Thursday 19 April 2007

It's all too complicated

There are two good readers' letters in The Daily Telegraph which, in more innocent times, would have us storming the barricades, exuding righteous indignation at the way our troops are being let down.

The first letter, on the face of it, is straightforward enough, from the father of a senior NCO serving in Afghanistan in an infantry unit. He – the NCO, that is – complains about a continuing shortfall of equipment. This is not the expensive equipment like helicopters but Land-Rovers, heavy machine-guns and radio equipment, all basic stuff.

This has come by way of a letter from the soldier himself, he being cited as writing: "You do not deploy on the ground unless you have the right kit and enough of it, but it does mean that, instead of three patrols going out, only two can, because they have had to rob/borrow equipment from the third patrol, which then becomes undeployable."

And from this, the soldier's father – a Mr Edward Trinder from Plymouth – concludes, of the MoD: "Only a grossly incompetent and underfunded government department could expect well trained and loyal soldiers to carry out their duties effectively under such circumstances."

Undoubtedly, the problems identified exist, but simply to put shortages down to "underfunding", much less "incompetence", may be over-simplistic – and even grossly inaccurate.

In the first instance, we do not know whether these are local shortages, or more widespread, indicative of major, structural inadequacies. And if they are widespread, we also know – not least from a much more open (and adult) Canadian media that military equipment in Afghanistan is taking a battering, suffering far more wear and tear than was anticipated, in the exceptionally rigorous conditions in which the troops have to operate.

Even the fabled RG-31 Nyalas have had their share of problems and, at one stage, more than a quarter of the fleet was in the shop with maintenance problems.

On top of this, we know from diverse sources that the Army is having trouble recruiting and keeping trained vehicle mechanics. As a result, field repair facilities are constantly stretched, with units suffering backlogs and excessive delays in getting their vehicles serviced and repaired. One could say, here that this is an Army problem except that, if you talk to major civilian fleet servicing operations in the UK, they will also tell you they have considerable difficulties recruiting and keeping staff.

As to the machine guns, there have also been serviceability problems here, in part due to the heavier rate of use than was originally anticipated.

When it comes to radio equipment, we are talking Bowman here – something of a procurement disaster, although there are other factors. Part of the problem is the speed of technological development and the continually changing demands on such equipment, with the result that, throughout its development, the Bowman project has been plagued with constantly changing specifications.

This is not to say that the MoD is not incompetent, or that there is no underfunding, although it would be hard to sustain a claim that Bowman has been kept short of cash. The project is grossly over-spent. What it does say is that there is often more to an issue than can be explained by a few simple buzz-words. The reality is often much more complex, and the solutions equally so.

Cue, therefore, the second letter, this one from Dan Lewis, Research Director of the Economic Research Council in London. He writes:

It's just not enough to say we need to spend more on defence. We have to get value for money, too. This won't happen until the MoD scraps the civil service's indifference to the costs of procurement in the face of political-industrial pressures. Otherwise, Britain will continue to obtain the wrong equipment, at inflated prices and a terrible cost in service lives.
This was more or less one of the points that Ian Liddell-Grainger, the Tory MP for Bridgwater, tried to make in a Westminster Hall debate last Tuesday, picking up on the upgrade programme for the RAF's Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft – heavily delayed and massively over budget.

Liddle-Grainger questioned why the Comet airframe had been retained, an aircraft they stopped flying commercially, he said, "when I was in short trousers". But the minister, Adam Ingram, had an easy answer. The contract was placed in 1996, he said. "That is something for which I do not have responsibility," he noted, then adding for further emphasis, "I am referring to 1996, a date before the present Government came into office."

That points up another major complication – that procurement processes are now so long that, quite often, they transcend the normal electoral cycle. New administrations have to take on commitments agreed by their predecessors, and then make commitments that have to be fulfilled by their successors. Opposition spokesmen are often compromised because, in office, their parties have been involved in the decisions of which they would wish to complain.

All of this makes military procurement one of the most difficult subjects both governments and oppositions have to deal with, and one of the most difficult to follow from outside the loop.

But now for the good news. Although it has been evident for some time, we now learn that the Conservative opposition, under the Boy Cameron, has set its face against tackling any hard-edged defence issues. Its spokesmen have been instructed to concentrate on the "soft" issues like service family housing, medical facilities and the like. We need no longer be troubled with debates and question on matters like procurement. It's all too complicated for the likes of the Boy.