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MoD miracle-armoured-vehicle scheme still struggling

FRES: Fudgemobiles Repeatedly Expected Soon

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Comment UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) plans to purchase a multibillion pound integrated combat vehicle fleet with well-nigh miraculous capabilities may be back to square one, according to reports.

The Financial Times reports today that negotiations between the MoD and US weaponry leviathan General Dynamics on the so-called Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) are deadlocked. The paper's unnamed informants "close to the process" have suggested that "the entire procurement strategy has been bonkers".

There's certainly some truth in that. There is at least one near-impossibility built right into the FRES requirement: the vehicles are supposed to be small and light enough to fit into medium-size transport planes, yet also invulnerable to all common threats.

Common threats nowadays include improvised bombs potent enough to blow a hole in a 60-tonne Challenger main battle tank. The prospect of building airportable vehicles able to carry a useful number of troops and yet tough enough to placate their grieving families after an attack seems unlikely.

But the army does need some new vehicles, that's no lie; many of its existing ones are completely knackered and obsolete. It could make some sense to combine these many disparate fleets into a common solution, though this will be difficult given the massive differences the user communities (if nobody else) can see between them.

So FRES is important: not least because up to £16bn might be spent on it in coming years. The late defence-purchasing minister, Lord Drayson, planned to steer much of this money into rebuilding the now largely moribund British tank industry. This would have meant very expensive vehicles for the army, and probably some long delays - in other words, probably a lot of troops dying unnecessarily - but lots of UK civilians would have had nice well-paid jobs and possibly technical educations out of it.

After a struggle, however, the soldiers managed to choose an industrial team largely excluding BAE Systems, the UK/US weapons globocorp which now owns the rump of the UK armour industry. Drayson departed in a huff - later to reappear as minister for science and supersonic cars - and it seemed as though the army might get its vehicles sooner and more cheaply.

So what do we make of today's FT story, hinting that the current "systems integrator" (Boeing) and vehicle provider (General Dynamics) might be unseated?

One possibility is that the pink'un scribes have been speaking to MoD officials, who are hoping to strike fear into the hearts of General Dynamics negotiators and get them to lower prices on FRES. Another is that the sources are in fact BAE Systems people, hoping to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It may be that these leaks are just the MoD's way of preparing industry for big funding cuts and/or delays to the project.

It might just conceivably be that the army has realised that airportable, bombproof (in the sense of media- and family-proof) vehicles can't be built, and is giving up. Instead it might choose to buy lots of cheap off-the-shelf wagons as required by each job - as indeed it has tended to wind up doing anyway, in recent times.

Rather than squandering £16bn on impossible miracle-rides designed around a staff officer's dream of long ago, the MoD might buy ordinary vehicles and some other basic things which are already on offer. These might include decent pay for its troops, working portable radios which don't weigh a ton, transport helicopters and planes, cheap aerial recce robots, proper body armour and infantry weapons as standard rather than just for certain operations - that kind of thing.

Sadly, that last idea is a real long shot.

Read the FT report here. ®

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