Diving in at the deep end, we find common cause with the child who pointed at Lord Randolph Churchill when he was campaigning for election and said, "Dearest Mama, pray tell me what is that man for?" In like manner, to Lord Drayson, when he writes, "I am sure you agree that it would make no sense to invent a new vehicle from scratch," we would say, that rather depends on a similar question: "what is that vehicle for?"
To answer that question, however, begs an even bigger question: "What is the Army for?" Military equipment is nothing if not functional, designed very specifically for its designated functions, so the suitability of the vehicles he has selected for evaluation as the potential FRES utility vehicle can only be assessed once we know what we want the Army to do.
The possibilities, in fact, we have already rehearsed, ranging from high-end warfighting to policing activities not very different from those carried out by civilian forces.
Assessing what the Lord Drayson has in mind, though, is not easy – he does not tell us directly and offers few clues. But he does tell us that the new vehicle must be deployable by the A400M and the larger C-17.
That actually tells us that he does not intend it to be used for high-end warfighting. Such a role requires, above all else, Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) working together with the types of vehicles he has in mind. The tanks are not air-portable and to have one component transported by air, while the other goes by sea, simply does not make sense.
On the other hand, such expensive and sophisticated vehicles would hardly be procured simply for low-level policing so, by the process of elimination, he must have a function between the two extremes in mind. But what?
An obvious use is the sort of counter-insurgency roles at present undertaken by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan – or in future campaigns like it. To that effect, Drayson argued that the idea that FRES will be less well protected than patrol vehicles such as the Mastiff – specifically designed for counter-insurgency - is wrong, on which basis we can assume he intends a counter-insurgency role.
Here, what the noble Lord claims is distinctly arguable. One of the major threats in Iraq (which will, no doubt also materialise in Afghanistan) is the large, buried IED. Protection against this weapon is not just a matter of the strength of armour, as design.
Without penetrating the armour, a large bomb can impart huge g-forces on the occupants of a vehicle, which can snap their necks and thus kill them instantly. Protection is gained by employing the v-shaped hull, which deflects the blast and minimises the forces, making this an essential element of any vehicle designed for counter-insurgency operations.
None of the three vehicles he has chosen for the FRES evaluation embody this feature, and two – the VBCI and the Piranha – definitely do not offer any significant protection from underside attack.
For the Boxer, however, significant claims are made for enhanced protection, the hull being described as being "designed to beat blast mine attack by shaping blast away." Additionally, we are told, a double-lined hull soaks up critical blast deformation.
That said, no quantitative data is offered to support claims made and, therefore, no judgement can be made as to the protection offered relative to vehicles like the Mastiff. Against that proven design, and the fact that the MoD lauds the protection offered by the Pinzgauer Vector – which is minimal – any claims made of equivalence must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Given that the Boxer might at least offer some protection from underside attack, Drayson nevertheless does not take on board my observation that what he has chosen are basically fighting vehicles. They do not offer the visibility and ride comfort of a vehicle needed for long duration patrols, or convoy escort which is the core of counter-insurgency work.
Turning now to what is a main theme of the noble Lord, he takes to task my claim that "the three candidate vehicle designs the MoD has selected have already been rejected by the Army as 'lacking development potential'". That, asserts Drayson, is simply not true:
We have always been clear that a current Off-The-Shelf vehicle would not meet out needs. But the vehicles we have chosen are not Off-The-Shelf vehicles. They are designs which are currently in development to provide new models within existing families of vehicles.He then goes on to say that "the trials this summer take proven vehicles, and evolve them to the next level to have the capacity, mobility, ability to upgrade through life, and, above all, the level of protection the Army need." In other words, they are "Off-The Shelf" vehicles, but the MoD is considering customising any finalist so that, by the time it is issued to the Army, it will no longer be an "off-the-shelf" version. Readers can form their own view of the noble Lord's argument.
Rather than now follow a line-by-line analytical approach, it might be more profitable to look at a recent article in DefenseNews which records Dannatt warning "industry and others" that the Army will not tolerate further delays to the introduction of FRES. He is cited as thinking at one with Drayson, both wanting a decision on a winning vehicle by 30 November, with fielding by 2012. "We'll take the best [vehicle] we can get" in that timetable, Dannatt is reported as having said.
This puts a somewhat different complexion on the competition announced, suggesting that the driver is no longer the search of the optimum equipment, but an impatience to get a vehicle – any vehicle – into service as fast as possible. This does not suggest a considered procurement programme, nor even a Service that knows what it wants. The Army might as well buy these (right).
DefenseNews also offered the intriguing morsel that Dannatt considered FRES needed a rebranding and a new name, this being interpreted as an oblique reference to the fact that "the Army might be adjusting its thinking regarding the effectiveness of rapid effects in today's expeditionary environment." Whatever FRES once was, it seems it is no longer, having morphed into something different, the nature of which we know not.
Where that actually leaves us is impossible to say. As we see it, the Army – via the Lord Drayson – is embarking on the purchase of extremely expensive vehicles of unknown performance, for as yet undeclared roles, to meet vague threats, all against a specification that seems to be changing with greater rapidity than the "effects" they are supposed to be delivering.
Thus we finish as we start. We do need a serious debate on FRES, recognising its importance to the future of the Army. But that debate should be shaped by an answer to the simple question, "what is it for?" And good place to give that answer would be during a full debate in Parliament, dedicated to the subject of FRES.