Friday, 7 August 2009

A common enemy

David Hughes, The Daily Telegraph's chief leader writer, is waxing outraged about Quentin Davies, complaining that he is blaming defence procurement delays and cost overruns on a government of which he was actually a member.

Thus, in what Hughes calls "a shameless piece of sophistry", he has Davies identifying "the real problem" in as the last Conservative Government which had made such a mess "that we are still living with the consequences."

Hughes really cannot get to grips with this as, in order to dismiss Davies's point, he splutters: "The last Tory government shuffled off into the wilderness more than 12 years ago. That's the equivalent of the Second World War, twice over. And it's still to blame?"

People like Hughes or, of course, far too grand to read blogs – other than their own - but he would have benefited greatly from reading one of our pieces written on 20 July 2006 where we noted that a then-emerging defence "funding gap" raised ...

... important questions about the very nature of our democracy, arising from the lengthening period between ordering military hardware and taking delivery. We are getting to the situation where typical procurement cycles are longer than the length of several parliaments, so that one government can make huge spending commitments which may have to be met by a completely different government.
That effectively the point to which Davies was alluding and, while he placed it in a party political context, it is a good one. Any number of projects with which the Labour administration have had to deal with (and fund) were originated during the tenure of the last Conservative government. These include the Eurofighter, the Merlin helicopter, the Type 45 project, the Nimrod MR4, the medium armoured vehicle project(s) and even the A-400M, to say nothing of the failure of the UAV project, with the purchase of the Phoenix.

Cited in particular by Davies was the Chinook debacle, about which Hughes is so dismissive, yet this was indeed a Tory failure. Strangely, while we have discussed this in previous posts, we have never set down an analysis of what precisely went wrong, but it is only from this knowledge that one can see the full extent of the Tory culpability.

Revisiting the issue therefore, we can recall that the problems go right back to July 1995. Then, the MoD, under Michael Portillo, decided that eight of 14 Chinook HC Mk2 helicopters on order from Boeing should be delivered to an enhanced (HC Mk3) standard, to meet the emerging requirement for a dedicated Special Forces support helicopter.

The point at this stage was that, instead of the standard troop-carrying version, the MoD could have bought the special Chinook MH-47Es, which had been designed specifically by the US for special forces operations. But these were considered too expensive so, as a cost-cutting measure, Portillo agreed that eight airframes should be converted – to a lower standard, incidentally, which would not match the MH-47E and would not even meet known special forces requirements.

Therefore, right from the very start, the project was dictated by cost-cutting, with a "bastardised hybrid solution" devised to give the new helicopters a basic capability at minimum extra cost.

Thus, while the new aircraft were to have improved range and navigation capability, and be fitted with night vision sensors and a new weather radar, the MoD decided to shoehorn new, state-of-the-art digital systems into the existing, old-technology analogue cockpit.

With a projected cost of £259 million for the eight aircraft, the "In-Service Date" (defined as delivery of the first six aircraft) was set for November 1998, with the contract for the avionics upgrade agreed in early 1997, one of the last acts of the dying Major government. In the hot seat then as procurement minister was James Arbuthnot, now chairman of the defence committee.

Unfortunately, only when the conversion work was actually in progress was it discovered that the displays for the weather radar and other systems would not fit inside the existing cockpit, requiring extensive re-working.

This, then was the situation that the Labour administration inherited in May 1997, with the new defence secretary, then George Robertson, having no option but to agree a redefined In-Service Date for a programme which was now slipping badly. Thus, in March 1998, only eight months before the helicopters were due in service, a new ISD was set for January 2002.

Seven of the eight aircraft were actually delivered between July 2001 and May 2002, but then the real problems began to emerge. The aircraft had to be certified for safety before they could be used on operations and it had been assumed that since the systems and displays in the HC Mk 3 cockpit were based upon those fitted to the Royal Netherlands Air Force's advanced CH-47D Chinooks, there could be a "read-across" on the basis of similarity with the Dutch avionics.

Therein lay the real disaster. So many changes had been made that the new hybrid digital/analogue cockpit was now unique. This meant that the software used to make it function had to be fully tested, as of new, in order to the prevailing defence safety standards.

And no one had thought to specify in the contract (agreed in 1997 by the Tories) that software documentation and code for avionics systems should be analysed in accordance with UK defence standards in order to demonstrate software integrity. As a result it was not possible to demonstrate that the helicopter's flight instruments meet the required United Kingdom Defence standards.

Much is then made of the fact that, initially, the manufacturers, Boeing, were reluctant to allow access to the source codes that would allow the systems to be analysed, but they did eventually relent. But that could not resolve the problem.

The process of proving that the software met UK standards was itself time-consuming and extremely expensive. Moreover, because the legacy software in the hybrid cockpit was not amenable to the techniques required to confirm the robustness of new software design there was no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Consequently, the Chinook HC Mk3 was restricted to day/night flying above 500 feet, clear of cloud, and in circumstances that ensured that the pilot could fly the aircraft solely using external reference points and without relying on the flight displays. These restrictions meant that the helicopters could not be used except for the most limited flight trials.

This left the Labour government with an extremely difficult situation, the only option then to do exactly what is now being done - to strip out the new work and restore the helicopters to their original condition, at a cost originally estimated at about £127 million, over and above the £259 million originally estimated.

With that, the helicopters could have entered service in mid-2007 - nine years later than the original In-Service Date, and five years after the revised date. But even then, with dithering in the ranks of the MoD while all possible alternatives were explored – including scrapping the aircraft and using them for spares - it was not until last year that Des Browne bit the bullet and ordered them to be refitted.

Technically, therefore, the bulk of the blame for the problem – and certainly the extra costs – lies with Tory ministers. In fact, though, no lay minister could possibly be expected to second-guess a highly technical contract, and spot the missing details. They were – as are their successors – totally reliant on their expert technical advisors.

However, had not the Tories decided to cut costs and taken the safer route of buying off-the shelf, none of this would have happened. To that extent, political blame does rest with Tory ministers. But as to the technical decisions made subsequently, these are not party political issues. The system failed, as it has done before and since, and will continue to fail until it is reformed.

To that extent, Labour and Conservatives have a problem in common – the MoD. It is, in effect, the common enemy, something that David Hughes, if he had any sense, would recognise.