Most of us will have watched with dismay as the UK’s armoured vehicle industry has been reduced in size from a time when the likes of Alvis, GKN, Vickers, VSEL and RO competed for MOD fighting vehicle contracts. Those days are now long gone, and in the middle of June the last of the British-controlled AFV manufacturers, BAE, threw in the towel when it allowed its armoured vehicle division to be effectively taken over by Rheinmetall of Germany, leaving BAE with a minority (45%) stake in the new venture.
The new company is called RBSL, which stands for “Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land”. Its HQ is now based in Telford, and the MD is a former head of Rheinmetall UK. That said, it means that the UK no longer has a domestically-controlled armoured vehicle manufacturer. It also means that all of the main MOD armoured vehicle programmes are being led by overseas companies: GD is running Ajax, with Lockheed Martin providing the turrets: Lockheed are also the lead-contractor for the Warrior upgrade programme.
The UK Government’s agreement to the take-over is not entirely surprising. The merging of programmes over the last few years has meant that there was increasing cooperation between the various companies involved in the UK MIV project, as well as a common interest in the development of a future Challenger 2 upgrade.
In the case of MIV (Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicle), an 8×8 wheeled infantry carrier, and the pet-project of the then-CGS, Gen Nick Carter (a former infantry soldier and now the CDS), it was a mystery to some as to why BAE did not submit a vehicle to compete with the German Boxer 8×8, a design that had been considered and rejected some twenty years ago.
After all, through its links with FNSS, BAE has access to the excellent PARS 8×8 family of vehicles which were in production and which cost considerably less than Boxer. They also weigh a lot less, meaning that we might actually be able to deploy them more easily than the hefty German equivalent.
It was explained by some that BAE was hoping to get some sub-contract work from a purchase of Boxer – but that still did not answer the real question as to why BAE, which is also a major player in the US armoured vehicle industry, was not in a position to put in a separate bid for the MIV programme.
It now seems likely that the plan to make Rheinmetall the senior partner in any future UK defence land projects was being hatched even during the lead up to the MIV contract. It might also help to explain why the decisions about, and orders for, the new Boxer vehicles were delayed until the whole project could be presented as cosmetically partly “British” and therefore less of a blow to UK industry as a whole.
The Challenger 2 Upgrade has been similarly affected by delayed decisions. In a recent speech, the new defence Secretary, Penny Morduant, effectively accused the previous incumbents at the MOD of having failed to invest in armoured vehicle programmes and technology, claiming that the result was an obsolescent Challenger 2.
For its part, industry has repeatedly told the MOD that it cannot afford to keep developing speculative upgrades and that a positive decision has to be made about the future of heavy armour in the UK (this has to include practical ideas about how we can physically transport heavy armour to a theatre such as Eastern Europe, for example).
However, now that the main competitors for the project are now “partners”, we might well see things start to move again. As with MIV, it makes the politics of the likely outcome rather less painful for the UK, given that the almost inevitable feature of the upgrade will be the loss of the UK-designed, rifled tank-gun in favour of the German smooth-bore weapon – that just happens to be made by Rheinmetall.
That said, the gun has become the NATO-standard weapon system, so it does make good sense at one level. However, the question will then follow as to who in the UK will make the 120mm-smoothbore ammunition for the future UK tank fleet. How would this be affected by the UK-s departure from Europe? Would this form part of a quite separate agreement between the UK and Europe covering defence-critical components?
In the big picture, there are a number of other British manufacturers that would be involved in a UK-purchase of the Boxer, or indeed a Challenger 2 upgrade. The likes of Pearson Engineering and a host of lower-tier OEMs, as well as parts-suppliers that would benefit for decades to come. However, it is still a sad fact of life that the UK effectively no longer has its own heavy armoured vehicle manufacturer.