Thursday 23 February 2006

The ultimate indignity

Not a murmur could be heard when the British Army decided to buy Austrian-built MAN trucks for its supply fleet, or Italian-built Panther liaison vehicles. That the new army is to be supplied with Swedish-designed armoured vehicles, fitted with French-built guns firing ammunition manufactured in France is a mere detail.

Who cares that our anti-battery radar is made in Germany, that the air-to-air missiles to equip the four-nation Eurofighter are French designed, as indeed are the missiles fitted to our Type 45 destroyers? And what does it matter that our new "bunker-buster" missiles are German, as indeed is the Royal Navy's mine-counter-measure equipment?

Why should we be bothered that we no longer have a capacity to design and manufacture even the rifles with which our troops go to war, that the bullets they fire are contracted out to foreign firms and the shells are made in Germany, while the troops themselves will fight in Chinese-made uniforms?

But there are limits chaps and, according to The Scotsman, those limits have been reached. "Shock! Horror! Probe!", screams The Scotsman: "Scots super-regiment to be kitted out in foreign kilts".

And right behind the newspaper is Jeremy Purvis, Borders MSP, who says, "The kilts are clearly going to be sub-standard. Now there will be different cuts and shades on parades and it will be an embarrassment. The ceremonial Scottish wear of kilts and trews should absolutely be made in Scotland."

In detail, it appears that the British Army has lowered the standards required of ceremonial kilts for the new amalgamated Scots regiment so that they may be manufactured from cheap tartan made abroad. In "an effort to drive down costs", the Ministry of Defence has announced it is putting the contract to produce tartan for the amalgamated Royal Regiment of Scotland up for tender.

It is also, says The Scotsman, lowering the standards of the tartan's quality to allow other companies producing cheaper, lower-grade cloth to compete against the expertise of Borders textile companies. The MoD has launched a competitive tender allowing any manufacturers to compete for the contract of 5,000 kilts, estimated to be worth £300,000, for the new regiment.

And there you have it. It is perfectly all right to have our armed forces totally in hoc to foreign suppliers, to such an extent that we cannot so much as put a foot ashore on a foreign land without their governments' agreement. But even think about having Scottish regiments in foreign-made kilts and all hell breaks loose.


Wednesday 22 February 2006

A MARS away…

In DefenseNews this week, we see a story headed: "No UK Shipyards Picked for MARS Program", a headline – or anything like it - I guarantee you will not appear in the MSM.

Very few people, in fact, will know anything of the MARS programme and many would be puzzled by the reference to shipyards, believing that it somehow related to an aspect of the space programme.

However, we are dealing with yet another of these awful acronyms which, in this case means "Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability", a £2.5 billion MoD project for replacing and upgrading the support fleet which keeps the Royal Navy supplied while at sea, examples of which are ilustrated.

What brings this project to the forefront is that, after a delay in the decision to award development contracts – which we reported last October - the MoD's Defence Procurement Agency (DPA) has now announced its selection of three companies to compete for the role of project integrator on the project.

Crucially, no British military shipbuilding company has been selected, the companies announced, reports DefenseNews, being the British project management company AMEC and two US giants: KBR, an offshoot of Halliburton; and Raytheon Systems. The UK shipbuilders BAE Systems and the VT Group were rejected. But then, so were the French-owned Thales UK, Maersk and Houlder Offshore.

The appointment of "project integrator", in itself, gives no clues as to where the ships will be built. The "integrator" is a fairly new development in defence procurement, involving a company which essentially acts as a surrogate purchaser for the MoD, pulling together all the disparate parts of a project and delivering the completed systems to their user – in this case the Royal Navy.

The "systems" we are looking at here is a complete fleet of logistic ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, although the numbers and types so far have not been defined. But it is expected that about eleven ships will be built, ranging from oil tankers to sophisticated forward aviation support vessels and joint sea-based logistic ships able to support expeditionary forces ashore.

And while it has not been which companies will build the ships, the strong suspicion is that they will be built offshore. Lord Drayson, stated on 15 February that British warship yards seeking the orders would have to achieve efficiency levels similar to commercial rivals overseas.

This, in effect, is a strong signal that these ships will be foreign-built, following the precedent set by the order of a fisheries protection vessel last year by the Scottish Executive, which went to a Polish shipyard in preference to a local Scottish firm.

Industry analysts say that, while BAE and VT have greatly improved efficiency, they cannot offset the substantial advantages commercial builders find in low-wage economies like Poland and Romania. In 2002, BAE delivered two 30,000-ton fleet tankers to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary for £110 million apiece. This time, the DPA has set aside only about £80 million for each of the 25,000-ton oilers.

