugely expensive.

If anything, they would have afforded less protection from IEDs and RPGs than existing vehicles and would, therefore, have been of very limited value in either of our current theatres of operations. Add to that, their expense and complexity and, more like, the true situation would have been that they would have been a liability.

On the second issue – the delay – from the outset, the FRES concept represented the cutting edge of technology, with some (many) of the issues actually unresolved. Considering that not even the United States, with its huge resources, has been able to bring its parallel FCS project to fruition, it was and is wholly unrealistic to expect that FRES could have been brought into service in time to be of use in current operations, or even in the near future. The sort of timescale the Committee is thinking of would have been unrealistic even for a conventional armoured vehicle. For something like FRES (in its original conception), even 2012 was wildly optimistic.

However, while we get no sense or understanding from either the defence committee or The Telegraph, we do get a more considered analysis from Ben Judah, who writes for the current (online) edition of ISN Security Watch.

As one might expect, he starts with a topical political "hook", under the title of "Blair's model army", arguing that, as "Blair prepares to step down with his foreign policy achievements in tatters and his attempts to transform the army into a 21st-century rapid reaction force possibly stillborn.”

We could hardly disagree with that sentiment as it is precisely the conclusion we had reached in our piece yesterday.

What Judah brings to the table though is the first inkling of Conservative policy on FRES, citing an unnamed "source close to George Osborne", the shadow chancellor. He tells Judah that "they've [Labour] decided to waste money on the FRES for political reasons. We want to simply buy them off the shelf from America and call the whole thing off. The FRES has no place in David [Cameron's] tax and defence vision."

Judah also quotes a "polemic” from “the influential right-wing Bruges Group think-tank", arguing that FRES is both staggeringly expensive and part of a drift toward a common European army by stealth. It supports, says Judah, abandoning the project entirely and buying the vehicles off the shelf.

Actually, as author of that paper, I do not recall then even suggesting abandoning the project. The paper was a call for a debate. Subsequently, though, on this blog (on the forum, actually) we have called for it to be scrapped.

However, Judah then avers that the Committee rejected the idea of cancellation, although I can find no reference to that question being put, or answered in its report. Nevertheless, he tells us the committee concluded that purchasing the fleet off the shelf would leave the UK with an un-upgradeable army that might swiftly lose its interpretational capacity with an increasingly high-tech US force.

He also has it that the Committee argued that abandoning the FRES project, despite its high costs, might increase dramatically the wide gap between European and American militaries, harm transatlantic relationships and severely limit Britain's capacity to act in the future, especially since current technologies appear non-upgradeable.

Thus the conclusion was – again not identifiable in the report – what that, while the potential financial savings can be clearly calculated, the potential strategic calamity of scrapping FRES could be catastrophic.

Whether it is the Conservative Party of the committee, though, talk of cancellation misses the point. By allowing the weight rise to accommodate extra protection and thus downgrading the requirement for the vehicles to be air transportable, the FRES concept has already been abandoned. With the first part of the project focused on a "utility vehicle", the main role of which is a troop carrier, we are – as we pointed out in our earlier piece - effectively looking at no more than a replacement for the Warrior.

Needless to say, the MoD's troubles are not yet over. It has yet to define clearly (or at all) what type of vehicle it has in mind. If it is considering equipment with the classic armoured vehicle shape, and simply adding armour to give additional protection from IEDs, this may not be enough. Protection in this sphere is not just – or even - a question of armour, but of design, the importance of the "V"-shaped hull at last beginning to be accepted.

Furthermore, in its use of armoured troop carriers, the Army is undertaking two very distinct roles. Firstly, there is the assault vehicle role, typical of "high-end" warfighting, where a Warrior-type vehicle transports troops to the enemy – often cross-country - whence they dismount and fight. The amount of time they spend in a closed down vehicle is relatively short and the main threat is from enemy gunfire.

Then, currently, there is the task of patrolling in counter-insurgency operations, where the troops may remain in the vehicles for prolonged periods, requiring continuous protection, in often extreme climatic conditions, where the main threat is the IED. Much of the use is on paved – or, at least – navigable roads, with very often intensive use over long periods, where durability and ease of maintenance are significant issues.

Here, it is actually hard to see how the two roles can be satisfied with one design. The threats are different and the user profiles are so dissimilar that it makes more sense to have two different types of vehicle – one for "high-end" warfighting and the other for counter-insurgency.

To an extent, this is already happening, with the introduction of the Mastiff into Iraq and Afghanistan, and the possible purchase of additional vehicles. What we might then see, therefore, is an Army equipped with two different fleets of vehicles, which it deploys according to the role it is required to undertake.

This is certainly something neither the Army nor military planners envisaged when they first mooted the FRES concept, and nor did they budget for it. The real question, therefore, is whether Mr Brown's government – or a new Conservative government – is prepared to spend twice over for two fleets of vehicles. And, if not, and the counter insurgency requirement takes priority, as indeed it must, will what is left of the FRES project have to be abandoned completely.

As a final thought, this may be no bad thing. With the weight of the new vehicles being discussed approaching or even matching the Warrior, there seems every advantage in rebuilding all or part of the Warrior fleet, and upgrading with the some of the advanced communications, sensors and defence enhancements that would have gone into the FRES vehicles.

This is, in fact, what the US is doing with its Warrior-equivalent, the Bradley, reducing risk by allowing a phased introduction of new technology rather than the "big bang" that was to come with its own FCS programme.

Interestingly, for the moment, the Army is taking the "all or nothing" view. But, unless it finds an answer to the added burden of procuring and maintaining two fleets, the outcome, when it comes to FRES, may be "nothing".

Judah seems to think that this is a possible outcome, arguing that FRES could be in line to become another item on the litany of Blair's legacy of failures. The funny thing is that, should it so become, so few people know anything about the issue that it will scare be recognised as such. But, since the final decisions cannot any more be made by him, it cannot be Blair's failure. Success or failure lies in other hands. FRES, by any measure, is unfinished business.