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Arms biz glovepuppets Parliamentary kit probe

Profiteers' voices the only ones heard

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Comment A long-awaited Parliamentary investigation into British defence equipment purchasing has just been published. Both the report itself and the media response to it reveal the astonishing degree to which the onshore UK arms industry has managed to dominate this area of debate.

The report, from the MPs of the parliamentary Defence committee, can be read in full here (pdf). It mainly consists of criticism for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), for failing to treat the British arms industry nicely enough. The UK media has followed this line more or less without thought, as this effort from the BBC indicates.

There's surely plenty to criticise the MoD about. Outdated military thinking and strife between the three armed services leads the MoD to order unnecessary equipment in huge amounts, intended to fight enemies which are simply no longer there or which could be better fought by other means.

So yes, the armed forces often seek to build or preserve their own empires at taxpayers' expense without any serious consideration of what the nation actually needs. Examples include the RAF's fascination with manned deep bombing raids against strong air defence networks; the navy's pigheaded insistence on trying to fight battles with surface warships no matter the cost; the army's increasingly ridiculous obsession with the tank/artillery tactics which became obsolete in the latter half of the last century.

But the armed forces - the MoD, corporately - have redeeming features. They want to acquire tools and abilities to do jobs on our behalf, even if the jobs are often unlikely or nonexistent. At some level, the people arguing for deep bombing and the rest of it genuinely believe in what they say. Their demands in terms of personal reward are modest. The uniformed among them - the majority - also stand ready to die for us if necessary. When they are given a task they make every effort to accomplish it, generally with very little regard for their own comfort and security.

Contrast this with the position of the British arms industry, whose voices totally dominate the argument over the Forces' equipment budget.

The armsmakers' position is clear: they should be allowed to have a total monopoly to supply everything that the UK forces want, regardless of price. If they can't produce any given thing yet, they must be given time and development money to learn how at the taxpayers' expense. If this is clearly absurd - if the UK plainly can't bear the development costs alone, as with a new fighter or large aircraft - they must be allowed to ally with overseas firms in the way which gives them the most workshare, not the way which would be cheapest for the taxpayers.

If someone abroad is already offering any given thing at a much lower price than British industry can, too bad: this must be ignored and Blighty must reinvent the wheel at vast expense. If this means lives lost among our troops, there may be some scope for small things to be imported in small numbers using supplementary funds - under the so-called Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) system - but this is to remain a very small part of the budget and only allowed as a war-emergency measure.

Classic examples include the trend in UAVs. Owing to the embarrassing idiocy of the British-built "Phoenix" drone, the RAF managed to buy some effective Reaper roboplanes using UOR cash: the Army is likewise leasing smaller ones from Israel. But, as soon as it became clear that there was money to be had, British industry swooped in and scooped almost all the planned future cash. Despite the fact that Hermes and Reaper are already operating, we will spend hundreds of millions developing homegrown Mantis and Watchkeeper alternatives.

Again, rather than buying proven Hercules and C-17 airlift planes - even though we already have some - most of our airlift money is going on the A400M collaborative Euro plane, which costs hugely more for a given amount of lift and was always going to mean a long wait. Now it is delayed even further: so badly have the manufacturers defaulted on the deal that we actually have an opportunity to cancel and buy more C-17s, but it will be a miracle if we do.

The list goes on. And it isn't as if the arms industry people, whose jobs are established and preserved at the cost of our money and our soldiers' lives, make modest demands or big commitments. They don't risk their lives; they don't go on six-month overseas tours; they don't train hard in the freezing mud even when at home; they don't help out when there's a flood or a firemen's strike or a foot and mouth outbreak.

They have very comfortable lives here in the UK, and at every level - shop floor to boardroom - they are paid hugely more, from the same public purse, than the equivalent military personnel. Consider this discussion during the recent Parliamentary investigation, between James Arbuthnot MP and Mike Turner, lately CEO of BAE Systems and now chairman of the Defence Industries Council.

Arbuthnot [discussing equipment price inflation]: Is that because you pay yourselves more?

Turner: We do and rightly so.

So why on Earth would we do this? Pay these comfortable industry profiteers to leech off us, even as it cripples our armed forces?

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