Thursday, 8 November 2007

How about value for money?

The soft-spoken, eminently "reasonable" Lord Guthrie, former chief of the defence staff, led the charge this morning, with a long interview on the BBC Today programme this morning, getting an easy ride from the deferential John Humprys – all to deliver a very simple message: give us more money!

The hook for this particular exercise in rattling the collecting tin was the launch of the UK National defence association, which also offers a worthy "founding document" on its website.

Says Guthrie to the uncritical Humphrys, "Defence has been underfunded – I think everybody who's involved in defence really understands that," and one can almost see the sage nod of agreement from the BBC's pre-eminent current affairs guru, as the former CDS lays out his case.

The story is then picked up on the BBC website and rushed onto numerous media websites, not least The Daily Telegraph - and many more.

The Telegraph rehash, however, is interesting in that it juxtaposes the Guthrie story with a reference to a report in today's paper. This retails "fresh doubts" over the safety of the Nimrod after "it emerged that a plane put out a Mayday call over Afghanistan on Monday when crew discovered fuel pouring into the bomb bay." The incident, says the paper, appears to mirror the events that led to the death of 14 servicemen when a Nimrod exploded in mid-air last year, after its crew had found fuel leaking during refuelling.

That story, however – as we pointed out - goes to the heart of the defence spending debate, yet is one which the likes of Guthrie and the media are not even beginning to address – the issue of value for money.

The clue, though, lies not in the Telegraph but in a more comprehensive report in The Times published yesterday. This adds to the detail provided by Mick Smith of the Sunday Times that the pressure to keep the Nimrods flying stemmed from their "capability to feed real-time video surveillance of the battlefield direct to commanders on the ground".

In our comment on Smith's piece, we remarked that the very same capability could be provided far more cheaply by different assets, not least the Britten Norman Defender, three of which were purchased by the Army in 2003 (pictured above), the whereabouts of which are currently unknown.

Now, we do not know the operating costs of Nimrods (although we are attempting to find out) but would be surprised if it was less than £100,000 per hour. Times six – the number based in Oman in support of ground operations in Afghanistan - and that represents a huge tranche of money to provide a capability which the Defenders could deliver, at £1,500 per hour.

This one example puts the whole question of "underfunding" into perspective yet, cited by The Telegraph is Winston Churchill, former Tory MP and grandson of the Second World War leader, who told GMTV earlier today that the shortfall in spending is "…why people are flying in Nimrod aircraft that should have been phased out 10 years ago and why other frontline troops don't have sufficient equipment."

To give another, highly topical example, there is general accord that the operations in Afghanistan are critically short of helicopter lift capacity, to which effect the MoD has acquired six Merlin helicopters, originally sold to the Danish. Even this provides no immediate relief, as they will not be in service until next year and, only now, through the good offices of Ann Winterton, do we know how much they are costing.

According to a Parliamentary answer, the total cost of the helicopters is £176 million, putting the cost per individual aircraft at £29.3 million. At nearly £30 million each – which accounts partly for the huge hourly cost of £34,000 an hour – compare this with the purchase price of a refurbished "as new" Huey of $3.5 million (less than £2 million each) or the operating cost of a Mi-8 (equivalent in load capacity to the Merlin) at £2,500 per hour.

On a completely different tack, we have applauded the MoD and Army for – at last – fielding Warriors in Afghanistan (illustrated below) which, in a very short space of time, have managed to clear the upper Helmand valley of the Taliban. Yet, how many operations have there been conducted in this area of operations – some amounting to 1,000 plus men - which had been unsuccessful, the territory having subsequently been reoccupied by the Taleban. What has been the cost of these failed operations?

And, on that basis, how can the Armed Forces, which are so profligate with their spending seriously complain of "underfunding"?

There are so many other examples of waste and inefficiency in the Forces – which run throughout this blog – that the idea of giving them more money, under current circumstances, is equivalent to giving a drunk more money because he has spent the housekeeping on booze. Give the Services more money and – pound to a penny – they will simply rush out and buy more expensive new "toys" with little thought to their contribution to operational efficiency.

That is the element missing from the current debate, one consistently ignored by the media. We hear so much of the "military covenant" – about what we, as society, owe our troops who risk their lives on our behalf. But there is another "covenant" between the taxpayer and the defence establishment. We pay them but their obligation is to provide value for money.

Thus, General Lord Guthrie, plus Admiral Lord Boyce and Marshal of the RAF Lord Craig, together with former foreign secretary Lord Owen, may think they are doing the right thing in launching their UK National Defence Association. But until they can come forward with some sensible, balancing ideas of how money could be more effectively spent, their campaign for a "major increase in defence spending" lacks credibility.