UK defense procurement strategy wastes billions of pounds and puts lives at risk
Ministry of Defense procurement projects that are over budget or on schedule seldom make the headlines. It happens so often that you have to wonder if costly delays are written in the fine print by the commercial arm of the Department of Defense, Defense Equipment and Support. The acquisition of the Ajax infantry fighting vehicle is only the latest.
Ajax is the name of a family of military vehicles manufactured by General Dynamics UK, which won a competition to provide the British Army’s Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) category in 2010. More than 10 different variants were planned, and there was an upfront payment of £ 500million – the MoD rarely plays with small numbers – for a demonstration phase contract.
To a layman, this is all ancient history. In 2010, we were engaged in two campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and our combat capability was a worn and tired arsenal. Everything was justified as an urgent operational need. While the British soldiers were in danger, the purse strings of the Treasury were not so much loosened as they were completely withdrawn.
Now, 11 years later, Ajax was due to be delivered in 2017 and deployed to frontline units by last summer. In fact, 14 vehicles have been delivered and are being tested, but leaked reports suggest a myriad of issues. Ajax suffers from such bad vibrations that the soldiers inside suffer from nausea, swollen joints and tinnitus. They must wear noise-canceling headphones and are limited to a maximum of 105 minutes at a time.
The vehicles were limited to 20 mph, only slightly faster than the controversial electric scooters that are expected to be rolled out on the streets of London. Turrets cannot fire while the vehicle is moving, and it cannot back up over obstacles greater than 20 cm.
The Ministry of Defense signed a £ 3.5bn contract with General Dynamics in 2014 for some 589 vehicles, while the entire program is expected to cost £ 5.5bn. It is money that has been committed or paid, and the Defense Ministry currently has nothing in operational terms to show for it. Not a single combat-ready vehicle.
The House of Commons defense committee, chaired by Tobias Ellwood, a former regular soldier, examined the capacity of the army’s armored vehicles in a report released in March. Disturbingly, it was titled Obsolescent and outdated. He called the situation “deplorable” and claimed to have discovered a “dismal history of bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general incompetence”.
These are harsh words, even for a committee that has a proven track record of ruthless honesty. And these are people who know the territory: Ellwood was Minister of Defense under Theresa May, and four other committee members served in the Department of Defense. They concluded that the military “shamefully” offered to send its troops into combat “in a suit of obsolete or even obsolete armored vehicles, most of which were at least 30 years old or older.” The danger to reputation was implicit but obvious. If the lions were not led but equipped by donkeys, there would be no doubt as to the fault.
Defense purchases in the UK are a litany of budget overruns, wasted money and desperate timetables. The RAF found itself with a major capacity gap and wasted between £ 3.5 billion and £ 4 billion following the scrapping of the maritime patrol aircraft, the Nimrod MRA4. The plane never saw service. The money was spent by the Department of Defense without any operational benefit. The Infantry Fighting Vehicle Warrior upgrade program cost almost £ 500million but was canceled in the recent integrated overhaul.
It cannot continue. The system is broken and it is not only costing taxpayers billions of pounds of money, but also lives. In 2007, the government merged the Defense Procurement Agency and the Defense Logistics Organization into a single agency, Defense Equipment and Support. The workforce is split between civilians and military at around 80:20.
The head of DE&S should be the purchasing manager and have clear responsibility. Currently, no one takes responsibility for it. Senior Defense Ministry officials spend billions of pounds and their judgment must be refined by being held accountable for failures.
Ben Wallace, Secretary of Defense, should view the integrated review as year zero for purchases. Shake up DE&S, change the culture, make it more responsible and bring tough-headed negotiators to take on the defense industry. Bomber Harris said not all cities in Germany are worth the bones of a British grenadier. The question is, Ben: what are they worth?