01 May 2007

A view from the back

Another thing we intended to do yesterday was to fisk the piece by Max Hastings in The Guardian.

Hastings wants a full-scale defence review and complains that there is almost nothing in the MoD that could pass for intellectual debate. Because of this, he has, he writes, often suggested to senior officers and politicians that they should spend time with some of the wise old men of defence: academics such as Sir Michael Howard, strategists such as Sir Michael Quinlan. They are too busy, however, taking the salute at passing-out parades, launching ships, visiting bases, and performing all the other footling rituals of their jobs.

As a grand old man himself, however, it is a pity that Sir Max does not occasionally turn his gaze to the House of Commons and, in particular, today to Westminster Hall where a short debate was initiated by Tory MP Ann Winterton. With just the minister. Derek Twigg, and his parliamentary secretary present, she offered the following (no link as yet):

I have been applying for a debate such as this for several months so it is somewhat ironic that I was successful in securing one so soon after the debate in the House on Defence in the UK last Thursday. However, it is extremely convenient because it enables me to enlarge on what I have said previously about the war on terror and how the UK is dealing with insurgency. We should be in no doubt that our troops are engaged at present in two of the most difficult and deadly wars against a ruthless enemy, wars in which we all regret the loss of life but support fully those who serve in these theatres on our behalf.

It is a great pity that a debate on such an important issue should be held in Westminster Hall and not in the Chamber itself with many MPs present but, as a back bench member, I have to use any means in my armoury to draw attention to these important matters. Having been briefed twice by the MOD in recent months, I know that the Minister and his team also take these debates seriously.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, in military procurement terms, is not actually so very long ago. Much of our military hardware was designed for that era when the battleground was Northern Europe and war would be short and sharp and fought over quite limited distances, leaving our forces either defeated or victorious. Army vehicles, in particular, were never intended to travel over vast distances in inhospitable conditions where constant maintenance was required, consequentially imposing a heavy demand on spare parts.

Our troops are operating today, particularly in Afghanistan, with equipment designed for Northern Europe and another age. That equipment is now expected to fulfil a different, and indeed contrary, role to that for which it was originally destined. It is a fact that all nations operating in Afghanistan are finding the maintenance and supply of spares to be a nightmare and yet what surely is required is equipment which is not too technical, which can be maintained and repaired in the field and which can stand up to the rugged terrain and extreme temperatures. It is no good having manpower tied up in the field with equipment out of action, facing problems of supply and replacement of spare parts.

With the FRES programme, about which I have serious misgivings, looking at armoured vehicles, the powers that be need to bear in mind that what is required is basic, practical, simple and rugged equipment where maintenance costs are not greater than acquisition costs. I trust, too, that all military vehicles will be free of EU Health and Safety Laws, emission standards and the like, because the authorities have to understand that the MOD is not Social Services but has two wars on its hands which must be won.

Over the last two decades military thinking, as far as procurement is concerned, has been split between the integrationist European Union approach on defence and the link with the USA and, as a result of this, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on projects by both this and previous governments.

For instance there is the joint US/UK/Tracer/FSCS programme to develop a tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicle. This was to replace the ageing Scimitar CV(R)T for the British Army. However, the MOD pulled out in 2000 before the first prototype was ready in order to pursue a European project, losing at least £131 million for absolutely no gain.

Then there is the Future Command and Liaison Vehicle – the "Panther": Italian built at a cost of £413,000 each, these were supposedly to carry out some of the roles of the ‘Tracer’ but are useless for patrolling or undertaking other functions in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The cost of £166 million for 401 vehicles is, therefore, dead money.

The "Cobra" anti-battery radar is another example of high tech equipment to detect the source of artillery shells, mortars and rockets. German built, 10 sets were procured at £17.8 million each. Buying US built "Firefinder" systems at less than £10 million each would have saved £82 million whilst giving the Army a perfectly acceptable anti-artillery capability.

The "Trigat" projects of medium and long-range anti-tank missiles is yet another case. British participation in these European projects (appropriately developed by "Euromissile") cost the UK over £314 million before we had to pull out after the systems failed to deliver, leaving the MOD with a total loss. A rush purchase of US-built Javelin missiles had to be made in order to equip the Army.

The Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) project, named the "Boxer" was a joint German, Dutch and British venture, managed as a European project. The MOD pulled out after the vehicle proved too big and too heavy for the RAF's fleet of Hercules transporters, with a total loss to the defence budget of £48 million.

The MOD has spent (or has committed) £1,045 million to developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs); first the "Phoenix", losing £345 million, and now the "Watchkeeper" to be built by the French owned Thales company. Yet, despite this extraordinary expenditure, the MOD has no UAV capability in theatre other than the Desert Hawk mini UAV and is having to spend upwards of £60 million on buying or leasing US Predator UAVs. Had the UK bought the system in the first place, it might have saved more than £400 million.

The MoD has bought 22 Westland-Augusta Merlin HC3 transport helicopters and is now to buy another six. Working out the purchase price is well nigh impossible but at an estimated £30 million each, US equivalents would have been less than half-price. Alternatively, the RAF could have bought Chinooks at £25 million each, saving £110 million in total and considerably more on maintenance. The Merlins are currently exceeding expected maintenance costs by over 200%.

