A Happy New Year to all our readers: we are back after a short break brought about by a combination of holidays and some nasty Christmas cold-bugs. Hopefully we are all firing on enough cylinders to get things going again for 2020.
We will be making a few changes to our format in the next months in order to bring you some added views and comments on issues that have been coming to the top of the media pile, or issues that should be discussed but are generally ignored by the majority of the press these days. We hope this will provide you with extra enjoyment, amusement or whatever. As always, we welcome your comments and if you feel minded to write an article or respond to anything we say – then please do submit it to us for publication.
It has been a curious time over the last month or so, with the UK election, the rise in climate change problems in places like Australia, the hardening of North Korea’s attitudes to the US, the deliberate snubbing of the US and West by Iran, and the recent announcement that Russia has deployed a new, very agile and almost unstoppable, long-range ballistic missile system.
And now we are facing the prospect of a somewhat unpredictable US President who seems hellbent on firing up all the old animosities between his country and Iran. Where is that going to end?
Violence seems to be the order of the day in so many countries now as peoples’ power appears to be taking on harsh regimes in Hong Kong and Iran, Africa and South America. And to cap it all, the likes of IS and its related terror groups are said to be making a comeback in the Middle East and Western Africa, killing scores of innocent civilians in the process.
The return of the Tories to government might have seemed to be a good thing for the defence and security of this country. But, as has been mentioned many times in the past, a Conservative Government can be a bit of a mixed blessing for the Armed Forces and the most recent pronouncements by the Defence Secretary offer little to cheer about in that regard. In a nutshell, he has warned the MOD that the days of “wishful thinking” are over and defence planners have got to cut their cloth according to the money actually available: that is to say, they have to live within the budgets handed to them by their political masters.
Are we surprised? Not really, and in many ways we in TMT welcome the change of approach as being a sensible red flag to many in senior posts (both military and civilian), to stop trying to hijack the limited budgets for their own pet projects. We include of course the carrier programme started in PM Gordon Brown’s time, which is likely to be a victim of any cost cutting exercise; is it possible that we will continue to pretend that we can afford to operate two huge carriers together with their necessary escorts and RFA support vessels? Is it not a matter of some embarrassment to see HMS Queen Elizabeth crossing the Atlantic with precisely one surface escort and a single tanker in tow? How Putin must laugh to see such folly.
We are repeating the same silliness with both ground and air programmes. Recently we saw the introduction of the new Ajax family of tracked vehicles based upon a fairly ancient design of armoured platform, the ASCOD. Admittedly is has been upgraded since it was introduced in the 1990s, but one has to wonder who thought it a good idea to replace the light CVR(T) series of fast and agile recce vehicles with a 30 – 40 tonne, tank-sized AFV. Some say each vehicle is costing the Army about £11m-plus, which makes them more than a Challenger 2 tank by our reckoning.
Having had to watch the Armoured Corps have its generous slice of the cake, the infantry decided it was time for them to party, and so the Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (MIV) programme was borne. Ignoring the fact that the fleet of Mastiffs might have been upgraded to an 8×8 configuration, as well as reversing a UK preference for tracked heavy fighting vehicles, another vastly heavy (up to 40 tonnes) and expensive item of equipment has been pushed through the system in a way that some thought was somewhat hasty. The German-built Boxer is another design that first emerged back in the 1990s, and indeed was rejected by the British back then as being wheeled rather than tracked, too big, too heavy and too expensive – and a non-British product. However, as was made clear to any who might oppose the MIV project from within the system, this was a pet project being pushed by the top of the Army and to voice objections might have been a career-limiting move: so most people just kept quiet and nodded their agreement.
And now for the air-side of things, and to the F-35 programme. We have already commented on the huge expense of the Naval and Air Force F-35 programme. Bear in mind that this aircraft was intended mainly to replace the Harrier at a time when the US Marine Corps were upgrading their Harriers and loved them, and also when we could have bought into the upgraded F-16 jet programme at a faction of the cost, it seems just a tad nutty to have gone down the F-35 route.
Even today, some critics say that this aircraft has a number of design deficiencies including a limited payload, somewhat questionable stealth technology, and inferior performance to the F-16, as well as issues to do with a single engine and fuel-tank fire-risks. The US F-35 programme is the most expensive in history, with a price tag of some $1.5 Trillion over its lifetime of US service. In UK service, the aircraft are reckoned to cost about $100m each, though some say that this might reduce as orders for the aircraft increase and production becomes more efficient.
Another problem specific to the UK is that in order to allow the RAF to work with the Navy, they have had to buy the vertical landing F35B version, which is not as capable as the F35A intended for normal runway take-offs. So it is hard to see how we, the UK, are going to be able to support the upgrading of the current Typhoon fleet, which is already facing some funding problems, at the same time as properly bringing in a fully equipped and combat ready fleet of F-35s. Is it not highly likely that one or other of the fleets will be kept on starvation rations, with flying limited to the absolute minimum? And to anyone who says “surely not!”, we would say cast your minds back the days of limited track-miles, no paint and “dues out” on everything but the most important spares: and that was during some of the most dangerous times of the Cold War in the early 1980s.
