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MPs probe MoD accountancy shenanigans

'The arms industry are your masters, aren't they?'

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The basic MLRS splatter-weapon might have made some sense back in the Cold War, but its indiscriminate destructiveness and landmine littering side-effects have ruled it out since 1991. A GMLRS rocket, by contrast, is normally fired solo to strike with a single warhead within metres of its aim point. The artillery likes to play up its usefulness in modern counter-insurgency work, calling it the "long-range sniper" of Afghanistan.

But the fact is that GMLRS ranges to only 40km or so. This means that you only get fire support within that distance of heavy twenty-ton vehicles, which need an escort whenever they leave a secure base. GMLRS rockets are being fired, but the limiting factor on real operations in Afghanistan is the availability of air cover. The Royal Artillery is desperate not to be put out of business by the air force and army aviation. Hence it's suddenly decided that it only needs to hold stocks of 1400-odd GMLRS rockets, rather than six thousand as planned.

That would still be a good ten years' supply, at the very slow rate the GMLRS is being used in real life - though the army's rocket regiments could fire off the lot in just four salvoes, a couple of hours' work at most. (That last figure possibly illustrates just what a massive waste of capacity it is to have two regiments' worth of vehicles, gunners and associated support troops in order to pop off a rocket every few days.)

Spending an initial £165m on "loitering munitions" (essentially one-shot robo-kamikaze miniplanes) might help to keep the artillery from having to go and become infantrymen permanently, but some taxpayers might rather see it spent in other ways. That money, by the MoD's own estimates, would buy the UK another sixteen Reaper roboplanes or an even bigger fleet of the latest Sky Warriors, each of which can do all that a constant stream of loitering munitions and a planned £17m Watchkeeper drone does - all in one.

Funnily enough, the Loitering Munition and the Watchkeeper are another couple of UK products resulting from the Defence Industrial Strategy. It's refreshing to see the MoD separating out the costs of keeping up the British ship and sub yards in the case of Astute and Type 45, and it would be nice to see similar efforts made in other areas.

Why don't we help out a bit? Roughly speaking, if we give the UK systems every credit and say that 54 Watchkeepers + Loitering Munitions (total cost £1bn+) = 54 armed Reapers/Sky Warriors (£540m max) in capability, the cost of keeping up UK industry in this case is around £500m - more than twice what it will cost to maintain our UK nuclear-submarine yard until the end of the Astute project.

One might indeed, like the PAC MPs, wonder if all this is really value for money. One might also wonder about other industry-maintenance projects, like the Taranis robot stealth bomber and the just-announced Mantis UAV (price kept secret). One might even wonder why everyone's banging on so much about Mr Brown's shipyards, when far more money is being wasted on the upkeep of - or the setting up of - other weapons factories. (Why, it's almost as if some people in the MoD don't much like Gordon Brown.)

All in all, it's hard not to agree with Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell, speaking to Sir Bill Jeffrey of the MoD about the UK arms sector:

"This must be the only section of Government that is doing this, keeping a sector alive by feeding it projects ... they are your masters ... they can come to you and say, 'We need to keep this going'... it does put you at their mercy ... you cannot be too keen to cut the costs because you endanger the existence of the Defence Industrial Strategy."

(Page 26 of the report pdf.) Just so. ®

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