At over £60 million each, the Eurofighter aircraft are an acknowledged Cold War relic. Although rated highly as an interceptor, current versions have no ground attack capability. US built F-16s, an adequate fighter with a proven ground attack capability, would have cost in the order of £20 million each. With 232 notionally on order, the MOD could have saved upwards of £10 billion.

In addition to the aircraft are the weapons – the European designed Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile costs an amazing £1,000,000 each (£1 million!) for what is effectively a 1,000 lb bomb. Having bought 900 of them, the MOD could have saved over £830 million if it had bought the US equivalent, the JASSM (Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile).

The Eurofighter is also to be equipped with European designed air-to-air missiles which are known as Meteor. With the total costs at over £1.4 billion, purchase of US designed Raytheon missiles (which have been bought anyway as a stop gap until Meteor is ready) would have saved the MOD a cool £900 million.

Then in the rush for harmonisation, the MOD joined the French and Italians on the "Horizon" programme for a common frigate. Formalised in 1992, the UK eventually pulled out in April 1999 after failure to agree a common specification and amongst complaints of "unfocussed management" with an estimated loss of £537 million, leaving the French and Italians to continue with the project.

Co-operation did not end with the Horizon project. Although the MOD decided to go it alone with the platform emerging as the Type 45 Destroyer, the ship is largely equipped with European designed missile launchers and missiles. These largely account for the huge cost of £1 billion per ship, some £400 million more that the Australians were considering paying for the more capable US designed Arleigh Burke class missile destroyers. I understand they are now considering a version of the Spanish F100 Air Defence Destroyer thereby shaving another 1billion Australian Dollars off their costs. With five ships planned for the Royal Navy, we could have saved at least £2 billion if we had followed a similar path.

For the Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, the UK developed our own type 2087 sonar at £9 million per set. The development costs were an additional £300 million, given virtually as a free gift to the French company which bought the UK manufacturer, leaving it to free to sell cut-price versions to the French Navy. Had we bought from the Americans, the UK could have saved that £300 million.

And, finally, to the EU's Galileo satellite navigation system. By the time it is fully operational, the UK will have paid £400 million towards its development and commissioning costs – the system is then to be used to underpin the European Rapid Reaction Force. But the US "Navstar" GPS is already available and is totally free of charge. The £400 million pounds is, therefore, a total waste of money for what is merely a duplicate system.

Pulling together all these costs – but excluding the costs of Eurofighter which are a special case – the excess payments amount to £ 8.8 billion, and that for no gain whatsoever. That is considerably more than is spent in one year on procurement and would buy 35,000 RG-31 mine protected vehicles or 350 Chinook helicopters and goodness knows how many Hueys (Bell 212 aircraft). This is the measure of the wastage of valuable resources on defence projects and these figures make a mockery of those who say that the military are underfunded.

When the Prime Minister called for a debate on defence, like many others I welcomed it because the direction in which the UK is heading clearly needs to be defined. It is, for example, simply no good having equipment to wage war in the future when that equipment is not compatible with the Americans. The UK as a nation has neither the financial nor the military capability to divorce itself from reality. If we believe that the "war on terror" is our most serious threat, then the MOD should be planning to procure the right equipment for our troops, rather throwing them into situations where they are not best served by their kit.

I tried in the debate last Thursday to drive home the fact that technology can be of great assistance but simple platforms are often the best for delivery. These are easy to maintain and save on non-combatant manpower and spare parts, thereby proving not to be horrendously expensive. A good example is the Iraqi Air Force Sama light aircraft which is doing the same job on surveillance as the future Lynx helicopter. The RAF has as its trainer the Tucano T Mark 1 Aircraft and there is now a ground attack version ideally suited for the hot and cold conditions in Afghanistan.

This could give all round close air support to our troops instead of the present case in which an aircraft has to be called up, possibly even have to take off, arrives too late in theatre and then is unable to deliver because of the close proximity of insurgents. We should perhaps recall the lessons of Vietnam, Korea and even the Second World War – it is a fact that the smaller the fixed wing aircraft, the less likely it is to be shot down.

There should be a complete rethink about how we approach these types of operations where overspending can actually create a problem by providing over complicated pieces of equipment. The MOD and the military chiefs need to get back to the basics and, to prove the point, perhaps the Minister can tell me how many pack animals are being used in Afghanistan? After all, one cannot get more basic than that but it does give some idea of the type of terrain being faced by our troops serving there.

I welcome the recent announcement on, of all places, the European Defence Agency website that 180 Medium Protected Patrol Vehicles have been ordered for delivery in 2009, the contract value of which will be in the region of £20–100 million. Could the Minister tell me why this was not announced on the MOD website, itself not one of the most brilliant but one which would have been considerably enhanced by this news? Surely that is where any announcement should be first made; after all, the Minister is not trying to bury bad news but instead to give some rather encouraging news.

I am convinced that debates such as this one can have an influence on the direction of the MOD and I do believe the issues raised are being taken seriously and that, slowly but surely, military thinking and direction is changing. However, what I cannot make out is whether the MOD is being supported by the military chiefs and top civil servants or vice versa. Unless change takes place quickly, the UK will fail to give our service personnel the proper support they need to win the war on terror and there will be little or no chance of winning insurgency wars either now or in the future.
Of course, this debate will go unheeded by the "great and the good". But says Sir Max, "our armed forces must now confront their greatest enemy: the MoD". To that list he might add the indifference of a Parliament that can revel in the "Punch and Judy" show of Prime Ministers' Questions but cannot spare the time to indulge in a serious debate about defence.