Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/09/02/dic_shoots_self_in_foot/

Arms biz: Your taxes mainly go on our fat salaries! Ha ha!

'We don't want to highlight Afghanistan'

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 2nd September 2009 07:44 GMT

Analysis Yesterday the UK's arms industry launched its renewed pitch for more government money. Shooting themselves in the foot somewhat, assembled weapons-biz kingpins revealed that - by their own estimation - the UK taxpayer is already supporting at least twice as many well-paid British arms workers as there are (poorly-paid) soldiers in the British army.

The revelations came at the Westminster launch on Tuesday of two reports from the Defence Industries Council (DIC), the British armsbiz trade body. According to the DIC:

The UK-based defence and security industry... employs 300,000 people across the UK.

Sir Kevin Tebbit, once the top civilian official at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and now chairman of Finmeccanica UK (parent company of the noted AgustaWestland helicopter plant), briefed reporters that 55,000 of these jobs "are linked to exports". Martin Faussett of Rolls Royce added that defence workers "are paid significantly more than average".

That equates, of course, to approximately a quarter of a million well-paid UK armsbiz workers who have nothing to do with exports - in other words they live completely off the taxpayer, just the same as soldiers and civil servants. But there are, apparently, a lot more of them: and civil servants' pay is distinctly average, while soldiers' pay is well below average.

In fact, the British army is budgeted to have 101,000 soldiers on the payroll. Despite the fact that recruiting has improved lately, the army is still short of that figure by nearly 2,000. In general, fewer people apply to be soldiers than there are vacancies - and this is despite vigorous recruiting abroad and a serious rise in British unemployment.

It's not so much the risk of being killed or wounded that puts would-be soldiers off - anyone who has met British troops knows that those who haven't been in action are usually keen to experience it, and in fact some Irish recruits have given the chance of fighting as an attraction for joining the British forces.

What might put some people off, though, is the fact that starting pay for a combat soldier is under £14,000 - less than you can get as a kitchen potwash boy. Even as a veteran corporal years later, in charge of seven other men and enough firepower to blow up tanks or flatten small buildings, a soldier is still paid less than a police constable starts on.

Only as a sergeant, probably into his thirties - quite likely to be running a platoon of thirty men while training up a young officer to do so too - does a soldier start getting up to the average rates of pay enjoyed by the rest of us with our safe jobs back here in Blighty. And don't forget, we taxpayers are also coughing up for two or more arms workers per soldier, each paid, on average, more than we and the sergeant are.

As a final sting in the tail, our early-thirties sergeant is looking at compulsory retirement when he hits forty: there's no job for life for him, and his pension - while nice in terms of bennies per year served - reflects the fact that he probably won't be allowed to keep working for the government until retirement age, the way teachers and coppers and other civil servants do. And the soldier's government lodgings may well be quite disgusting, even with all the millions currently being ploughed into improving them.

So it's not too surprising that even the undeniable warrior spirit of old Blighty (and Ireland, Fiji, South Africa etc.) doesn't furnish enough recruits for the British army - this despite the fact that we have actually cut it in size quite substantially in the last few years.

At the moment, meanwhile, we have 9,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan. It's a not-very-well-kept secret that our generals are arguing that this is a foolish number - enough to hurt us, but not enough to dominate much ground or get much done. If Britain is to be in Afghanistan, they argue, it should take on the job seriously.

You may be against the Afghan war now - but chances are you weren't when it started

You might argue that the UK shouldn't be in Afghanistan at all, of course. It's a viewpoint which is apparently going majority. But the fact is that almost all of us thought our government was right to invade in the first place, in the months immediately after 9/11. Al-Qaeda was operating openly in Afghanistan at the time, with formed military units, as an honoured guest of the Taliban government - and the Taliban maintained that stance after the Twin Towers fell. Not just Britain but most of the civilised world sent troops to help the US-led invasion force which seized Kabul in 2001. Opinion polls at the time suggested that the public agreed wholeheartedly with this.

So we - not just our representatives, but we ourselves, in this case - decided to oust the existing government of Afghanistan. Several years later, having (arguably foolishly) also decided to invade Iraq, we British decided to try and extend the new Kabul government's authority into the largely unvisited south of the country. We found that it was in effect still occupied by the Taliban, and since then we have been fighting a bloody war to finish the job we began in 2001. If the UK pulls out at this point, the Taliban will be able - quite correctly - to claim that they have defeated the second-richest military power on Earth in open battle. It would be almost possible, at that point, to believe that God was indeed on their side.

So let's assume that we want to finish what we started, and try to place Afghanistan under a single government which understands that it mustn't plot to blow up skyscrapers in Western cities and then afterwards in effect say "yes, we did that and we're proud of it"*. Let's assume that our generals are right when they say we should send more troops - after all, armed forces almost 180,000 strong shouldn't find it impossible to put more than 9,000 bodies into theatre.

Why aren't we doing it?

Put bluntly, money. A soldier in Afghanistan has to be bought an almost complete new set of proper equipment, up to and including armoured vehicles - the ordinary non-Afghan issue is well known to be partly rubbish and completely missing lots of important stuff. He or she has to be shipped in and out of theatre on scarce military aircraft or expensively chartered Russian ones. So do a lot of the necessary supplies, and the rest must go by vulnerable heavily-guarded road convoy through tough country. More troops doing more operations means more need for aerial reconnaissance, for airstrike support, for satellite bandwidth - which is on a pay-as-you-go basis for the British forces - medics, helicopters etc. etc. More injuries means more compensation payouts - and if injured servicemen manage to get their money increased to the sort of levels awarded in civil cases, this could become big money indeed. Modern body armour and advanced combat medicine means that large numbers of troops who would formerly have died now live - but often in truly terrible shape.

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.