Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Lost before it started - Part 3

In Part 1, we saw that Tony Blair had committed the bulk of the UK's long-term deployable forces to the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF). Part 2 saw the 2003 Defence White Paper, heralding a "major restructuring" of the Army and the official emergence of FRES, in order to meet the commitment – just at a time when the Army was taking on the occupation of Iraq and needed to keep its options open.

We also saw the Army enthusiastically embrace the restructuring, using it to reactivate an 80s equipment project and acquire a fleet of new armoured vehicles. General Sir Mike Jackson then started reshaping the infantry to accommodate the new equipment – even though it would not be available for many years. With this going on, the war in Iraq took second place, the Army there having to make do with 14-year-old second-hand Land Rovers.

In this Part 3, we see a new Chief of the General Staff take over – General Sir Richard Dannatt. But the madness goes on.

A new broom

When General Sir Richard Dannatt took over as Chief of the General Staff from Jackson in August 2006, the war in Iraq was at a critical phase. The "repositioning" in al Amarah was imminent and the violence in Basra was reaching fever pitch.

Rather than grip the situation, however, he shared the lack of enthusiasm for mine-protected vehicles displayed by his predecessor. During the intense debates through the Browne review, he was "barely visible". He did, on the other hand, inherit Jackson's enthusiasm for "FRES".

As the Army – predictably - failed to grapple with the insurgency, it was Dannatt turned away from Iraq and looked to the fresher fields of Afghanistan. There, he thought, the highly mobile warfare was more like the war the Army wanted to fight. Facetiously, one might say that they didn't like the war they were in, so he looked around for another, better one.

Ostensibly, the Afghan war presented a tactical opportunity for deploying a medium-weight, mobile force. This allowed Dannatt to continue his advocacy of FRES – more accurately FFLAV - which he did at any and every opportunity. In early 2007 it looked as if the project was coming "unstuck", with suggestions that the first vehicles would not enter service until 2017.

A different route

By mid-2007, the United States was taking a different route. Similarly afflicted by the scourge of the improvised explosive device (IED), newly appointed Defense Secretary Robert Gates kick-started a massive re-equipment programme, supplying what was to become a flood of what were called Mine Protected Ambush Resistant (MRAP) vehicles to Iraq. As the programme moved into high gear, eventually furnishing over 10,000 new vehicles, Gates identified it as his "highest priority".

The British Army, with Dannatt at its head, having rejected the opportunity to embark on a similar re-equipment programme, had grudgingly accepted a token number of 100 MRAP-type vehicles – the Mastiff – split between the two theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It had also pushed, as a condition for accepting the limited number of MRAPs, a new type of patrol vehicle, the Vector, which was not mine-protected. It was to replace the vulnerable Snatch Land Rover in Afghanistan, yet was even more dangerous than the vehicle it replaced. Overall, therefore, while the US was systematically increasing the level of protection for its troops, the British Army was doing the opposite.

With Gates identifying MRAP as his "highest priority", Dannatt on the other hand declared FRES his "highest equipment priority". He was determined, he said, "that we will make this programme a timely success - it is at the heart of the future Army".

It was not a "future army". It was one which rested on an operational concept settled twenty years earlier for a war on another continent against a different enemy. Likely, it was based on doctrines that were even older, dreamed up by long-retired generals from a different age.

Nevertheless, by July 2007, Dannatt was insisting that "FRES" should acquire an in-service date of 2012. This, he said, was "non-negotiable". In October, a shortlist of three vehicle types was settled. One was the Piranha. Another was the MRAV.

But there was no longer even a pretence that this was FRES. It was what the Army had always intended it should be - a straight purchase of a new armoured vehicle. Predictably, the favourite was the Piranha. This was a later version of the very same vehicle which the Army had picked for FFLAV. In twenty years, the Army had gone full circle – its dreams were within a whisker of fulfilment.

The trials of truth

There was absolutely no doubt about the Army's determination to acquire the Piranha. To meet the notional and still vague requirements for FRES, General Dynamics, the manufacturers, had offered a "paper upgrade" of the then current version. The MoD in 2007 then launched a "competition" to select it, known as the "trials of truth". The Piranha, predictably, "ticked all the boxes". The paper vehicle completely met the paper specification.

