Hutton robs forces, pours MoD cash into UK arms biz
Carriers into touch, copters & vehicles go porkbarrel
Analysis A long-awaited announcement regarding the British forces' ongoing equipment programme has just been made by Defence Minister John Hutton. As had been expected, Mr Hutton has decided to pour cash into the lame-duck UK helicopter industry and to postpone spending on the Royal Navy's planned aircraft carriers. He has also decided to have a new competition for the Army's vehicles budget, as the last one was won by a non-UK company.
Mr Hutton says that the carriers will be delayed by "one to two years", but that the programme will still definitely take place.
That's not actually good news. It will save money in the short term, perhaps helping to balance the MoD's massively overbooked budget this year, but the bills will still have to be paid sooner or later if the carriers go ahead - and the longer they are left, the bigger those bills will be. The nature of defence projects is to cost more as they last longer.
From we taxpayers' point of view, this is a bit like paying your gas bill using a credit card. It postpones the problem, but it costs you a lot more in the end. It's bad management by the government, using our money.
There's another downside to postponement on the carriers - it makes them more vulnerable to being cancelled. At the moment, though the Navy has made what it considers to be huge sacrifices to preserve the carrier plan, it is really only Gordon Brown and Scottish Labour who are keeping it alive. This is because it will channel work and money into the shipyards of Glasgow and Rosyth, which otherwise would not long survive.
One may be sure that there are those in Whitehall and the arms biz calculating to themselves that in two years' time Gordon Brown and Scottish Labour may be headed out of the national picture. Following today's announcement, at that point the carriers would still not yet have had that much money spent on them - it would be possible to cancel without throwing away too much cash.
In the meantime the present Harrier jumpjet force could be quietly got rid of; such schemes are rumoured already to exist. This would kill off the Navy jet community. The upcoming test and evaluation phase of the new F-35B stealth jumpjets might produce unfavourable results, or could be made to seem as if it had.
The RAF might then decide that actually it didn't want any jumpjets for land operations after all - it would rather spend that money on something else, notably its desired enhancement package to the Tranche 3 Eurofighters, turning them into the deep-strike bombers the airmen crave.
The Navy would be unable to fund anything like two carriers' worth of F-35Bs alone - and might find it very hard to argue that this should be done, if it turns out as some suspect that the F-35Bs will struggle to land back on a ship without dumping weapons beforehand. (This would prevent them putting up standing air patrols.)
Arguments for proper carriers with proper carrier jets could be even harder to push through. Such a plan would save money and provide much better capability overall, but more cash would need to be spent early on - on enhancing the ships - and the desperate cry in the present overbooked MoD budget is all for postponement of spending today at almost any price tomorrow.
An incoming Conservative government might then decide to cancel the carriers altogether in 2010, caring little about job losses in Scottish constituencies where nobody votes Tory anyway. In public, ministers would argue that the project had been hopelessly botched by Labour, essentials must be focused upon etc etc. (Some of us still remember the early 1990s, when the Conservatives cynically shifted Trident submarine refit work south at huge cost, abandoning a partly-completed drydock in Gordon Brown's stronghold north of the Forth bridges.)
And the UK would wind up with a Navy which had shrunk seriously in order to get its carriers - and then didn't get them anyway.
More seriously, Britain would find that whenever a crisis erupted in a warzone somewhere, there would be a need to establish a secure air base ashore nearby. This would mean weeks spent getting diplomatic clearance, concessions made to unsavoury regimes - assuming approval was forthcoming at all - then more time and danger putting troops in to secure the base and guard its perimeter. Surface routes for locally-sourced supplies like bulk fuel would need to be established.
Eventually, the base would hopefully be there - a primary target for attack by suicide bombers, rockets, mortars and so on. Its supply convoys would be easily hit by roadside bombs. Every flight in or out would be at risk from shoulder-fired missiles. But it might be there.
The job then might get done, but it would be a lot harder, cost more to do, and we'd be a lot slower to get started.
The option of the Prime Minister simply saying "send the on-duty carrier" wouldn't be there. That's a shame. If the UK had a carrier group patrolling the world, it would probably already be lurking near any likely warzone. It would be on station within days of getting orders. The vast majority of the world's population lives near the sea, so a carrier and accompanying auxiliaries packed with copters and marines are generally very much in your face. The UK's existing carriers were actually very handy in the entry phase of the current Afghan involvement, even though Afghanistan is far from the sea.
