Government ministers have often claimed that British servicemen in Afghanistan are better equipped than ever. There is some truth in this, particularly in terms of the soldiers’ personal equipment. But there are some glaring deficiencies, as the recent admission that there are too few helicopters and the continuing vulnerability of army transports to roadside bombs, have shown. A recent Populus poll for the Times found that two-thirds of the public ‘think that British soldiers have been killed or injured as a direct result of being poorly equipped’.
Major systems take a couple of decades to bring into service. For example, the new aircraft carriers will have taken about 18 years, even if there are no further slip-ups, and the Bowman communications system took 20 years to introduce a fraction of its capability. There are many reasons that contribute to this unsatisfactory state of affairs, such as the use of immature technology, annual savings measures, an inability of the user to make up its mind and short job tenures.
The result is that in-service dates are repeatedly missed and existing equipment must be replaced before its planned replacement is developed: operational reality then demands ‘quick fixes’.
Over the last few years, the MoD has rushed much equipment to operational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan through the Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) process. Unlike ‘normal’ procurement, UOR acquisition has a culture and procedures that quickly get urgently needed equipment into the field.
Clearly, the normal procurement procedures could learn from the UOR process, but while this process is effective at filling gaps quickly, there are downsides. These include lack of coherence with other equipment, lack of funding for support and manning, difficulties with training and the need to buy from offshore in many cases. But if we are to depend so heavily on UORs, three factors are essential to develop field equipment quickly: expertise within the MoD to identify the equipment needed, a thoroughly professional R&T (research and technology) base and an extensive onshore defence industry. All three of these capabilities have been seriously eroded in the past few decades.
The last of these is particularly worrying and was addressed in 2005 by the Defence Industrial Strategy. This identified what industrial skills, capabilities, capacities and technology we need to maintain onshore to ensure operational independence — in other words sovereignty. But progress in implementing this initiative has been slow.
DIS had several weaknesses: it failed to identify the necessary funding, its plan for culture change was weak and it largely neglected R&T, reinforcing the impression that defence R&T was not accorded much importance by MoD mandarins and chiefs of staff. The true R&T budget (excluding paper studies and advice to project managers on competitive tenders) is tiny and has been consistently cut over the past decade or so. More cuts are apparently in the pipeline.
In addition, the output from research is less than it should be. One reason for this is the ‘valley of death’ — the period between the completion of a research programme and its incorporation into the concept stage of a project when funding dies, sometimes for several years. By then, the research may well have been overtaken by events.
The weaknesses of DIS were meant to be addressed in a follow-on document that would also have specified the funding needed for its recommendations. This is now seemingly on ice and without it, DIS itself is dead.
If UK defence R&T continues to decline, if the MoD fails to identify funding to implement DIS fully, and if gaps in defence capability are filled with equipment from overseas, the UK will become more dependent on US technology and the UK defence industry will continue its decline. Small companies will either collapse or migrate to the civil sector and large companies will relocate to the US.
After the next election there will inevitably be deep cuts in government expenditure and defence will have to bear its share and possibly more. A major defence review is necessary to match available funding to commitments, because currently we are fighting a war in Afghanistan with too few troops, deficiencies in equipment and a peacetime mentality. Is it too much to hope that a new government will right that wrong?
Brigadier Bill Kincaid, CBE, is the editor of RUSI Defence Systems