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BAE mounts the Last Charge of the Light Cavalry

British Swedish tank to slip through MoD's closing door?

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Global arms multinational BAE Systems has announced its bid to squeeze a last bit of cash out of the Ministry of Defence before next year's probable change of government and certain major reorganisation of MoD procurement plans.

The company says that it will put forward an offer tomorrow (Thursday) to supply a version of its Swedish-made CV90 armoured combat vehicle to the British Army, replacing the aged CVR(T) Scimitars now in service with British cavalry regiments and various other units. Most people refer to these as "light tanks", as they have tracks and armour, and carry nothing but a direct-fire weapon and their crew - no footsoldiers riding as passengers. The cavalry themselves tend to argue that the only tank is a proper heavyweight Main Battle Tank (eg Blighty's Challenger 2), and Scimitar and its ilk are "armoured combat vehicles" - or even "armoured cars", if you meet an older cavalryman.

This will fulfil the "Scout" portion of the Army's Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) plan to replace much of its combat vehicle fleet. The rest of the FRES programme has been more or less kicked into touch now, to await the Strategic Defence Review which will be carried out next year by the new government, and may not survive in its present form.

BAE's plan for FRES Scout is to present a modified CV90 chassis built at its plant at Örnsköldsvik in Sweden, and put a Scout turret with a fancy new cannon* and other systems on the machine here in the UK.

The British tank industry, owned by BAE, has been allowed by the firm to largely become moribund in favour of heavy investments in US armoured-vehicle factories - in fact BAE has announced further layoffs and closures across its remaining UK tank plants recently. Historically, despite the fact that the tank is a British invention, Britain hasn't produced especially great tanks (though there have been some characteristically cunning inventions by British engineers such as "Chobham" armour) and it has been clear for a while that nobody really thinks an entire armoured combat vehicle can be usefully built here any more.

BAE's rival for the FRES Scout deal is General Dynamics' UK tentacle, offering the Spanish-developed ASCOD-2. Like the CV90, this is already in service with other armies.

In the previous contest to supply the FRES "Utility Vehicle" - to replace larger infantry-hauling vehicles rather than little Scimitars - General Dynamics managed to beat out BAE despite BAE's immensely strong UK political connections. Ex pharma'n'sweets millionaire Lord Drayson, then MoD kit-purchasing minister, was so enraged by the Army's refusal to do as he'd told them that he resigned - though the official line was that he wanted to spend more time with his alcohol-fuelled car.

Subsequently, however, the whole FRES Utility Vehicle plan was punted into the next government. Meanwhile Drayson has returned to the MoD with an anomalous portfolio - as well as one in the new biznovation industry - which seems to rank him above the new kit-buying minister and at least equal with the actual defence secretary.

BAE may have good reason, then, to think that this time the taxpayers' money will be theirs. The fix is very likely to be in, and the Army will pay through the nose for a few industrial jobs to be preserved as well as for its new scout tanks. The cavalry, who have been promised replacements for their antique Scimitars for decades now with no sign of any action, probably won't mind too much what they get as long as they get something.

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