We are an island (thank goodness), and one problem that all this new and heavy kit might create is that of getting it to the battlefield. As we retreat back to our home fortress during peacetime, we are going to be facing more and more problems when it comes to shipping equipment around the world – or at least to Eastern Europe, where some think the next major battles might be fought. Do we honestly think we will be able to prepare for war, move all our kit to the east-coast ports and then across the Channel and North Sea to the TAOR? Yes, perhaps, given a some decent weather, plenty of warning and a free hand by our would be adversaries. But what would you do if you were Mr Putin and watching the slow build-up of British Forces in continental ports? (Assuming our contribution was of any significance in the big scheme of things.) Might you not want to interdict the movement of equipment at the very least? A few disabled transport vessels and the job is done.
So what is the purpose of building up a force of heavy and very expensive armoured vehicles based mainly in the UK? Did anyone actually analyse the total cost of that force, and is there a realistic plan for using them in the event of a sufficiently serious crisis that might require the deployment of our armed forces?
There is a saying that volume under armour equals weight, and weight equals cost. Add to that the fact that diversity of equipment also adds to cost, and you start to see the potential for more wasted money. Today we are about to have a myriad of heavy equipment on our books. Challenger 2, AS90, Warrior, 432s, the whole Ajax family, CVR(T), Boxer, Mastiff, tracked engineer vehicles etc. Then there are MAN and Oshkosh trucks, Jackal, Husky, Foxhounds, Panther, Land Rovers, and so on.
The equipment list is actually a rather damning comment on the failure of the logistics planners to get a grip of the modern Army. For it was always recognized that one of the central pillars of any future ground force (and indeed the whole of the British Armed Forces) was the reduction of the overall logistics footprint, thus freeing up resources to focus more effort in the frontline capabilities. So one has to ask who it is that believes that having so many different types of overlapping kit is going to help reduce the training, maintenance and spares burden that must be a crippling cost to our Army.
With all the above in mind, perhaps a cool wind of reason is about to blow though the corridors of the MOD, removing some of the silliest excesses of the recent buying spree from the books. That said, it is also a somewhat sad comment on the recent contractual acumen of the Armed Forces that it is often more expensive to cancel a programme than to let it run its course, as a result of penalty clauses forced through by defence manufacturers. Some cite that reason for the existence of two large carriers when not long ago it was speculated that we might not even see one of them actually in British service.
Do we love new kit? Yes of course we do: we are all ex-forces types and nothing gets you going as much as being issued a shiny new vehicle or weapon-system. The problem is, however, that there is also nothing more frustrating than being given that new toy – and then being told it must be left on the shelf as there is not enough fuels, spares, or training ammo. And that is where we are likely to end up if we do not start to cut our cloth according to our means.
Far better to go to war with good, reliable and trusted weapons and equipment with stacks of proven ammo and spares, than a shiny new bit of kit with a limited track record and minimal support. That is not to say that we should not innovate, but we cannot be all things to all enemies. And so, whilst NATO might now refer to China in its list of potential threats, we should resist the temptation to spread our defence budget ever more thinly to address that specific threat. Instead, we must decide to meet them with our current force structure and equipment – and to recognize any implicit operational limitations that might arise as a result.
We might also need to re-examine our apparently insatiable desire for risk-aversion of whatever sort. Procurement staffs have on occasions deliberately avoided making difficult decisions on their watch that might rebound on them in the future. Health and safety seems to trump all other considerations, and specifications always run riot once the operational requirement boys get going. Far better to put all of these in tightly sealed boxes – something that might need government legislation in order to avoid downstream law-cases.
Above all, this will markedly reduce the time spent on developing and testing equipment, reducing the cost to the military. It will also allow us to respond more effectively to current threats where an urgent operational requirement is deemed to be vital.
The British Mastiff is a UK variant of the US Cougar MRAP vehicle. The Cougar was designed, developed and handed over to the USMC in less than six months after the first sketches were made on a piece of paper in a restaurant in April 2004. When this was recounted at a defence presentation in London, a senior British defence executive stood up and told the speaker he was lying and that it takes at least seven years to develop a new vehicle. Given that the speaker was the designer of the Cougar, he was able to assure members of the MOD present that he was talking with some authority when came to timescales.
Given that Ajax (and to an extent MIV) are the outcome of initiatives that started back in the early 1990s, some might argue that we have a long way to go when it comes to eliminating slow-cooking projects. For the sake of our troops and our nation’s taxpayers, we sincerely hope the Government can turn things around rather quicker than many assume might be the case.
We also hope that the new Government will be an intelligent friend of the Forces and that it will help produce a cohesive UK defence capability that is appreciated by its Allies and respected by its would-be adversaries. We also hope that the Government will start to appreciate the value of the many hundreds of thousands of veterans who in many cases could be a really important asset to this country if the “proverbial” hits the fan. We might be older, but we are not useless. Look after us properly in future and you might be doing this country a great favour.
Image: Copyright UK MOD