Sunday 25 November 2007

They really don't get it

Aside from the torrent of defence related "news" and comment in the Sunday newspapers today, tucked into the business section of The Sunday Times (spotted by a gimlet-eyed reader) is a short piece on FRES.

As one would expect, this is presented in an entirely negative fashion, the headline reading, "Army hit by MoD delaying tactics" as the story records that the MoD is this week "expected to fudge a long-awaited decision on a new generation of fighting vehicles for the British Army."

We thus learn that, although and announcement had been expected on the choice of the FRES utility vehicle, the evaluation period had been extended instead. It is rumoured that two contenders, the Piranha and the French VBCI, will be taken forward, with the Boxer being dropped.

The delay is put down to a dispute between the now departed Lord Drayson, who was "understood to be eager to buy the French vehicle" and the military who wanted the Piranha.

However, while that may be the case in the short-term, the fact of the delay is very convenient for a government which is strongly rumoured to be considering cutting one or other of the major procurement projects in the pipeline, with FRES a possible candidate for the chop.

With that possibility extant, one might have thought that any defence correspondent worth his salt would have homed in on this snippet and made something of it. As usual though, FRES seems to be a complete blind spot and news of the project is confined to the business pages of a single newspaper.

This is all the more bizarre in the context of the current controversy over defence spending, where abandoning this project altogether would be of significant assistance in helping the MoD balance its books.

Instead of sniping at the MoD for the delay – as The Times report does – correspondents should be asking whether the project is really necessary. With the Mastiff proving an unexpected success in Afghanistan, being used successfully as an armoured personnel carrier in the assault role, and with over 700 Warriors still on the Army’s books – with an upgrade in progress, it would seem that the last thing the Army needs at the moment is a new armoured personnel carrier (APC).

If there is a gap in the order of battle, it is for a light reconnaissance and patrol vehicle to replace the ageing Scorpion and replace the dangerously vulnerable WIMIK Land Rover. Not since the 1920s has the Army been without a light armoured car, with the roles of the Ferret and then the Fox currently shared between Land Rovers and Scorpions.

Yet, although a new reconnaissance vehicle is part of the FRES package, it is taking second place to the "utility" vehicle – the APC.

The only possible rationale for the utility vehicle – which would not provide as much protection as the Mastiff yet cost a great deal more – is to provide the rapid reaction component for our contribution to the ERRF – neither the Mastiff nor the Warrior being air-portable.

Here again though, there are questions, as the projected weight of any vehicle chosen is likely to prevent it being transported by the Hercules fleet, requiring the introduction of the Airbus A400M to provide sufficient airlift capacity. Even then, this may not prove possible as there are indications that the Airbus may not be able to meet its design specification.

But, possibly, an even bigger threat are the major problems being experienced by Airbus industries with the strength of the dollar. With this savagely eroding the company's profits, there is some question as to whether it could even afford to build the A400M without sustaining massive losses on the fixed-price contract.

The spectre exists, therefore, of the Army acquiring an air-portable (just) vehicle without the RAF having the capacity to fly it anywhere, rather negating its utility – if it had any to start with.

All this amounts to a powerful argument for walking away from the FRES project – investing some of the funds liberated in more MRAP-type vehicles, which seems to be happening anyway.

But, while that may be the most sensible option, you can bet that any announcement of a FRES cancellation will be greeted with a storm of outraged protest, not least from the defence correspondents who will, once again, be demonstrating that they really don't get it.