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Parliament to probe military kit issues

Troops, taxpayers should definitely write in

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A new inquiry has begun into the way the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) procures and maintains the nation's defence equipment. Parliament's Defence committee - a cross-party group of fourteen MPs - says it's happy for people to email them with information of interest.

According to the Committee's announcement the inquiry will be a wide-ranging one, looking into "the MoD's progress in improving the way it procures and supports defence equipment, and issues about the future equipment programme and the Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS)".

The defence committee chairman is the Tories' James Arbuthnot, a great fan of the DIS. The statement goes on to say that the MPs intend specifically to examine "the progress made to date in implementing the DIS and the delay in publishing the updated version of the DIS".

The original DIS document of 2005 was written by the then minister for defence procurement, the erstwhile sweets'n'pharma millionaire biz kingpin Lord Drayson. It effectively guaranteed that most of the British onshore defence industry would continue to exist in perpetuity at the taxpayers' expense. British-produced kit would be bought wherever possible, regardless of price or delays. Some factories would not even be required to produce anything - they would merely "provide expertise" related to things made in the past.

All this would be worth doing, according to the DIS, because it would provide "appropriate sovereignty" for the UK. No foreign nation would be able to cut off spare parts or tech support or ammo, so paralysing a future British war effort.

The DIS was warmly welcomed by industry, as one might expect. The only worry was that, in fact, the government might not make good on its lavish promises.

There was good reason for the arms-biz types to suspect this. For a start, despite Drayson's claims, "appropriate sovereignty" was and remains a pipe-dream. A typical example is furnished by the DIS plan to buy Future Lynx helicopters from the AgustaWestland factory in Yeovil. Better, cheaper choppers could be had much more quickly from overseas factories - for instance Sikorsky in America - but we are to buy Lynxes so as to free ourselves from dependence on US parts and support.

Except we don't free ourselves, because the Future Lynx will use American engines - and engine hours are the main limiting factor on helicopter operations. America will be well able to ground the UK's Future Lynx fleet if it so wishes, just as it could one from Sikorsky or Boeing.

In fact, "appropriate sovereignty" is often even worse than it seems: French and Italian support will also be required to keep Future Lynxes flying. Not only do we pay (a lot) more, get smaller helicopters and wait years to do so, we actually make our forces dependent on the goodwill of more foreign governments - not fewer - by following the DIS. The Future Lynx is entirely typical of DIS thinking.

Funnily enough, people have long suspected that the extremely cash-strapped MoD might not be able to fight two wars at once, sort out squalid barracks and housing, pay its troops and also afford piles of DIS velvet for BAE Systems plc, AgustaWestland et al.

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