Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/11/drayson_chiefs_lockout/

Drayson locks Forces chiefs out of Defence budget carve-up

Arms biz gets unfettered access to MoD coffers

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 11th February 2010 10:02 GMT

Lord Drayson, the British arms industry's man inside the Ministry of Defence, has moved to lock the heads of the armed services out of the room in which the Forces' future is to be settled. This is being billed as an attempt to prevent interservice bickering, but it will leave the rapacious UK arms business facing almost no uniformed opposition in its bid to pocket more government cash.

The Financial Times, having seen a copy of a speech to be delivered by Drayson, reports that a new MoD committee set up to "review direction and affordability" will not include the heads of the army, navy and air force “because we need to fix the counter-productive incentives within the system”, according to Drayson.

“We need to make sure that the decisions made about capability are rigorously examined... from the perspective of Defence overall and not a single viewpoint within Defence,” the noble lord is expected to add.

The only uniformed officers on Drayson's new committee will be the chief and vice-chief of defence staff, the UK's top serviceman and his deputy. Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, the topmost brass hat, is serving an extended term in the post - a move which was widely interpreted as being made in order to keep General Richard Dannatt, the former head of the Army well known for his clashes with political superiors, out of the job.

Lord Drayson's ostensible attempt to stop the Forces fighting for expensive projects which do little to boost the UK's punch - but much to bolster a given service's budget - is in theory a good idea.

The RAF, left to itself, would squander fortunes on buying more Eurofighters and then turning them into a deep-strike force capable of penetrating strong enemy air defences - a thing that it is vanishingly unlikely the UK will need to do. The Army is currently planning to spend no less than £14bn recreating its heavy tank force, despite the fact that it is 20 years since that force went to war - and the general who commanded it then has since said that in fact the last real tank battles ever seen took place 20 years before that.

The Navy is also wasting money foolishly at the moment, not on aircraft carriers as everyone thinks - those are a good idea and a joint-service one to boot, and cheap in this context at £4-5bn - but on billion-pound unarmed missile destroyers.

Unfortunately, empire-building by the services is only one of the reasons why defence procurement is such a disaster area in the UK. The other and much more malevolent factor is the colossal influence wielded by the UK's arms industry: BAE Systems plc and its various compatriots.

Almost totally regardless of prices, delivery times or capability delivered, equipment for our forces is always chosen so as to give as much work as possible to these companies. The jobs so created or safeguarded are bought unbelievably dearly: it is normal to find that much better equipment could have been bought for earlier delivery, every sacked or not-hired worker given at least a million pounds, and still there would be a nine-figure saving to the public coffers compared to what is actually done.

Nor does the placing of work in the UK offer us any independence from foreign supplies. A "British made" helicopter, aircraft, missile etc will contain engines and other vital equipment from abroad, so we remain dependent on other countries for tech support and parts.

The champagne will be popping tonight at BAE Systems

As for the idea that this colossal waste of money - and waste of our soldiers' lives as a result - is made up for by valuable export sales, that's a fantasy. Defence manufactures amount to £1-2bn of exports in a normal year - a fraction of a percent of the total - and are counterbalanced by three-quarters of a billion or more in imports (for instance the foreign parts used in "British made" systems). The benefit to our balance of payments, a few hundred million pounds, is minute compared to the annual multibillion subsidies required to obtain it.

But still the same decisions are made, and inferior equipment is purchased at triple price with long delays. The vast revenues which result enable the deployment of an army of lobbyists both overt and covert, infesting Whitehall and Parliament like a murmurous plague.

Foremost among those lobbyists is Lord Drayson himself, who from his earliest days in parliament as MoD purchasing minister has been known as British industry's friend. It was he who drafted the infamous, completely unaffordable Defence Industrial Strategy, effectively a guarantee to the UK military-industrial base that it would continue to exist in perpetuity no matter what it did.

But Drayson's huge raid on the military coffers eventually ran into trouble. His plan to divert the army's new supertank budget into resuscitating the moribund British armoured-vehicles industry was scuppered by determined opposition from the soldiery, who wanted a cheaper American-supplied vehicle and said so in public. Drayson resigned in a rage, claiming that he wanted to spend more time racing his biofuelled car.

But he didn't stay away long. Nowadays he wears two ministerial hats, one from the biz ministry and a strange specially-created MoD one which seems to make him just as powerful as the Secretary of State for Defence. In effect, Drayson's former undisclosed role as the British arms industry's man in the MoD has now been formalised and upgraded.

The squabbling admirals, generals and air-marshals are tiresome indeed. But locking them out of the room while leaving the arms industry's point man inside - to be restrained only by the compliant Sir Jock and a comparatively unknown general - is very bad news indeed for our armed forces.

We can expect to see the Eurofighter madness go ahead unimpeded, as it offers plenty of cash for BAE Systems and is dear to Sir Jock's heart. The army may get its highly questionable new supertanks, provided it agrees to have them made at least partly in Britain at vast cost - and also to wait years while the UK tank industry is rebuilt from scratch.

But the new F-35B supersonic stealth jumpjets to fly from the planned, catapult-less carriers will be in line for the axe, as they are made mostly abroad. This isn't the end of the world in itself, but it imperils the carriers: even though it would not cost much (in this context) to add catapults to them, and so permit the purchase of hugely cheaper aircraft.

Those aircraft too would be imports, though - either F-35C tailhook stealth planes, or extremely affordable and capable F-18 Hornets, plus Hawkeye radar platforms - so Drayson is unlikely to smile on such a plan. And as there will be nobody at all in Navy blue on his new committee, he'll probably get his way.

It's to be hoped that this new committee won't survive Drayson's likely ministerial demise at the election and go on to influence the following defence review, but that may be too much to wish for. ®