Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/24/richards_interview/

UK arms industry 'same as striking coal miners' - Army head

We need Maggie back to deal with them, says general

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 24th June 2010 12:57 GMT

Interview Blighty's top general - hotly tipped as the next head of the armed forces - has hinted strongly that the British defence industry can no longer expect to rely on sweetheart deals from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). He adds that modern warfare has now left the tank behind as surely as it has the horse.

General Sir David Richards is the current head of the British Army, and we here on the Reg defence desk were speaking to him earlier this month as part of a round table event at MoD headquarters organised by Prospect magazine.

As all the world that cares knows, the MoD is now passing through a Strategic Defence Review under the new government, in which its procurement plans (and thus in many cases the organisation of the Forces) will be brought into line with the future budget. At present, the stated equipment-buying programme is many billions more costly than the available money - and indeed it appears that that budget will now be cut substantially.

One major reason why the MoD's spending plans are so out of control - and have been since well before 9/11 - is the long-standing policy of buying kit in such a way as to place as much industrial work as possible here in Blighty, pretty well regardless of cost.

Thus it is that we find ourselves buying Nimrod MRA4 subhunters for the same price as a fleet of space shuttles, A400M transports for triple what it costs to buy much bigger C-17s, waiting years for overpriced Lynx helicopters when we could have had bigger, better, cheaper Blackhawks - sooner. And all the things we buy are still full of US or other foreign kit, so we wind up dependent on other nations for tech support anyway.

What does Richards, front runner to replace Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup as head of the combined armed forces this year, think of this?

"I would love to see a very prosperous British defence sector but I don’t think it’s the job of the military to prop up ailing industries," he told us, before going on to liken UK defence contractors to the former nationalised coal-mining industry - famously dubbed by Mrs Thatcher a system of "outdoor relief".

"If British industry can deliver, then fine," Richards told us. "But if they’re too expensive versus the competition then I don’t think it’s our job to spend money simply to keep those industries alive.

"Ultimately, it’s why Margaret Thatcher did what she did in the 1980s. You can love her or hate her, but she transformed the British economy at a time when it was going down the tube. We’ve got to be similarly robust in our approach to the British defence sector. And I’m pretty certain that that is the view of the new ministerial team in defence.

"There may be certain things we must keep — shipyards are one example. But tanks, vehicles, these can be produced very cheaply under mass production. If you’re only producing 300 for the British army they are going to be too expensive to export to anybody else. And probably too expensive for us."

That sounds uncompromising enough, but in fact the serious British tank industry is pretty much already gone*. Meanwhile a few shipyards are still fighting hard to stay alive and keep selling things to the Royal Navy, their only possible customer given their sky-high costs. So these comments by the general aren't terribly controversial in detail.

Even so, the overall thrust of his remarks - and the suggestion that "the new ministerial team" are also against propping up subsidy-guzzling British arms firms - may send something of a chill down spines at BAE Systems.

Things look bad for Armoured Juggernaut UK

Regarding just what things the British forces will give up in the impending review, the general was naturally cagey. However he did make comments suggesting that he sees himself as a potential head of all the forces, not just the Army.

"I’d like to see a bigger navy," he said - albeit one with "different ships, and ships we can afford". (The Type 45 destroyers now being delivered cost no less than £1.1bn apiece.)

There was potentially unpalatable news for the RAF, however.

"Well clearly the scope for unmanned aircraft is going to grow and grow," according to Richards.

As for the Army, the whole tone of the general's remarks suggested that the traditional armoured juggernaut - the UK's present just-about-division-size force of tanks, tracked infantry combat vehicles, self-propelled artillery and supporting armoured/mobile troops of all arms - is at least partially on its way out in this Review.

That's hardly a controversial idea in some ways. The last man to command the British armour in action - General Rupert Smith twenty years ago in Gulf War 1 - has since written that in his opinion the last real tank warfare took place twenty years before that, in the Arab-Israeli fighting of the 1970s.

Smith considers that the Iraqi army of 1991, in theory a strong armoured opponent, had been so cut up by allied air power that he and his tanks had little to do. He has since confirmed to your correspondent that were he in charge the current Challenger II main battle tank would not be replaced.

This viewpoint has been echoed to your correspondent by many lower-ranking modern soldiers, suggesting that the huge amounts of time and manpower they spend preparing for traditional armoured/manoeuvre battle are largely wasted - and are, perhaps, a reason for occasional poor performance in modern Afghanistan-style fighting.

On the other hand, the UK armoured division is a major cornerstone of today's Army - huge chunks of the service derive their identity and ostensible mission from being part of it or supporting it. A British Army without a major armoured formation would, indeed, undergo a massive organisational change - perhaps even more massive than the shift from horse to tank, as this mostly involved cavalry regiments simply changing mount.

It just could be that large amounts of the British cavalry will finally be forced to accept dismounted action as their formal primary role, rather than an occasional and regrettable expedient**. Likewise, the Royal Artillery's multiple regiments of traditional self-propelled guns and bombardment rockets might soon find themselves doing other work.

All in all, it's looking more and more likely that the £14bn budget of the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) - the replacement for the army's various kinds of armoured vehicles - is in line for a serious trim.

Sadly there wasn't time to draw Richards on specifics such as the future of Eurofighter, the Royal Navy's new carriers and their controversial F-35B stealth jumpjets etc. In any event, for now at least he remains head of the Army only - but rumour suggests that if the general does win the top job, change may be afoot in the other two services as well as among the soldiery.

It looks like some interesting times ahead for the British armed forces, no matter how things pan out. ®

Bootnotes

For General Richards' full official biography, look here. In brief: Artilleryman, Commando qualified, four pre-ceasefire tours in Northern Ireland, was UK commander for the East Timor and Sierra Leone interventions, then NATO commander in Afghanistan 2006-07, now head of the British Army.

*Brit firms such as Supacat are still making money selling the MoD such things as the highly popular Jackal - a mainly un-armoured weapons platform - but a new full-fat armoured vehicle will never again be made from scratch in Blighty. This is very largely a result of the decision by BAE Systems to invest in American armour firms (following the money) rather than here in Europe a few years ago.

**Of course the cavalry's real job on the battlefield, as the Punch cartoon caption of long ago put it so well, is "to lend tone to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl".