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Op-Ed: Procurement Bureaucracies Are Failing Combat Troops

PARIS --- Ostensibly equipped and prepared for high-intensity warfare in Central Europe, that is to say the most hostile combat environment imaginable, Western military forces have been shown to be inadequately equipped to fight the more primitive threats they are now encountering in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And, even more disquieting, their procurement bureaucracies have shown they are mostly incapable of quickly procuring the simple and relatively inexpensive equipment urgently needed to protect their troops, while their political masters went into denial mode.

The ongoing controversy regarding the equipment of British troops in Afghanistan, which prompted a full-scale rebuttal by UK Defence Secretary Des Browne of an article published by the Guardian newspaper, is but the latest episode in a sorry litany of failings by the Western powers to provide their troops with the equipment they need to carry out their missions.

The Guardian’s allegation that British “force levels and equipment are insufficient to meet the demands of a mission that has never been clearly articulated to the public” should have come as a surprise to no-one.

On Aug. 8, the House of Commons Defence Committee said in a report on UK Operations in Iraq that “deficiencies in equipment and capability gaps must be addressed by the MoD as a matter of priority even if that means opting for interim solutions,” while Chairman James Arbuthnot said the Committee was “disturbed by the deficiencies in equipment’ faced by British troops.

And, as far back as Nov. 19, 2004, the UK National Audit Office noted in a report on Operations in Iraq that the Ministry of Defence had “procured 312 Urgent Operational Requirements…at a cost of £658 million” to buy urgently-needed equipment it did not then have.

In another report issued in April 2004, the NAO also noted a “shortfall of 38% in British battlefield helicopter capabilities …which will persist until 2017-2018,” while existing helicopters suffer from equipment shortfalls that “are especially apparent in the areas of communications, helicopter protection, including sand filters, and nuclear, biological, and chemical protection for aircrew.”

The Pentagon has not escaped similar criticism. Press reports over the past three years or more have extensively chronicled how Humvee light patrol vehicles proved vulnerable to attack by rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices, causing the death of many US soldiers, while official-issue flak jackets and body armor proved so dangerously ineffective that the Marine Corps finally had to agree to reimburse soldiers for the more effective equipment they were forced to buy on the civil market.

The shortfalls are still being remedied, and the Pentagon continues almost daily to award contracts for add-on vehicle armor, up-armored Humvees, flak jackets, individual armor inserts and other protective items – four years and 2,600 military deaths after first deploying under-equipped troops to Afghanistan.

Like the Pentagon, Britain’s MoD has also been criticized for deploying lightly-armored vehicles (in this case, “Snatch” Land Rovers) which proved unable to protect their crews on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The criticism finally prompted Browne on July 24 to announce orders for 100 Vector (Pinzgauer-derived) protected patrol vehicles for Afghanistan, 70 extra up-armoured and upgraded FV430 troop carriers for Iraq, and around 100 new 'Mastiff' medium weight protected patrol vehicles, based on the Force Protection Inc 'Cougar', for both theatres. “These vehicles will be delivered as soon as they can be manufactured,” MoD said.

Explaining the delay, Browne said in an Aug. 10 statement that “sourcing and buying new vehicles, adapting them with additional armour and protective counter-measures, and delivering them to theatre all in a matter of months is no mean feat.”

In fact, it will take longer. Pinzgauer deliveries are to begin in 2007, while the Cougars will not be deployed before “the end of the year,” more than six months after MoD undertook to review its patrol vehicle deficiencies in June.

This raises the question of whether the UK, which invented “Smart Procurement,” and the US, which maintains the world’s largest defense procurement organisation, are capable of fast-tracking acquisition of equipment that is, literally, a life-and-death issue for their deployed troops.

The answer is clearly no, despite there being no shortage of funds in either country. The problem is that both countries’ defense procurement bureaucracies have become so focused on (mis)managing hugely expensive and decades-long major equipment projects that they are incapable of reacting quickly to urgent acquisition requests.

It is somewhat ironic that both are being shown up by the defence procurement arm of the Netherlands, one of NATO's smallest members. Tomorrow, Sept. 1, the Netherlands will take delivery of Australian-built ADI Bushmaster armored patrol vehicles that they bought off-the-shelf for their ISAF contingent in Afghanistan. The procurement process was launched on June 23, the contract for 25 vehicles was signed on July 28 and initial delivery is one month later – or two months in all - at a cost of 24.9 million euros.

Admittedly, the number of vehicles is small, and their immediate availability is due to the fact that the Australian Army agreed to waive its delivery positions. Nonetheless, this demonstrates that “where’s a will, there’s a way,” and Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan will certainly be more impressed by the backup they receive from their head office than either British or US troops, which have to buy their own personal kit and wait years for vehicles they can feel safe to patrol in.

This is another lesson of current combat operations in Central Asia: procurement bureaucracies are slow and ineffective when responding to urgent acquisition requests for relatively small-ticket items, especially in the case of off-the-shelf procurement.

To a degree, this is due to the cumbersome regulations that are intended to ensure that public procurement is fair and cost-effective, but when lives are at stake, negotiating a less-than-ideal deal for urgently-needed equipment seems an acceptable sacrifice.

Op-Ed: Procurement Bureaucracies Are Failing Combat Troops