Skip to main content

Nothing seems to have prepared the “authorities” for the recent onslaught by senior people pointing out the “bloomin’ obvious”: the UK cannot afford its Armed Forces.  At least, not under the present taxation and spending plans.

The moment defence spending is mentioned, the usual suspects are rolled out such as the carriers, their aircraft and the escorts needed to protect them, as well as Trident of course. However, this sort of “crisis” is not just the product of current spending on big-ticket items – it is also the result of historic decisions and future plans. And once you start to dig there is no end to the number of what many now regard as plainly daft acquisition decisions.

We, the taxpaying public, have to ask why successive bosses at the MOD (both military and civilian), have allowed things to get to a state where it is now a matter of public knowledge that we cannot actually afford to implement so many of the programmes deemed to be critical to the nation’s future protection, with some projecting a £75bn shortfall in equipment budgets alone.

Were they, the “four-stars”, hoping to blackmail the country into coughing-up when the bills were presented?  How could so many apparently intelligent senior officials allow this situation to have developed without challenging it in some way?

The fact that it has become a very public matter is not so worrying for our enemies, putative and actual; they must have rejoiced at the level of detail being provided about our future capability – or lack thereof. Moreover, what is of particular concern is that many of the capability-gaps now being identified cannot easily be sorted – even if someone gave the Forces a blank cheque tomorrow.

Many believe that our defence programmes have become utterly mired in bureaucratic nonsense: safety cases, human-factors, risk analysis, whole-life costs etc. All have conspired to add vast amounts of talking-heads to any project – even urgent requirements. The author remembers when British UORs were managed by half-a-dozen MOD types. After “Smart Procurement” came in in the 1990s, these teams increased to dozens – all people with some specific interest trying to get their few minutes’ worth (for which read “few millions worth”), inserted into the project.

And then you have the defence contractors whose real responsibilities are to their shareholders. They have a vested-interest in piling on the bureaucratic agony, setting up committees for this and that to cover all the bases in excruciating detail.  The result is that we, the nation, have to wait far too long for any new defence equipment to be selected, developed and purchased, let alone fielded. A minimum of seven to ten years for an armoured vehicle, twenty plus for an aircraft, almost thirty for ships. Which defence contractor would not love these sorts of timescales when each year brings in huge payments for vast teams of terribly busy people?

In a London-based symposium on armoured vehicles in 2009, a short presentation was given on the development of the US Cougar MRAP, the basis of the UK Mastiff, Ridgeback and Wolfhound family of vehicles. The presenter stated very clearly that the first sketch of the intended vehicle was made in April 2004, with the first Cougar handed over to the US Marine Corps, together with a spares pack, training programmes & materials as well as technical manuals, less than six months later. The small USMC Programme team accepted the vehicle without extensive formal-testing and it was flown to Iraq to go straight into battle.

The audience at the symposium were, for the most part, incredulous and openly rejected the statement about the short timescales involved. Indeed, a British two-star at the event who showed interest in the process that allowed for such a rapid development cycle, was accosted by an industry “delegation” which informed him that the presentation had been a sham.

And yet, other privately-funded, unsolicited programmes have shown that it is quite possible to react very quickly to the demands of the frontline troops. The author is aware of several including an airborne/special forces gunship platform developed in a matter of months and which was offered to the MOD at a fraction of the cost of the system adopted (selected to avoid “rocking the boat”). Another example was the development of the Alvis scaterrable mine-launcher, VLSMS, based on a flat-bed version of the Scorpion; it was completed in a very short time for the First Gulf War and the engineers received gongs for their efforts.

Back in the day (or 1989 to be more precise), the author visited the General Dynamics Land System factory making M1A1 Abrams tanks. A senior manager there observed that the tank was probably less safe than the UK’s developmental Challenger 2 – but, he said, “We are prepared to accept 90% now, rather 99% sometime/never.”

A very British failing has always been that of combining the gold-plated, “Rolls Royce” solution with the insidious “Requirements Creep”.  The former, some sort of legacy of Empire deployments, can no longer be used as an excuse. However, the latter, is as active as ever, and due in no small part to the length of time it takes to bring projects to fruition. The Navy’s Type 26 frigate is a case in point. (See TMT: Why will the Royal Navy not have its first Type 26 frigate operational until 2027? 13th June 2018.)

Today, questions are being asked as to why it will take eight years to build the first ship of the Type 26 class, due to be operational in about 2027. However, let us not overlook the fact that the programme as a whole was started in 1998 as the Future Surface Combatant (FSC). That makes some 30 years from flash to bang. It is hardly surprising that requirements have changed in that time – but do those subsequent modifications come cheap?

On land, the story is not dissimilar. The British Army’s decision to buy the 32t Boxer 8×8 was made some 25 years after first thinking about such a move, and 15 years after the Brits actually withdrew from the joint MRAV/Boxer programme, having bought and trialled four vehicles in 1999.

