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MPs slam costly war-tech projects at MoD

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The UK arms industry came in for a shoeing from the parliamentary defence committee yesterday, as MPs criticised continuing cost escalations in several major kit projects for the British forces. The soaring bills were seen as especially worrying in light of the fact that the services are struggling to recruit and retain personnel, a situation not helped by chronic low pay and benefits.

According to the MPs:

We are deeply concerned that the Armed Forces have been operating at or above the level of concurrent operations they are resourced and structured to deliver for seven of the last eight years, and for every year since 2002.

One reason the forces struggle to balance their books - and to attract recruits - is that they are always short of cash because of budget-busting hi-tech equipment projects. In particular, the Astute-class nuclear submarine, Nimrod MRA4 antisubmarine patrol plane and Type 45 destroyer projects came in for criticism, with cost increases of at least half a billion pounds just in the past year. All are now massively over their original prices - to the extent that the per-plane price of the Nimrods, for instance, has actually tripled - and years late. All three are made by the British-headquartered arms multinational, BAE Systems; though much of their technology comes from overseas.

Many would suggest that anti-aircraft destroyers, airliner-sized subhunters* - and perhaps the subs too - are scarcely the UK's top priority against the background of two far-flung counterinsurgency wars. With British combat troops crying out for more air transport and seriously overworked - due in large part to the fact that there aren't enough of them - the billions being poured into expensive showpiece platforms could be better spent.

There was more gloom too, with news - already widely rumoured in the trade press - that the desperately-needed new A400M Euro-collaborative transport planes may be further delayed.

James Arbuthnot, committee chairman, hinted that some major new equipment projects might need to be cut, as the traditional MoD strategy of disbanding combat units and holding down personnel costs had been used to the limit and beyond.

"The defence budget ... will be under substantial pressure," he said. "Several funding commitments, such as the Future Carrier programme and further investment in accommodation, have been announced. The MoD needs to limit further cost growth on existing equipment programmes and to be realistic about the number of equipment programmes that can be funded. The MoD will need to take some difficult decisions in the coming months ..."

Prime Minister Brown is unlikely to bin the carriers, which he will use to pour cash into the Scottish economy - not least via the Rosyth shipyard next to his own constituency. The other big, imminent kit project is the replacement programme for much of the army's combat vehicle fleet, but again this will be hard to cut as a lot of the existing vehicles are embarrassingly old and worn out.

Many in the army and navy will be hoping that the third tranche of Eurofighter superjets may now be backed up against the chopping block. Even the RAF might not mind too much, as they will struggle to man up and maintain their full, planned fleet of 232 planes. But cutting Eurofighter orders would require agreement from continental partners.

Barring a whole lot more money - and the MoD budget has already seen a decent increase - something will have to give.

Read the full committee report here (pdf).®

*There has been a lot of reporting of the existing Nimrod MR2's role above Afghanistan of late. MR2 crews are working hard there, and facing significant danger from the state of their aged aircraft if not much from the enemy. However they are mainly carrying out communications relay, surveillance and such tasks which could be done by much, much cheaper platforms - perhaps unmanned. Nimrods are primarily designed and equipped to hunt submarines: you wouldn't buy them for Afghanistan. The fact they are there doesn't justify the MRA4 replacements, though such thinking may be a factor in their presence and their high workload.

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