Ageing Albion comments on Defence Procurement

One area on which you have little coverage at present is that of defence procurement. This has greatly shamed Britain for many years. In fact, the last time the British armed forces had the best equipment in the world was probably 1918. But, to keep things manageable, let us look at a few examples from the past three decades.

First, though, we should consider what a good defence procurement strategy would be. I suggest one overriding factor applies: the best equipment must be obtained with the funds available. This sounds obvious, but is all too often corrupted with two desirable, but resoundingly secondary considerations: first, a desire to provide jobs for British factory workers; and secondly, a desire by the government to be “independent”, i.e. not rely on another nation’s equipment.

Both of those considerations should apply only if all other things are equal, which they rarely are. Keeping a factory worker employed making second rate kit should not be of a piece with saving lives on the front line by giving our troops the best equipment available. Secondly, the idea that Britain could ever mount a serious independent operation without American assistance is truly fanciful. Even the Falklands War was only made possible by America allowing the use of Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island. (Ascension Island is a British territory, but the airfield is leased to the Americans.) We shared US intelligence and used Sidewinder missiles.

Moreover, the idea that purchasing equipment from another country renders you dependent on that country is overdone. Iran has managed to keep American F-14 jets flying for thirty years despite sanctions.

With that in mind, let us turn to some recent British blunders.

Example 1: At the beginning of the 1980s, Britain thought the army needed a new rifle to replace the SLR.

What we could have had: the second generation American M16. This would have given us a weapon developed by the enormous US budget, and field tested by millions of GIs in Vietnam. It had serious problems when introduced in Vietnam in the late 1960s, but these were ironed out at great expense by the early 1980s, by which time the M16 was a reliable, serviceable weapon which could easily have been made under licence in Britain and available almost immediately.

What we did instead: tried to build a rifle from scratch. Many millions of pounds and many years later, we had the SA80, the first generation of which was a hopeless, unreliable weapon. It took over a decade and millions more to sort it out with the SA80 mark 2, during which time British soldiers were regularly exposed to hostile fire with a substandard weapon of their own.

Interesting fact: the only unit in the British army allowed to choose its own weapons is the SAS – who have never touched the SA80.

Example 2: The Falklands War revealed the Type 42 destroyer to be an abysmal design. It had no close-in defence system like the US Phalanx, the Sea Dart could not cope with low-flying aircraft, it had very poor seakeeping, and it only had a single helicopter, which is much less than half of two in terms of operational availability. Its build was weak – a single Exocet accounted for HMS Sheffield; by comparison the USS Stark was hit by two and survived. The Type 42 would not have earned the description “Frigate” in the US Navy, never mind “Destroyer”. So Britain decided to replace it, getting serious by the early 1990s.

What we could have had: the US Arleigh Burke Destroyer (AB). Good enough to replace cruisers in the US Navy and slated to be the US chief surface combatant until the middle of the century at least, the AB is tremendously powerful – it has 96 vertically launched missiles, which are a mix of short and long range anti-aircraft missiles, and cruise missiles which can hit land targets hundreds of miles away. It also has a five inch main gun, eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles (the US exocet equivalent), the Aegis computer defence system, point defence guns, and two medium sized helicopters. South Korea and Japan build their own equivalents under licence so we could have too, keeping our shipyards in business.

What we did instead: built our own vessel from scratch, the Type 45. Theoretically it has a slightly better air defence system, the French Aster missiles (we call them Sea Viper) combined with the Sampson radar. But this is only theoretical – the American system has been much more vigorously tested – and to be honest neither system would be likely to stop a concentrated attack by the latest Russian supersonic missiles. Certainly the American system – with double the number of missiles – would easily see off the sort of third world enemies we like to fight these days such as Iraq or Libya, and would also make short work of the Argentine air force. Indeed, a single Arleigh Burke would rout the entire Argentine Navy and air force – the former would never even leave port before getting blasted to scrap by the cruise missiles, and if it did the Harpoon missiles outrange the exocet twice over. It has more air defence missiles than the Argentine air force has planes.

The Type 45, by contrast, has nothing like the weapons suite the AB has, carries only a single helicopter and has a much inferior main gun. Including development it costs about twice the amount per vessel, give or take, and of course took years to develop, during which time we could have completed ten ABs which would have been in service for years, with much money saved.

Example 3: the Eurofighter. We decided to develop this in the mid 1980s. We could have bought off the shelf F-15 Eagles, available at reasonable rates, in service very quickly. No F-15 has ever been shot down by enemy aircraft – no surprise, since they are effectively missile buses, and carry better missiles than anyone else, deployed with better radars. With the colossal sums saved, we could have splashed out on transport helicopters, desperately needed in every single operation ever, most of all Afghanistan. The F-15 would be a perfectly serviceable aircraft until the introduction of the JSF. For the Navy we could have bought perfectly adequate F-18s.

What we did instead: built our own design over decades, frittering away billions, and ending up with a not-very-multi-role aircraft enormously expensive to fly.

Example 4: transport aircraft. We are presently locked in with a ludicrously expensive airbus project, which has soaked up much money and built nothing. In the meantime we are leasing a few of the superb American C-17s – a giant aircraft with a tremendous range and payload.

