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MoD budget train crash behind Brown v forces rumpus

PM's choice: Outsource arms makers or squaddies

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However, the Whitehall battle is surely not yet over, as the FRES decision is now to be delayed, along with the updated rewrite of Drayson's (in)famous "Defence Industrial Strategy" (DIS) policy - which was in effect a charter of continued existence for most of the onshore UK arms industry.

So the DIS 2.0 rewrite - now pushed back past Christmas - will reflect a massive free-for-all in Whitehall, with two major departments of state, the UK arms biz and its many allies, Brown, Browne and Darling all weighing in.

Drayson's ousting and political scuffling by Guthrie and his fellow military lords means that there is a hope of some cash being found for British servicemen as well as British arms workers - but it's only a slim hope. The Prime Minister, as Guthrie says, left to himself would always spend money on respectable dockyard and electronics workers rather than brawling, thuggish soldiers. Admirals and air marshals and even generals often favour plant over people too, and they are woefully unwilling to disagree publicly with their political bosses. Uniformed officers and permanent officials are at least willing to consider buying kit more cheaply, though - especially if it's better and arrives quicker. Often enough the uniformed men choose equipment more to big up their own branch than because it's useful, but sometimes they get it at least partly right.

Lord Guthrie, for instance, managed to push through the decision to buy US Apache attack helicopters in the mid-90s rather than than the European Tiger. Sadly, the deal was hijacked by the UK whirlybird biz, more than tripling the price of the Apaches and delaying them by years, but at least we've got them now. By contrast, French Tigers won't be up and running until late next year.

A few months ago, Guthrie told this reporter that even with the Apaches assembled on a brand new purpose-built assembly line in the UK and specially fitted with Rolls-Royce engines, he'd faced an "unbelievable" level of opposition on the deal. Workshare for UK factories would have been much higher if Britain had bought the Tiger.

In the end, the MoD's finances could be sorted out fairly easily. Cutting the third tranche of Eurofighter; axing the Nimrod subhunters altogether; buying cheap vehicles, aircraft and drones from overseas rather than expensive ones partly made in the UK - all these would yield many billions in savings. Examples of the expensive-but-partly-British kit currently on order include the A400M transport planes, Merlin lift choppers, Watchkeeper recce drones, FIST super-soldier suits etc, etc.

But all these projects bring jobs to Blighty, and the companies involved typically argue that:

"Retention of key skills in the UK is vital if the front line is to be assured of receiving the service it needs..."

But in fact the associated, colossal expense and delay of these projects usually assures that the front line gets nothing at all, or even gets cut back in numbers to meet their costs. Paying for partly British gear nowadays - literally - means that the UK can't afford to hire British soldiers.

Gordon Brown has said he will "do his duty" by the Armed Forces, in response to Guthrie and the ex-military lords' attack.

He'll need to be aware that is not the same as doing his duty by the British arms industry. Not unless he's willing to find a hell of a lot more money, anyway. ®

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