UK makes complete FIST of hi-tech soldiering

Shop online for tomorrow's fighting technology - today

Some of this stuff is potentially a bit delicate for field use, but in fact it's probably at least as robust as most of the gear on current issue. If troops genuinely like or need something, they'll manage to preserve it. A paper map, after all, is scarcely very rugged. Nor is an ordinary cellphone. Nor is a standard issue sleeping bag, which left to itself will become useless every time it rains. But soldiers need these things to stay alive, so they look after them.

Off-the-shelf weapons add-ons won't attach easily to the current SA80 rifle as they stand. One could equip the SA80 with standard picatinny mounting rails, of course, but it's never been all that popular even after its latest expensive refit. Why not just get a trendy new rifle that already has picatinny rails, like the Diemaco C8 favoured by the special forces, or the Heckler and Koch G36 recently selected by the London cops. Even the MoD admits that it couldn't cost more than £2,500 per weapon. Funny, that. As recently as 2001 the MoD said it couldn't afford £2,500 per man for new rifles – hence it made sense to stick with the wildly unpopular SA80 – but just a few years later the brass find that they've got £70,000-plus per man for electronics and optics. Must have left it under the sofa cushions or something.

Anyway. Now we need to hook up our soldier to the Bowman network. Theoretically, there's at least one Bowman node in each four-man team already, but the team leader's Bowman radio doesn't seem to be what you'd call a massive success. The higher echelon, mostly vehicle-mounted parts of the Bowman network are said to be reasonably functional at long last and great cost, but foot soldiers have been heard to suggest that "BOWMAN" must stand for "Better Off With Map And Nokia". Unsurprisingly, the MoD has a separate project called Integrated Soldier System (ISS) which is supposed to connect FIST into Bowman at some level above the four-man team, presumably cutting out the unpopular, extremely heavy team leader radio.

Given that most of our boys seem to wind up using cellphones anyway, we might as well go with the flow. A 3G datacard comes included with some UMPCs, or is easily slotted in. Backhaul will be available at the various higher-level Bowman nodes scattered across the battlefield or in the sky above it, and commercial pico/microcell hardware is insignificant in weight and power consumption compared to Bowman. An off the shelf solution shouldn't be difficult at all within the ISS funding.

We're pretty much there. Chuck in £20,000 per soldier for software, cables, belt pouches and so on, and another few grand for AA batteries and black masking tape. Job done, using retail gear which is available right now, for an absolute maximum of £45,000 per man. And it seems reasonable to suggest that one might get some kind of discount buying in these quantities.

So actually a unit price of £70,000 for delivery by 2015 starts to look pretty unimpressive. The more so as the FIST project team has actually been up and running for 13 years now. The cost-consciousness the army exhibits when hiring its people doesn't extend to the way it buys its equipment. Even if FIST comes in on time and budget, it would be hard to see it as anything other than behind the times, overpriced, and overcomplicated. The shooting-round-corners bit is fairly comical, for a start. Anybody who's ever fired a rifle knows that you need more than a sight picture – you also need to be able to control your weapon, which means having the butt against your shoulder.

In fact, the only people likely to be genuinely happy with FIST are the vendors. To a jaded and cynical eye, FIST looks not unlike an attempt by the UK defence sector to monetise the last part of the armed forces that wasn't bringing them any significant revenue. Even a more positive commentator will find it hard to describe FIST as impressive, certainly by the time it actually appears. Already one can buy something just as good, retail, for much less cash. By 2015, FIST is going to look like shocking value for money.

All in all, the average UK taxpayer might well prefer at least some of his or her £2bn spent on the soldiers rather than the hardware. They seem like the part of the system most in need of investment.®

Lewis Page spent 11 years in the navy, mostly as a specialist in underwater bomb disposal. Highlights of his service included commando training with the Royal Marines, and the opportunity to render safe bona-fide "weapons of mass destruction". Disappointingly, these WMDs were discovered in Wales rather than any sunnier clime. On leaving the service he wrote a book, Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the British Armed Forces, which was so successful that it is now almost impossible to obtain, though a paperback is forthcoming. Page can be found on the web at www.lewispage.co.uk.

Sponsored: Designing and building an open ITOA architecture