This very much underlines the thinking set out in the recent Defence Industrial Strategy, which opened the door to less complex vessels like auxiliary and support vessels going overseas to reduce costs.

If, as expected, the construction does go offshore, to one or more European yards, it will mark yet another step in the gradual Europeanisation of our military supply programme.

The problem for us, on this blog, it that rational arguments can be expounded for this, and many other defence procurement projects being resourced offshore.

In this case, particularly, there is no question that Polish or other European yards would be able to build these ships far more cheaply than our domestic yards. Further, our remaining military shipbuilders are undoubtedly stretched by the current Type 45 programme and the coming carrier project, so it could be said that there is little spare capacity for this project.

Nevertheless, whatever the individual justifications for specific projects – each one of which may be valid taken in isolation – there is definitely an observable and undeniable trend.

Basically, the evidence that we have offered on this blog is that government is committed to Europeanising the equipment of our armed forces, in pursuit of which - whenever possible – it will purchase European-built (or designed) equipment, even where a domestic supplier is available or a non-European product is considerably cheaper or better-performing.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule, and these seems to be: i.) where there is no suitable equipment available from a European supplier; ii.) where the equipment is part of an overall "heritage" system, when changing over to a European supplier would cause massive disruption, technical difficulties or vastly increased expense; and iii.) where a European venture has failed to deliver and the equipment is urgently needed.

If the MARS ships do go to European yards, therefore, it does seem as if we will be looking at more of the same, the continuation of a real, but much denied policy of Europeanisation.


Thursday 2 February 2006

A retreat from defence

So it came to pass that yesterday, 18 months behind schedule and hugely over cost, that the first of the Type 45 Destroyers HMS Daring was launched on the Clyde, to fanfares and applause, in front of an audience of 11,000.

But, if the most expensive white elephant in the history of the Royal Navy has just been launched, you would have got no hint of that from the media, and especially from The Times, which headlined, "Navy launches deadliest and most expensive warship". And, according to The Times, it was "on time and within budget".

Even within the framework of its own story, The Times could not manage to be consistent, declaring in the first line that HMS Daring was "the first of the Royal Navy's £6 billion fleet of six Type 45 Destroyers", then stating further down that it had "a price tag of £605 million".

It then went on to state that the Type 45s "will be the most powerful, advanced and deadly warships in the world when they come into service in 2009", something which is simply and demonstrably not true.

For sure, it will have a highly advanced anti-aircraft system, based on the costly French-built PAAMS missile and British designed Samson radar, but very little else. It will have only a very limited land attack capability, mounting a 4.5 inch gun, and – apart from its single helicopter - an anti-submarine capability that amounts to no more than a self-defence system, and no anti-shipping capability.

Compare and contrast with the US equivalent, the DG Arleigh Burke class, which, in addition to its perhaps not quite as effective anti-aircraft capability (with nearly double the number of missiles) has a significant land attack capability - being able to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles - an anti-shipping capability and world-beating anti-submarine warfare equipment.

And not only is it truly a formidable, multi-purpose warship, it comes in, as the Australians found, at £400 million less than the £1 billion price tag for the Type 45.

But if The Times report was useless, it was matched in fatuity by the BBC, although it did manage to confine its hyperbole to describing HMS Daring as the UK's most powerful destroyer – which, when it comes into service, will be true, as it will be the only type of destroyer we have. The BBC too bought the "price tag of £605 million" line, but later giving the total programme cost for the six ships as £5.5bn.

The Sun, totally out of its depth, reported the cost as £6 billion – but for eight ships, not six, describing HMS Darling as "the deadliest ship ever built".

Even the dour Scotsman described it as "one of the world's most advanced warships" and then went on to call it a "multi-role ship", which it clearly is not in any realistic sense of the world.

As for The Telegraph, it called the ship, "the most powerful frontline warship since the Second World War", but at least limiting the description to "the world's most advanced air defence ship," then – for heaven's sake – calling it a boat, claiming that, according to BAE Systems, its builders, its "hugely powerful radar and missile system, has left American visitors to the yard 'shaken and shocked'". I think not.

It took Jane's to point out that this class of ship should have been in service in 2000, delayed by the abortive French-Italian co-operative venture, which cost us a small fortune when we had to refit the obsolescent Type 42s which should have been replaced.

The average MSM reader, however, will walk away thinking that Britain has been well served, not realising that, in a Navy that is shrinking faster than a bank balance in the hands of a shopaholic, we cannot afford the luxury of overpriced, effectively single-purpose ships. We could have had far more capable, multi-purpose ships, for a saving on six vessels of £2.4 billion – the price tag for a new carrier.

If we had a grown up media, these issues would have been raised but instead, in its infantile, pathetic way, all it has been able to do is affirm that its has retreated from reporting intelligently on defence issues.