Thursday, 18 December 2008

"Same old failings"

The starting point of this piece is the assertion that we will never get sensible military procurement until or unless MPs and the media start to take the subject seriously.

Only then, do we assume that they will make the effort to understand the issues and put the pieces together. And, if they do so, they will be able to target their criticisms accurately and fairly. But they must also come up with clear ideas of what should be done. There is no point whatsoever relying on the MoD – or the military. Time and time again, it has become demonstrably clear that they have very little idea of what they are doing.

The illustration of this broader thesis comes with today's media coverage of the annual National Audit Office (NAO) report on MoD project management, which has featured, amongst other things, the problems in bringing "Terrier" battlefield engineer vehicle into service – a project slated at £300 million, each vehicle costing £5 million.

The focus on this machine in the report has prompted three media articles dedicated specifically to the subject of the Terrier.

In no particular order, there is a piece by Chris Irvine, in The Daily Telegraph, another in the same paper (online both) by Thomas Harding and a piece in The Daily Mail by Matthew Hickley. Then, in each case there is comment by an MP, Edward Leigh, the Conservative chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

To understand the scale of the problem, we first have to look at each article individually. Then we need to look at the bigger picture, Leigh's response to the newspapers and the role of the NAO.

Taking Hickley's Mail piece first, the headline (which would not have been written by the author) proclaims: "Army forced to buy JCBs and paint them in camouflage colours to clear warzones." The message, however, accurately reflects the copy, which tells us:

Plans for new armoured bulldozers to help British troops to clear obstacles in warzones have been hit by such long delays that the Army has had to buy JCB diggers instead and paint them in camouflage colours.

This assertion is then reinforced by the picture (above), which shows a line of ordinary, commercial JCBs.

Taking that one point (we will return to the others) – that the Army is, in effect, using ordinary JCB diggers, with a new paint job - this is a cheap shot, and wholly wrong. The vehicles being bought are the state-of-the-art JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavator (HMEE) - pictured below, right.

They were purpose-designed, initially for the US Army and are custom-built military machines. Furthermore, the version to be fielded is armoured, which adds to the differences – although we have reservations about this, as these machines are not mine protected. Nevertheless, they bear no more relation to the civilian machine than does an Army truck to a Tesco delivery vehicle.

Moving on to Chris Irvine's Telegraph piece, he also writes in similar terms that "The Army had to buy JCB diggers and paint them to camouflage them after plans for new armoured bulldozers to clear warzones were met by long delays."

The issue we need to address here is the inference that the Army bought the HMEE because of the delays in procuring the "new armoured bulldozers" – the Terriers (picture, below left) to which the NAO report refers.

Once again the assertion is wrong. Although ostensibly based on the NAO report, that is not what the NAO actually says. The passage is here:

2.17 Terrier will replace the Combat Engineer Tractor that was withdrawn from service in March 2008 because of concerns about the safe integration and operation of the Bowman communications system, reliability and obsolescence problems. The delays to Terrier will extend this capability gap; but users have been willing to accept that the vehicles will not be available to support operations until 2012 rather than risk a lower level of reliability. The Department does not believe that the delays will have an operational impact in the short term because of Urgent Operational Requirement action to purchase alternative engineering vehicles for current operations, including the JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavators.
The most relevant sentence here is the last, where the MoD argues that the delays in the Terrier procurement will not affect operations because, inter alia the HMEE has been bought. From this, it is a long way to go to assume that the HMEE was bought because of the delays in the Terrier programme. And, in fact, that was not the case,

Those that have followed this issue will know that the HMEE is to be purchased as part of the £96 million Talisman package, devised as a "specialist route clearance system", which "will provide a new high-tech way of dealing with the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat."

In this role, the HMEE brings to the table capabilities which the Terrier cannot supply. Specifically, the HMEE is a development of the JCB Fastrac, a machine which is optimised for (relatively) high-speed road use. It is thus capable of travelling long distances at convoy speed, keeping up with other vehicles without the need for specialist transportation. It can also operate freely on a wide variety of roads.

Strangely enough, when the concept was first announced in 2005, it was much lauded, not least by Sean Rayment in The Sunday Telegraph as the US Army's "latest secret weapon in the war against terror". How times change. But it is a pity that Telegraph writers do not read the Sunday version of their own newspaper.

The contrast with the Terrier, to anyone who thinks about it, is obvious. A tracked vehicle, if it is to travel any distance, has to be transported on a low loader. Furthermore, it is not by any means ideal for working on metalled roads – tracks tending to tear up the tarmac. It may have a limited role in Afghanistan, its design use being to carry out engineering works in the "indirect fire zone". But it is not an equivalent to the HMEE (and vice versa).

At best, the two machine types have overlapping capabilities, which is probably what the MoD was getting at when it argued that there would be no "operational impact" from the delay in the Terrier. Most of the jobs the Terrier would have been called upon to do, the HMEE can also do. But the HMEE can perform tasks for which the Terrier would be wholly inappropriate.