What we could have bought instead: more C-17s and, for in-theatre operations, more Hercules.

Example 5: Apache helicopters. We didn’t really need these at all, an overrated aircraft that proved vulnerable to simple ground fire in Iraq.

What we could have h

ad: modified light turboprop training aircraft. They can stay in the air much longer, and can easily carry machine guns, cannon, rockets and missiles like the Apache. They can fly in Afghanistan with ease, and from dirt tracks. They can be fitted with the Apache avionics if needed. They fly much higher and faster than helicopters so are less vulnerable. They were used with good effect in Vietnam on similar lines, so no-one needed hindsight to work any of this out.

Alternatively (or as well) we could have purchased many drones, eg the US Predator. These stay in the air for even longer, use a tiny amount of fuel, and have the priceless advantage that if they are shot down no pilot or crew will die. The only disadvantage over the modified trainer aircraft is that they lack the Mk 1 human eyeball.

What we did: we tried to build the Apaches ourselves, soaked up billions in doing so, and therefore use them because we have them. We also deploy fast jets to Afghanistan – colossally expensive to deploy in Afghanistan, fuel hungry and absurdly unnecessary for use against the Taliban.

Example 6: Chinook helicopters. We desperately need these, always have and always will for every theatre. They are brilliantly robust, have a great payload, and thanks to two main engines are the only helicopters which can fly without difficulty in Afghanistan.

What we could have had: lots of them, if we’d saved money as above and bought them off the shelf from the Americans. Dozens of lives would have been saved by moving men in Chinooks rather than IED-vulnerable vehicles. Of course Chinooks can be shot down, and one was with a tragically high death count in Afghanistan not long after Bin Laden’s death, but far fewer men have died in helicopters than by IEDs, and also the IED threat has absorbed tremendous monetary costs as well as terrible stress on troops trying to counter them.

What we did: We tried to put in our own software, against Boeing’s advice. It didn’t work. We had to leave them in a shed for years.

Example 7: defending the Falklands. Having made the effort to recapture them, the least we could do was hold on to them, with a stronger garrison than before.

What we could have done: install Sea Harriers, proven in the theatre, at Port Stanley airport, with a battalion of troops to protect them. This would have sufficed to see off a special forces landing by Argentina. The Sea Harriers could have countered any air or sea threat, although the hint of a nuclear submarine in the region would prevent a seaborne landing of any size.

What we did instead: listened to the RAF. Sadly the RAF decided that it had missed out on too much of the glory in the South Atlantic, contributing only the minor Vulcan raids, ground attack Harriers and otherwise running a taxi service. (This did not stop it heaping awards on the airmen responsible whilst ignoring the Fleet Air Arm, which actually did the fighting in the air.) Fast jets could not operate from Stanley, so the RAF got a brand new glittering base nowhere near. It has then, at enormous cost, operated Phantom, Tornado and now Eurofighter jets there. This is painfullly vulnerable as a target, whereas Sea Harriers, with VTOL capability, could be dispersed around the Islands if hostilities were threatened.

There are many more examples, of course (I haven’t even mentioned the aircraft carrier fiasco), but for space and time reasons I will leave it there.

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2 Responses to “Ageing Albion comments on Defence Procurement”

  1. The Engineer says:

    As mentioned in the post on closing down oil refineries, defence equipment procurement has to be at the centre of any national strategy for industry. Without successful industry capable of exporting enough to pay for imports, we will not be able to afford any decent equipment for the Armed Forces. If over the last 30 years or so our manufacturing industry had been per capita the size of Germany’s, i.e. about double its present size, we could have afforded a defence equipment budget today of £40 billion per year rather than £20 billion per year and most of the procurement disasters would have been avoided.

    So for defence and everything else, all hinges on the strength and size of British industry. If we simply buy the best on offer from the Americans all the time, British industry will disappear.

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  2. Ageing Albion says:

    We certainly need a strong national industry, and it is logical that the defence policy forms part of that. But I disagree that many of the procurement disasters were the result of insufficient funds. Instead they were as often as not the result of poor strategic decisions and abysmal performance by those given the task of negotiating defence contracts on behalf of the MoD.

    As to the former, the three services expend much energy competing with each other over the budget and, when they do get any cash, spend it on large shiny pieces of kit that look good on demonstration and would have been useful in the Cold War, but are of questionable value for actual campaigns and are in any event rarely value for money. The Eurofighter is the obvious example; one could add the Type 45 destroyer and the Challenger Tank. As mentioned in the post, those at the sharp end of Britain’s wars of the past 30 years would have asked for transport helicopters first and foremost, ground attack/surveillance aircraft (turboprop or drones) second, and cruise missiles instead of strategic bombers to avoid the suicide runs the Tornado had to undertake in the 1991 Gulf War.

    As to the procurement staff debacles, one good example is represented by the fact that the National Audit Office slammed those responsible for the Chinook disaster, where approximately £500m was spent on eight helicopters – a ruinous scandal when one considers how many the money should have bought.

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