By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- A new argument is gaining ground to justify a wholesale review of European defense spending: governments, the argument goes, are spending so much money on outdated “prestige” weapons that they have no money to buy the equipment that is so badly needed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The proposed solution: kill big-ticket programs like Eurofighter, aircraft carriers and submarines and use the savings to buy armoured vehicles and other kit to fight today’s counter-insurgency wars.
Inevitably, this argument is most often made in Britain, which has over 5,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not exclusively so. In France, in the run-up to an expected new round of defense spending cuts, major procurement programs like Rafale, the new aircraft carrier, the Barracuda-class SSN or the FREMM future frigate are also accused of starving other projects allegedly better suited to “the new strategic environment.”
These arguments don’t wash.
The special equipment needed in South West Asia is basic, relatively inexpensive and easily available. A case in point is the British Army’s new Mastiff protected patrol vehicle, which costs less than $500,000 – a bargain by military standards, and pocket change when compared to the UK’s annual defense procurement budget of over $13 billion.
If troops lack proper equipment it is because of incompetent management which first stretches out weapon programs to save money, and then cuts production numbers to restore affordability. This creates a vicious circle that, as shown by the latest UK parliamentary report on weapons procurement, generates endless cost overruns and delays.
British defense procurement has a long history of big-ticket failures, but it has also failed with smaller equipment. Reports of British soldiers in Iraq having to buy civilian boots because standard-issue boots were useless in the desert were rife three or four years ago. There is still a blatant lack of helicopters in Afghanistan, especially of battlefield utility models for liaison, reconnaissance, and medical evacuation, yet MoD buys additional Merlins and Chinooks. And MoD’s belated handling of the protected patrol vehicle acquisition merits special mention.
Although soldiers were being killed while riding on unprotected “Snatch” Land Rovers, MoD waited fully three years to announce – in July 2006 – that it would buy Mastiffs, which offer effective protection from mines and IEDs. It then took another eight months (to March 1, 2007) for the first Mastiffs to arrive in Basra.
It is worth noting that the US Marine Corps received its first MRAPs in 2004, so the need for such vehicles was abundantly clear back then. It also is worth noting that, when Dutch troops began taking casualties from IEDs, they arranged with Australia to borrow (and buy) some Bushmaster protected vehicles – which were deployed in a matter of weeks, not years.
And, in one of the most inane procurement decision in recent memory, MoD last week signed a £30 million contract to buy new MWMIK (Mobility Weapons Mounted Installation Kit) patrol vehicles, which are distinguished by their total lack of armor protection and by a design that sits the crew directly above the wheels, right in the center of a landmine’s explosion cone.
Incidentally, it should be noted that MoD tried to “spin” these announcements for far more than they are worth. While on July 26, 2006 Defence Secretary Des Browne told Parliament that MoD had ordered “around 100” Mastiffs, it had in fact only ordered 86. MoD then waited until mid-March 2007 (why?) to order an additional 22, according to Force Protection, Inc., the manufacturer. MoD did not bother to announce this follow-on order, perhaps because it would have revealed its “creative” approach to information management.
In terms of cost, MoD to date has spent $130 million to buy new patrol vehicles ($70 million for the 108 Mastiffs and £30 million ($60m) for the new MWMIKs) plus an undisclosed amount to buy “around 100 additional” Vectors and to up-armor a number of 1960s-vintage FV430 tracked personnel carriers - say $250 million for the lot.
Compared to the annual $13.5 billion that Britain spends on defense procurement, these $250 million are little more than a drop in the ocean.
Another example of MoD’s effectiveness is its reaction to the January 2005 loss of a C-130 transport aircraft, which exploded and crashed after its fuel tanks were hit by ground fire. It then emerged that the RAF’s C-130s are not fitted with fire-resistant fuel tanks.
An emergency program was duly launched to retrofit the entire fleet. Yet, the Independent reported Sept. 8 that by October 2006 (i.e., 18 months later) only two out of 40 Hercules had been upgraded. “Leaked documents showed that RAF pilots had requested the fuel safety device be fitted three years earlier,” the newspaper said.
Inevitably, the perception forms of a government reluctant to accept it is at war, and which does not feel the need to invest all the energy and money at its disposal to equip and support its troops. The fact that Defence Secretary Des Browne was given added responsibility for Scotland reinforces this view, implying as it does that running two wars and MoD’s bureaucracy at the same time is not enough to keep him busy.
In this respect the troops, service families, the Conservative opposition and public opinion have allowed the British government to get away with murder.