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Committee blasts delays to new UK armoured vehicles

Chaos at MoD continues

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In the latest blow to a beleaguered MoD, the influential Parliamentary Defence Committee has release a stinging review of the ongoing Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) project.

FRES is a potentially colossal programme intended to replace much of the British army's current combat vehicle fleet. The MoD estimates final costs at £14bn. Very few MoD projects have ever come in under budget, so the money's certainly there.

So is the need. Some of the army's armoured vehicle fleet, such as the FV430 series, have been in service since 1962. Investigations into their replacement began as long ago as the 1970s. Further projects have begun, become bogged down, and foundered ever since. Examples include the TRACER (Tactical Reconnaissance Armoured Combat Equipment Requirement) and the "Boxer" Multirole Armoured Vehicle, both now defunct.

Meanwhile, British soldiers have been dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, often killed by roadside bombs while riding in lightly protected vehicles. As a consequence of this, temporary armoured expedients such as the Mastiff and Vector personnel carriers have been hurriedly bought off the shelf and rushed into combat in Iraq – but these, according to the MoD "do not possess the capability the Army requires as they are not armoured fighting vehicles", perhaps begging the question of why – in that case – they were purchased.

What the MoD means by this is that Mastiff and Vector are thought to be OK against insurgent opposition, but not for a serious high-intensity clash against a first-rate army. There are those who doubt that such a clash will ever again take place – General Rupert Smith, who commanded the British armoured forces in Gulf War I, has stated that the last real tank battles took place during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Nonetheless, the Army want to be ready in case he turns out to be wrong. That would seem to indicate a purchase of heavy metal such as the current 60-ton Challenger main battle tanks, and their accompanying infantry carriers. But these are no longer seen as ideal, because the only way to get them anywhere is to ship them by sea and rail. That takes a long time, hence the "Rapid Effects" part of FRES. The original requirement stated that all FRES vehicles should be readily air portable, weighing less than 17 tons.

However, it is now thought that a vehicle which can reliably resist basic threats such as roadside bombs and shoulder-fired RPG rockets is likely weigh as much as 27 tons. The UK forces possess only five aircraft able to carry vehicles of this weight. Unsurprisingly, the Defence Committee suggested that the current requirement "may be unachievable without a significant technical breakthrough". Estimates of when FRES might be in service ranged from 2009 (by Lord Bach, defence procurement minister in 2004) through to 2017-18 (by Atkins, consultants hired by the MoD).

It appears that the UK's soldiers may be waiting a while yet for their new vehicles. ®

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