Once the carrier arrived, the skies would be ours - there are only a handful of national air forces which can resist a strong carrier air group. Once you own the air, in the era of smart weapons and airborne surveillance the serious land fighting is largely over. Tanks, artillery, missile batteries and so on can't survive under hostile skies.
The logistic hub would then be mostly on ships offshore - that's where jets and choppers would be fuelled and serviced, where troops could stand down from operations (or stage through to somewhere nicer). Bulk supplies would arrive cheaply and safely by ship. Urgent stuff flown in longhaul from the UK could be collected from regional ports by auxiliary vessels or choppers - or parachuted in if it was a real rush job.
Our people ashore would have the helicopters and close air support they'd need, could easily generate and supply forward outposts as they needed to, and would have hugely less in the way of vulnerable bases and supply lines to guard. They'd have a safe option to evacuate, too, if things went totally wrong (you can't make a fighting retreat by air, but it has been done by sea on many occasions).
So people who argue that carriers are in some way irrelevant to ordinary modern-day wars are talking through their hats - very likely hats coloured air force blue.
Alright, but what about big serious wars? Suppose someone came at us with a decent navy, or up-to-date shipkilling missiles? Often the carrier-haters will execute a volte-face and say that the big ships can't survive in a fullbore war against enemies with serious kit.
Let them come, provided our carrier airgroup has airborne surveillance planes up. These will pick out any air or sea attack far away, and the carrier's patrolling strike fighters will pounce at once - if necessary shooting down sea-skimming missiles from behind, a feat far easier and cheaper to achieve than trying to do it from ahead with a multibillion-pound miracle destroyer screen.
There is still the threat of supersonic shipkillers fired from the shoreline, but these aren't like anti-aircraft missiles - they can't be fired from the shoulder. You're looking at a massive missile vehicle and a large team of people, not an invisible insurgent-type threat. Any such hostile units will have been wiped out by our first wave, by strike jets or cheap cruise missiles, assuming such rare enemies even exist locally. Even if a few survive somehow in secret, they can't shoot unless they know just where our ships are - and every shot is a death warrant for the team firing it, so they aren't going to start popping off at random.
The UK needs carriers with strong air groups, both for the ordinary wars of every day and the ones which will hopefully never happen against big enemies. Unbelievably, the government is postponing these ships, exposing them to serious risk of cancellation. Nobody is even thinking about binning the Nimrod MRA4 subhunters, which will cost more than the carriers to buy and are no use to man or beast. Tens of billions will be spent over the next few decades running these ridiculous white elephants, the last 12 De Havilland Comets in the world: that's a major part of the reason we can't fund the carriers.
Another measure announced today is confirmation of the "Future Lynx" helicopter order from the AgustaWestland factory in Dorset, along with plenty more cash to that factory for maintenance and upgrades to helicopters it has already made. (The existing Lynxes can't actually get off the ground in Afghanistan when it's hot, so they are to be upgraded at massive expense.) Many had been hoping to see this programme axed altogether, so AgustaWestland will no doubt be heaving a huge sigh of relief.
Still, at least helicopters are useful, right? Our embattled troops in Afghanistan will be glad to have them. Perhaps the government's got something right for once.
Sadly, no, it hasn't.
The Future Lynxes are incredibly bad value for money. They will be delivered in two variants: a naval version intended to carry weapons and sensors, and a stripped-down army version capable of lifting small cargoes or parties of troops. The full 70-aircraft order is priced at £1bn, putting the aircraft at an average of £15m. The navy ones will cost more and the army ones less, but that's the average. AgustaWestland say that this will safeguard 900 jobs in Yeovil.
But our troops won't benefit in a hurry - the Future Lynxes are to be delivered from 2011, and that's only if they arrive on time. Based on previous experience, they might go operational a year or three after that.
Just by way of comparison, six months after the Future Lynx buy was first announced the US Navy ordered 10 Sikorsky Seahawk choppers, twice the size and twice as powerful as a Lynx, for £6m each as opposed to £15m. Those aircraft have already been delivered. The bare-bones army version of the same helicopter, the Blackhawk, would be even cheaper.
In other words, we could have ordered Seahawks and Blackhawks instead of Lynxes, getting bigger and more powerful choppers - and ones for which parts and support would be cheaper (the world Seahawk/Blackhawk fleet is huge, offering economies of scale the Lynx will never match). We'd be getting those aircraft right now, and our troops would be very pleased with us right now - not waiting another four years for inferior substitutes which will cost more to run.
