Thursday 29 July 2004

FRES – the political implications

Following our Blog on Hoon’s wonder-child, the "Future Rapid Effects System" (FRES), further study and discussion has brought to the fore the considerable political implications of this new military system.

In short, we are looking at 21st Century technology for what now seems to be rather quaintly called our "warfighting community". It amounts to a series of armoured fighting and support vehicles, all based on a common module. Each vehicle is equipped with an extraordinarily sophisticated electronics, the whole forming a fully integrated network so that all the units can communicate instantly with each other, share information, and transmit it back to the command echelons.

So much for the technology, but what makes this important politically is that the system is so hugely expensive that it is beyond the capability of the UK to fully find and develop it on its own. It must either tap into an existing programme – and the only other game in town is the US "Future Combat System" (FCS) - or collaborate with European partners.

Seemingly, without there having been any open debate on the issue – and certainly none that we can see in Parliament – a decision seems to have been made that we will throw our lot in with the Europeans, which means that the US and EU member states will be developing rival systems.

Several issues devolve from this. The first is one of inter-operability – whether the two rival systems can work alongside each other, and whether even they can communicate with each other. Again, there seems to have been no open debate on this issue either but, if the systems cannot be integrated on the battlefield, it means that British forces can no longer operate alongside US forces in any meaningful way. Multilateral operations will be only be possible alongside forces with similar – i.e., compatible – equipment, which would mean that we are locked into working only with our EU partners.

Secondly, although our forces will be almost reliant on highly sophisticated equipment, we will not have total control over its manufacture, or even critical sub-systems – such as the satellite navigation and positioning systems – on which the operational system depends. Nor indeed will we necessarily have control of critical components of the system itself, such as the software codes that makes it work.

As an indication of the sophistication of these types of system, the US FCS is estimated to require 34 million lines of software code, five times more than the Joint Strike Fighter, which so far is the largest defence undertaking in terms of software to be developed.

An analogy is buying a desktop computer – which has an operating system like Windows – but having no access to the operating system and being unable to repair it if it goes wrong. That is fine if you can get a "man" in to fix it, but not so good if it drives combat-critical systems which are under the control of other national political systems, which may or may not allow the release of vital data – or hardware – when it is most needed.

One must no forget, in this context, that the Belgians refused to supply ammunition to British forces during the first Gulf War and, while we were able to circumvent that bit of unpleasantness, it is wholly a different matter when we are relying on unique source codes of huge complexity that can only be obtained from one source.

In short, reliance on our European partners for this technology – albeit on a collaborative basis – could mean not only that we can only operate with their forces, but also that we lose our ability to operate independently, if our partners disapprove.

All of this – without a single debate on the implications – seems to be bringing Mr Monnet’s dream of European integration to fruition in a manner that he could not even have imagined. When, in 1950, he persuaded French foreign minister Maurice Schuman, to launch the European Coal and Steel Community, his idea was that by integrating the two industries (then) essential to making war, he would deprive individual member states of the independent means of making war.

Over fifty years later, dream seems to be coming true, as the equipment different armies of the EU member states is becoming so integrated, and nations so dependent on each other for that equipment, that no single member state will have the ability to conduct military operations without the permission of the others.

That may be all very well and good, but should not we have had at least a debate about it before Hoon committed us to yet another massive round of European integration?