30 September 2020

The MoD’s procurement disaster is tanking the British Army


Imagine a commercial airline company whose planes are all approaching the end of their working lives. The ageing of the planes is well known and understood, the need for a replacement obvious. Yet company management spend twenty years bickering and dithering over what replacements to buy, spending billions on abortive attempts to solve the problem. Paralysed by indecision, no new planes are bought at all: the company falls into chaos and irrelevance. Eventually it ceases to exist.

A situation continuing for so long is nearly inconceivable in the commercial world. However, this is exactly what’s happened in the British Army, which has spent decades wrapped up in non-procurement of armoured vehicles. Endemic U-turns, delays, and cancellations mean that almost the entire fleet of tanks is hitting obsolescence at once, and the Army simply does not have the money to replace everything over the next ten years. A crisis point has been reached, with no clear way out. The result may well be that the country of Wellington and Montgomery becomes entirely incapable of fighting wars on land against a serious foe. The scandal of Army procurement has jeopardized the future of the entire institution, and yet it has received very little public attention.

Since the mid-2000s it has been apparent that the Army’s main battle tank, the Challenger 2, wasn’t effective against modern armour. A new gun was required, which in turn would necessitate a redesigned turret to accommodate new ammunition. Interminable budget crises and internal disagreement over how big an upgrade was needed have wasted the last 12 years. Requirements for a new turret, more powerful gun, modernised optics, and (ideally) a souped-up engine are today obvious to everyone, even the Army: where the money comes from to pay for all this is less so.

Leaked reports now suggest that the entire tank fleet is on the chopping block and may not survive the ongoing reconfiguration known as the ‘Integrated Review’. One might compare this to a gardener leaving his best tools to rust in the open air, and then being surprised when the local youths (Her Majesty’s Treasury, in this case) conspire to steal them. Yet incredibly, the Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme barely makes the top three in the list of mismanaged Army programmes.

The modern Army is built around the combination of the main battle tank (MBT) and the infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). The IFV, an armoured troop carrier with a large gun, allows the infantry to keep up with the tanks, while also providing them with fire support from its gun when they dismount. Less heavily armoured and packing less firepower than a tank, IFVs can also operate on their own against less capable opponents. Britain deployed Warrior, its IFV, to Afghanistan, but did not send Challenger 2: more recently, France has deployed IFVs without tanks in Mali.

Understandably, after seeing extensive action in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army’s IFVs are badly showing their age. The Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme, designed to upgrade their capabilities and extend their lifespan to 2040, has been running since 2011, with Lockheed Martin as prime contractor. To date, £430 million has been spent on design and assessment work.

Not a single vehicle has been upgraded, and the programme is running more than four years late. Actual production costs are estimated at a further £800 million. Even if the programme goes ahead – which at this point it probably should not – the problems of aged, unreliable hulls and an underpowered engine will remain. In a recent submission to the Defence Select Committee, Lockheed blamed the delay on changing requirements from the Army (all too believable, given the Army’s indecision over Challenger 2) and problems fitting the Army’s chosen new cannon to the old vehicles.

Yet even the Challenger and Warrior disasters pale in comparison to the Army’s endless quest for medium-weight vehicles. Medium-weight vehicles come with significant firepower and protection, but are much lighter and faster than tanks, with much reduced maintenance and resupply requirements compared to traditional heavy armoured vehicles. Other European armies, especially Italy and France, have developed and produced successful medium-weight vehicles, that often serve in dedicated medium brigades. There is no doubt that medium-weight vehicles are very useful things to have, both for their own sake, but also to replace the Army’s antiquated armoured personnel carriers and lightweight reconnaissance vehicles,  which have been in service since the 1960s.

The Army’s struggle to define and implement its own requirements for medium-weight vehicles have consumed the best part of two and a half decades, at least a billion wasted in direct costs, and several billions more wasted in indirect costs (such as rushed purchases of mine-resistant off-the-shelf vehicles for service in Iraq and Afghanistan). An alphabet soup of programmes – MRAV, TRACER, FRES – delivered a grand total of zero vehicles into service.

Amazingly enough, the story seems to be ending with the eventual purchase – years later than necessary – of a vehicle, the Boxer 8×8, that the Army had rejected on two prior occasions. The saga is so epic that it would take many thousands of words to do it justice, but the excellent Think Defence blog has the details – highly recommended if you’re after a cure for low blood pressure.

The litany of Army procurement disasters doesn’t end there. The new “Ajax” scout vehicle’s entry into service has been delayed (reasons unknown, but this parliamentary submission suggests that the turrets are not structurally sound). The Royal Artillery, meanwhile, has barely a programme funded at all for the last two decades, leaving the British Army massively outranged and outgunned by its peers, especially Russia. These repeated catastrophes cannot be largely blamed on ministers or civil servants, or even on lack of funding from the Treasury. The British Army still gets a fairly substantial budget when compared to its European allies: it is the Army’s own choices that leave it with so few bangs for the many billions of bucks it receives.

If the Army has shown that it cannot be trusted with procurement, then civilian control must be reasserted. It is hardly surprising that there has been a certain amount of indecision and lack of grip in procurement when there have been nine Defence Secretaries since 2008. It is perhaps time for a civilian Director of Forces, a Prime Ministerial appointment confirmed by Parliament, with a longer term of service than is customary for Ministers or senior military officers, and with overall control over procurement across all aspects of the defence budget.

Humiliating though this might be for the services, it would at least represent a modest dose of the accountability that has been lacking for so long at the MoD. If we cannot have an inquiry into the decades of procurement failure, to establish who should be stripped of their peerages and knighthoods, at the very least the Integrated Review should deliver new structures to ensure this can never happen again.

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Jonathon Kitson is an independent researcher and forecaster.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.