And let’s take a quick look at Ajax. Based upon the 1980s ASCOD vehicle, the Ajax is the final manifestation of many UK projects (FFLAV, MBAV,MRAV, TRACER, FRES etc….) spanning a period of almost 30 years. Why did we need to buy this 38 to 42 tonne vehicle to replace the 8t CVRT in the recce role? And, given that “volume under armour equals weight and weight generally equals cost”, why did no-one anticipate a huge credit-card debt for the new fleet?

Or indeed, why did no-one consider the Warrior hull to be a sensible, affordable solution given that it is already in service and being modernised? Yes, it might have involved some compromises – but we might at least have been able to afford it. (The same goes for the Boxer; take another current in–service vehicle, the Mastiff. It was designed to be able to be stretched; add an extra axle and “Bob’s yer uncle” – possibly).

As an aside, all the above means the Army will have four tracked AFV families in the RAC, two wheeled and three tracked AFV types in the infantry – plus all the other variants such as  AS90, MLRS, Panther, Jackal, Fuchs, Mastiffs (+variants), Foxhounds etc. – and all in an army of some 80,000. The words “logistics footprint” spring to mind – as do questions such as; “how do we move all this new, heavy-armour off this island and around the world”?)

Does the RAF deserve mention in all of this? Well, yes, but with some caveats. Their main programme is the acquisition of the F35 fighter, now called Lightning II. Dependent upon US technology and development programmes, the project is facing such huge cost increases that even that well known supported of US military expansion, President Trump, is asking about dumping it in favour of an upgraded F18 Super Hornet variant, sometimes called the Advanced Super Hornet, upgraded versions of which have been proposed for some time now.

However, they are not entirely off the hook, for many of the RAF programmes have been case studies in incompetence and overspend. Forget Nimrod, let’s take the “non-ground-attack” Typhoon project, where each airframe was, even by 2011, reckoned to be 75% more expensive than planned; that’s £55,000,000 extra per ‘plane to you and me.  Given the lack of ground attack capability, the then head of the UK’s National Audit Office said:

“The Typhoon is currently performing important operational tasks but the full multi-role capability won’t be available for a number of years.

“Until this happens the MOD will not have secured value for money from it’s over £20 billion investment in Typhoon. (The) MOD has put some of the building blocks in place to enable this to happen. But difficult and deep-rooted problems remain to be overcome.

“Our examination has shown that key investment decisions were taken on an over-optimistic basis; the project suffered from corporate decisions to try to balance the defence budget; and the department did not predict the substantial rate at which costs would rise. None of this suggests good cost control, a key determinant of value for money.”

In reply, the Defence Equipment Minister had this to offer:

“The Defence Secretary has announced reforms to prevent future delays and cost overruns in Defence procurement, ensuring our armed forces are properly equipped and taxpayers get value for money.”

So, did someone in 2011 finally wake up to the need to actually manage our defence programmes in the way that businesses have to manage their finances, or all of us individually have to watch the pennies? Should we have been comforted?  Probably not, as a year later, in 2012, there was a minor scandal over the cost of the A330 airbus tankers said to be three times the agreed price.

However, to put the matter of overspend in context, let’s wind the clock back to 2004 when an NAO report spoke of a £3bn overspend in defence projects at almost the same time that the MOD announced the 13bn contract-award for the Airbus tanker.  The then defence Procurement minister, Lord Bach declined to comment, but a senior MOD official was reported to have said:

“You don’t keep employing a plumber who continually floods your house.”

A former BAE chairman then made an extraordinary admission. Sir Raymond Lygo told the BBC that:

“A well-known fact, whether anybody admits it or not, is you’ll never get any programme through the government if you ever revealed the real cost.  After a year you say ‘I’m terribly sorry but the costs have now risen for this reason and the other reason’.”

As a result of the 2004 NAO revelations, it was stated that:

“The MOD has introduced “smart” defence procurement, as well as working to remove more of the burden of risk in projects from the government.”

But the NAO Auditor general, Sir John Bourn supplied a bucket of cold water in the form of:

“I am disappointed by the large rises in costs and delays on four older projects in particular.”

What were three of those four “older” (in 2004), projects? Typhoon, Brimstone, and Astute submarines. Which rather begs the question as to whether any of the people involved in procuring any these equipments, and who must have at least learned how not to buy expensive kit, is in a position of authority today.

The chances are that they are not. On one UOR programme to do with operations in the Gulf, the young, civilian MOD project manager (sporting a gel-spiked hairdo), revealed that he had been “doing welfare” less than six months previously. Coupled with increasingly risk-averse attitudes of serving military programme managers, some of whom are known to have avoided making a decision “on their watch”, the auguries are not that good.

So, it would seem that the chances of the “system” learning and improving are somewhat less than rosy. Does the fact that the MOD recently retrieved its future defence equipment plans from the clutches of the NSA to set up its own, independent, Modernising Defence Programme initiative suggest things are changing for the better? Possibly, but the House of Commons Defence Committee made it clear that it would be keeping a beady eye on MDP and that, for now at least, the jury is out.


Comments on Who is responsible for the crisis in the UK’s defence budget?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.