With that, we now come to the next point, majored on by Thomas Harding, his article headed: "Mine clearing vehicle that could save lives of British troops delayed for two years." Unfortunately, he has been misled both by the MoD and the NAO, which position the Terrier as a "mine clearance vehicle", which is actually only a secondary role.

Harding thus writes: "The armoured vehicle can clear minefields and make routes safe for following armour and is likely to have proved a significant asset in Afghanistan where dozens of soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs." He then goes on to say, "As a result of the hold-up the MoD has been forced to buy 10 off-the-shelf Buffalo route clearance vehicles as part of an urgent £96 million project."

The juxtaposition of these two issues is not altogether a happy one. In the mine clearance role, the Terrier is mainly what is known as a "breach" vehicle. Usually, to clear mines, it tows a bit of kit called Viper minefield breaching system (now replaced by the Python) which it uses literally to blast a way through a known minefield, paving the way for armour.

In insurgency warfare, the mine is used as an ambush weapon and, therefore, a different approach is used, needing equipment to investigate suspect locations, to determine whether there is an explosive package hidden there. Once one is detected, it is then identified and dealt with.

Thus, the distinction is between "breach" and "clearance". The Terrier is used for the first, the Buffalo for the second - as one of a suite of vehicles, providing part of the detection capability. There is no comparison. The Terrier can be used for the one (as an ancillary function) but cannot perform the role of the Buffalo. There can be no question, therefore, of being "forced" to buy Buffaloes because of delays in the Terrier programme. The two are completely different animals, used for different jobs.

However, as between the Terrier and the HMEE, there can be an overlap. Both vehicles can be fitted with mine clearance rollers (pictured right). But this kit is also currently fitted to Mastiffs and can be fitted to virtually any other armoured vehicle (in Oman, rollers were fitted to Saracens), so one hardly needs a £5 million, specialist engineering vehicle for the purpose, especially as the Terrier is not mine protected. Futhermore, this equipment - unlike the Husky detector gear - will only deal with pressure-plate activated devices, and not those triggered by command wire or other remote actuation mechanisms.

This brings us to the problem of the "bigger picture". The limitation of the NAO is that it looks at individual projects, mainly from a cost perspective. It does not look at projects in context (how they relate as part of a system, with other equipment), nor does it consider whether they are necessary or whether an alternative would be more appropriate. It simply looks at the situation "as is".

The trouble is that no one else is looking at the bigger picture either. Perhaps the Defence Select Committee should be doing this, but it does not. And neither does the media. As we see with this story, it dissects the information served up to it on a plate and goes no further. But, if you examine the "system" as a whole, a different and altogether more disturbing picture emerges.

Looking specifically at the HMEE, the question has to be asked, what is it for? An excavator, with or without armour, cannot be used to look for mines or other explosives. That is the job of the Husky (see left) in combination with the Buffalo. You would not expect an excavator to dig up a mine or explosive device once found. For a start, the HMEE armour (and design) is not up to that, which would make it far too dangerous. Explosive devices, invariably, are hand-cleared or blown up in situ. The only role one can think of, for which the HMEE is particularly suited is filling in the craters after a device has been blown up.

The question that devolves is why, in the £96 million Talisman project, the Army is buying HMEEs - 13 of them at a cost of £6.2 million – when it is not buying Huskies, an essential component of any route clearance operation? Another question is why the Army is spending £6.2 million on buying HMEEs at all, when it has already has a fleet of 25 armoured mine clearance vehicles, which it is now trying to sell off, unused, at the knockdown price of less than £4.5 million.

If the NAO is interested in value for money – which is its purpose in life – then it needs to look a bit closer at the Talisman project. Tucked into that, as Ann Winterton discovered, are some additional Mastiffs. Their role will be to function as armoured bomb disposal vehicles.

Only last year though, the MoD replaced its entire overseas fleet of bomb disposal vehicles, spending £7.5 million on 18 Swiss-built Bucher Duro vehicles, called the "Tellar" (pictured right). As we pointed out at the time, these unarmoured vehicles are totally unfit for purpose and now, surreptitiously – disguised by another project – these are being replaced.

Thus, we find ourselves in a position where, after the waste of nearly £20 million, we are going to end up with route clearance teams which still lack the essential Huskies to make them truly effective. But the NAO has no comment about that, and the media – entirely heedless of what is going on – is chasing after hares, making false points about JCBs, missing the real story.

That leaves Edward Leigh, who comments on the NAO findings. He complains of the "same old failings", which threaten to leave British troops poorly prepared for frontline action. He condemns what he calls "a lack of realism" and then declares: "This is about more than money. This kit will sooner or later be operated, perhaps in anger, by our men and women in the forces."

That latter sentiment is one with which we would agree. But, instead of offering any more detailed critical evaluation or himself looking at the bigger picture, Leigh is mouthing sound bites in response to an agenda dictated by the NAO. We are indeed – to use his words – dealing with the "same old failings", but there are far more failings than those identified by the NAO. As an MP, and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, it is his job to root them out.

Instead, from our parliamentary representatives, we also get the "same old failings", which means that money will continue to be wasted and "our men and women in the forces" still won't get the right kit.

They – and we, the taxpayers – deserve something better.