Up against it, as the third of the triumvirate in the competition, was the Nexter VBCI, very similar in concept to the Piranha. However, unlike the Piranha VI – as it was to be called – the VBCI was a real vehicle, in production and entering service with the French Army.

The manufacturers of the VBCI, formerly the state-owned Giat Industries, were very keen to secure a prestige British order. So keen were they that they later prevailed upon the French government to agree to modify its own delivery programme to release sufficient vehicles to equip a British battle group.

Thus, not only was the VBCI a real vehicle, it was available for delivery in 2011 – at a fixed price. It was the only equipment that could have permitted the MoD to meet Dannatt's preferred in-service date. In fact, it could have come into service before his deadline.

Rigging the results

In the "trials of truth", real vehicle met paper specifications - and it had passed almost all the requirements, proving 95 percent compliant. This was not what the Army wanted. Out on the testing ground, therefore, diligent MoD officials managed to fail it on a number of arcane requirements.

One such "failure" was the speed with which an engine could be changed in field. The company had been judged on a leisurely demonstration which had not been part of the competition, despite evidence of controlled tests which proved that the specification could be exceeded.

Such was the determination that the vehicle would fail that a general specification unique to the British Army was also applied. This was the "ground running test", a legacy of an Army that had become used to dealing with the unreliable tank engines with which it had historically been provided.

Before fitting it to a tank in the field, a replacement power pack had to be capable of being set up on the ground, with the necessary fuel and electrical connections, in order for it to run. This was to avoid having to commit the labour to installing the engine, only to find that it did not work.

With the VBCI being fitted with a modified commercial truck engine produced by Renault, with hundreds of millions of miles behind it, Nexter thought such a provision unnecessary.

Furthermore, French Army doctrine did not require it. With a light, wheeled armoured vehicle, the preference was to recover the vehicle and tow it to a field workshop rather than replace a failed engine in situ. Thus, there was no provision for ground running.

Had it been considered, the engineering modifications to allow it would have been simple and cheap to provide. But, as submitted for the "trials of truth", the equipment lacked this element. Thus was the VBCI failed, despite protestations that modifications could and would be made before any vehicle went into service.

The Piranha VI, of course, had a provision for ground running – on paper. And by such means the paper Piranha triumphed. But for this, even within its own published terms, the Army could have had its FRES utility vehicle. It would have been a Nexter VBCI. This was not acceptable. Twenty years previously, the Army had set its heart on the Piranha. Wish fulfilment was more important than operational capability.

Climbing down

Unconscious of the history and clearly unaware of the recent background to vehicle procurement decisions, Michael Evans of The Times noted the "delay" in procuring "FRES". He thus opined that, to fill the gap, “the MoD has had to spend £120 million to buy 200 Mastiff and Vector armoured personnel carriers off the shelf to provide sufficient protection.”

That represented the extent of media understanding of what had been – and was then still - one of the most closely-fought battles on equipment in recent times, a battle that had stretched back over twenty years. The lack of understanding extended even to the failure to distinguish between the Mastiff and the Vector.

Unsurprisingly, when the Piranha was selected in May 2008 as the preferred design for FRES – as only it could have been - very few noted the subtle change in Dannatt's position.

From being his "highest equipment priority", FRES had become his "highest priority after support to operations." The born-again FFLAV was slipping through his fingers. As the campaign in Afghanistan was bogging down, with the proliferation of the IED increasingly hampering mobility - as it had done in Iraq - even Dannatt was having to concede that the Army would have to be equipped to fight the real war.

In February 2009 – just short of a year later - then Foreign Secretary David Miliband was freely acknowledging that the Taleban had managed to create "a strategic stalemate" in parts of Afghanistan, "through their use of improvised explosive devices".

What had happened in Iraq had come to pass in Afghanistan. More than two years earlier, Conservative back-bencher Anne Winterton had suggested in the House of Commons that this was precisely what would happen. The fantasy Army had collided with reality. For Iraq, it was too late.