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'We don't want to highlight Afghanistan'

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Why does a dollar buy more than a pound? It's supposed to be worth less

And we don't have the money for all that - it's no secret that the cap on British manpower in Afghanistan is a matter of money rather than people. Why? After all, our defence budget is £38bn, the second largest in the world. The US, spending less than ten times as much and with a military only seven times as large, has around 190,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan - twenty times what Britain is seemingly able to send to war.

Why does our defence pound buy so much less clout than a defense dollar? Why are we only able to send one in twenty of our service people to actually fight?

Some would say it's because we waste too much money on unnecessary, expensive civil servants in the MoD. They might be right - one MoD penpusher for every two servicemen seems a bit excessive.

But my word, two-and-a-half handsomely rewarded UK arms workers for every soldier - one-and-half for every uniformed serviceman, all paid for by the taxpayer - that seems a lot more excessive still. Especially when you reflect that a great deal of the kit in use in Afghanistan isn't even British made**.

"We don't want to highlight what's going on in Afghanistan," said DIC spokesman Ian Godden this morning in London. "Whatever the service chiefs need should be provided... we want to look at what will happen 5, 10, 15 years in the future".

The Reg asked the assembled defence-biz bigwigs if they didn't feel they were a little overmanned, with their apparent quarter-million taxpayer-dependent workers. They seemed to feel that actually some more industry people might be in order.

"A lot of those workers are effectively outsourced from the public sector, and very efficiently outsourced at that," said ex-BAE chief Mike Turner.

"There's scope for more savings, in cases where there's overlap - where things are done by MoD employees and by industry, for instance," said Sir Kevin Tebbit - himself a sort of outsourcing case, having moved from running the MoD to being chief of a large contractor.

Lord knows it might very well be that outsourcing deep maintenance of aircraft in the UK, for instance - having it done by civilians rather than RAF people - is a good and money-saving idea.

And in fact the 250,000 government contractors figure is almost certainly overblown - the DIC is desperate to paint the arms biz as a jobs bonanza so as to gain political clout, whereas in reality like most capital-intensive businesses it primarily rewards investors rather than ordinary people. The "independent" report (pdf) from the DIC's hired economists actually only claims 160,000 UK jobs in total, including those supported by exports. (The other 140,000 are notional jobs which may exist because the real ones do.) We taxpayers are probably only really paying for one and a half well-off arms workers per soldier, not two.

But no matter how the cake is being divided up between bureaucrats and contractors back here in the UK, it's all too plain who isn't getting a big enough slice. That's our actual fighting forces overseas, struggling with inadequate resources to do a difficult and deadly job which we as a nation sent them to do.

"We have been too quiet as an industry," said Ian Godden yesterday morning.

"The UK defence sector is the right way to make sure that British forces get the right kit when they need it," added Sir Kevin Tebbit.

"Industry delivers capability," said Mike Turner, the man who slashed British jobs and spent British revenues in America, to the point where BAE Systems employs substantially more Americans than it does Brits.

But actually, the UK's defence industry is not silent but deafening - it dominates the military procurement debate in this country. Sir Kevin's own company has a big MoD order for helicopters*** - awarded while he was still running the MoD - whose effect will be to see that British forces get the wrong kit, many years after it was needed and long after they could have had better. The British arms industry, contrary to Mr Turner's assertions, is delivering very little of the military capability we are using in Afghanistan right now**.

But it's already getting at least half the money. And it wants more. ®

Bootnotes

* There are already some which would plot but then condemn or deny the action afterwards, but that's normal. Other qualities we might desire in a future Afghan state - democracy, rule of law, decent treatment for women, lower heroin exports - would seem to be classifiable as moon-on-a-stick stuff and might be seen as optional.

** Examples: A2 rifles and most other new infantry weapons sorted out in Germany. Optics largely American. Much of the new armoured-vehicle fleet also from overseas. Satellites mostly European. Transport planes made in America. Chinook helicopters made in America. Apache attack choppers are also American kit, though in our case assembled in Blighty at horrendous extra expense. Etc. etc.

*** The controversial, £1bn Future Lynx purchase, buying upgraded Lynx helicopters from British-Italian firm AgustaWestland. The Future Lynxes are to arrive from 2011. We could have ordered larger and more powerful Blackhawk and Seahawk helicopters from Sikorsky instead, got them years ago - saving lives among UK forces - and spent less money to boot. The AgustaWestland deal, however, safeguarded an estimated 900 jobs in the UK. The deal was also defended on the grounds that it would reduce UK military dependence on foreign suppliers: though in fact the Future Lynx has American engines and also requires significant support from Italy.

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