We could then give the 900 sacked workers in Yeovil payoffs of half a million pounds each: and we would still have saved nearly a quarter of a billion pounds compared to what we are doing in reality.
Who's the winner with Future Lynx? Not the troops. Not us taxpayers, that's for sure. Not the workers at AgustaWestland either - they aren't getting all that missing cash, they'd mostly jump at the chance of a half-million pound payoff.
Absolutely nobody wins here except shareholders and senior management at AgustaWestland. Nobody wins except the devious arms-industry lobbyists who infest Parliament and Whitehall like a plague of well-fed cockroaches.
At this point, the armsbiz fatcats concerned usually start talking about "sovereignty" - that is, it's better to pay double or triple in money, time and blood so as to have "British made" kit. With Seahawks and Blackhawks, you'd need to go cap in hand to the Yanks for parts all the time. Not good.
What they don't mention is that the Future Lynx uses American engines, dependent on an American support base - so you have to go cap in hand to the Yanks anyway. And, just as an extra benefit, you are also dependent on parts and support from Italy and France as well.
So "sovereignty" is snake oil, and the whole deal is a colossal ripoff. The helicopter factory in Yeovil has done this to us time and time again - in the case of the British-built Apache attack copters bought in the 1990s, every worker whose job was "saved" (so that it could be expensively "saved" again now) could easily have been given a full million pounds to go away, had we simply bought our Apaches from the US assembly line. And we'd still have saved hundreds of millions.
The gloom doesn't stop there. Recently the British Army managed to insist that it didn't want to pay for the modernisation of the moribund UK tank industry. For their new miracle-vehicle plan, FRES*, the soldiers decided to buy mostly American. General Dynamics was made "provisional preferred bidder". The programme would still have been a nightmare, as a well-protected vehicle light enough to be air freighted is pretty much impossible to build (another good reason to go by sea rather than air if possible). At least we wouldn't have been saddling ourselves with another bloodsucking UK factory, though.
But it appears that the British arms biz has managed to scupper the deal, using their "sovereignty" scam to brilliant effect. Essentially, the MoD rule is that even when the British forces are permitted to buy from overseas, UK industry must be allowed as much of the pork as possible - producing subsystems such as sensors, computers etc. British bits give a piece of kit more "operational sovereignty", goes the thinking.
Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?
Unfortunately, in the case of a high-tech integrated system like the proposed FRES Utility Vehicle, the Brit subcontractors can argue that the UK must be given full access to all the designs - all the intellectual property - of the main system, otherwise they can't compete for the subassembly deals.
A previous example was the F-35 jets, in fact, where after massive transatlantic wrangling the UK and its companies managed to gain full access to the latest American stealth technology. Some people at least in the USA were highly suspicious about this, hinting strongly that American tech was effectively being stolen for sale elsewhere.
Nobody is saying so publicly, but it seems clear that the Americans weren't going to let that happen again with General Dynamics' "Piranha" vehicle. The UK wouldn't get any special access, any more than a normal overseas customer gets to a US programme.
The Tories' defence spokesman, commenting on the matter yesterday to Bloomberg News, said: “The government has wasted time and money on a solution which required General Dynamics to concede something that they were never going to give.”
But it wasn't the British Army's need for vehicles which "required" General Dynamics to hand over all their technology to UK industry. It was UK industry's desire to have that technology, and to sell bits and pieces to the MoD even after they'd failed to win the contract. Other nations will buy Piranhas, and other American things like fighters or weapons, and they won't try to gouge kickbacks like this - they'll just buy what their troops need. Only in Britain does defence (and even foreign) policy get glovepuppeted quite so blatantly by the arms industry.
Anyway. The Army has apparently decided to cut its losses on the nigh-on-impossible Utility Vehicle, and will instead now look to award a contract for the smaller, less difficult Scout Vehicle requirement. Arguably the whole concept of armoured scouting has been rendered rather moot these days by such things as drone aircraft, but one may be sure that the Army's influential cavalry regiments won't agree; and their current vehicles are certainly aged and embarrassingly crap. It seems a safe bet that BAE Systems plc - owners of the remaining, decayed British tank factories - will be looking to set up another chain of bloodsucking Yeovil-style workforces on the back of this.
Let's hope the soldiery manage to give them the slip again: but one has to suspect that if they do, the government of the day will simply keep forcing them to reconsider until they agree to be bled white forever more.
All in all, a very good day for the UK's arms industry - and a damned bad one for the UK and its armed forces. ®
*Future Rapid Effects System