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MPs: UK defence project was crap

Bowman skewered

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Another UK defence procurement project has been excoriated in yet another damning Parliamentary report.

The project under fire this time is the Bowman military communications infrastructure, a perennial favourite among connoisseurs of arms-procurement cockups.

The finger-pointing group of MPs today is the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which put up its full report at midnight, here (pdf).

The CPA Committee often has harsh words for defence projects, once famously describing a helicopter purchase by saying the forces might as well have bought turkeys instead.

The Bowman project actually began in the late eighties but, as so often happens with Ministry of Defence programmes, more than a decade was spent trying to assemble a contracting consortium which could both do the job and was politically acceptable. For those interested, a short history is provided by the MoD here.

The project's first big disaster came with the 1996 collapse of competition between the Siemens Plessey Systems (SPS)/Racal "Yeoman" team and the ITT "Crossbow".

A mere 10 years after work began at the MoD, in 1998, it appeared that forward movement had been achieved with award of a firm contract to the ITT/SPS/Racal "Archer" alliance to produce Bowman. But this too duly collapsed, and in 2001 a new contract was inked with General Dynamics UK.

Today's CPAC report concerns itself mainly with the progress of the Bowman programme since then, and it makes depressing reading for UK taxpayers – or indeed anyone with the British forces' interests at heart.

To give a flavour of the report's tone, it has four main sections, titled "programme governance arrangements were not fit for purpose", "initial decisions were not well informed" "through life costs were not rigorously assessed", and "operational benefits are limited".

Bowman also had a lighter shoeing last year, from the National Audit Office. Being accountants rather than politicians, the NAO was less brutal, but still critical here and there.

The army has been harsher yet, according to some accounts.

The fact the Bowman project has not gone like a dream is scarcely news, but today's report is probably another coffin-nail for the idea that UK defence procurement has been radically reformed in recent years. ®

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