Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/10/16/defence_committee_kit_probe/

Parliament to probe military kit issues

Troops, taxpayers should definitely write in

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 16th October 2008 12:37 GMT

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.

Hints that this might be the case were forthcoming soon enough, and in 2007 Lord Drayson left the MoD in a towering rage after officials there began to resist his continual raiding of the forces' budget on behalf of his industry chums. The excuse given was that Drayson wanted to spend more time racing his biofuel-powered car, with the goal of achieving victory at Le Mans. In fact, he was angered by the Army's decisions on the FRES future armoured vehicle fleet - which conflicted with his DIS vision. (Drayson is now back in government, in fact, as science minister - without winning Le Mans.)

Ever since, the British arms industry has been nagging the MoD to bring out the long-awaited revised DIS - aka "DIS2" - it being acknowledged that the original was fantasy. The arms biz wants to know just how much of the promised pork handouts will really be forthcoming.

And James Arbuthnot, chairman of the parliamentary defence committee, is still their good friend. His new inquiry seems to be setting itself up as the UK arms biz's opportunity to put the MoD on the spot.

The Committee plans to examine ... progress made to date in implementing the DIS and the delay in publishing the updated version of the DIS ... The Committee would welcome written evidence to the inquiry. In particular, it would welcome industry's views.

But there's no reason to let the MPs be glove-puppeted by the British arms sector like this. They say they're willing to listen to ordinary citizens, taxpayers - maybe even to service people. Uniformed personnel aren't allowed to talk to the press, but there should be far fewer restrictions on them giving their views to the parliamentary oversight committee.

If there's anyone out there who'd like to see some of the annual £16bn Defence Equipment & Support budget spent on things our boys and girls in combat actually need, rather than on industrial subsidies - why not let Arbuthnot & Co know?

Here's how:

Submissions should be in Word or rich text format and sent by email to defcom@parliament.uk. The body of the email must include a contact name, telephone number and postal address. The email should also make clear who the submission is from.

Submissions should be as brief as possible, and paragraphs should be numbered for ease of reference. Longer documents should include an executive summary.

If you do not wish your submission to be published, you must clearly say so.

<shameless plug>If you want a bit more background on the armed forces' long and troubled relationship with the British weapons biz - and James Arbuthnot's track record - before sounding off, I recommend this book - mainly because I wrote it.</shameless plug> ®