The killing of Vixen

Siemens and the MoD blame each other for cancellation of the military project

Over the next few weeks an independent arbitrator will attempt to unravel a row between Siemens Plessey Systems and the Ministry of Defence over the contract to supply a defence electronics system. At issue is what went wrong with Vixen – a project costing £50m and in development for more than a decade.

Vixen, an intelligence gathering system commissioned by the British Army, was cancelled two weeks ago. Siemens was paid the £50m, but the MoD wants its money back. Siemens has refused because it considers the equipment completed to order.

The project appears to have foundered on the rocks of rapidly changing international politics. The UK’s defence needs look different today than in 1987 when the contract was awarded. Much of the disagreement rests on how well Siemens was able to meet the army’s changing needs.

Vixen was designed to collect and analyse millions of electronic signals from the modern battlefield and position enemy movements by reading their electronic signature. It was to be used on the north German plain, to prepare for a purported Soviet invasion in East Germany and was intended to upgrade the manual system, Vampire, by installing software to the existing trucks and antennae.

When the contract was awarded to Plessey Defence Systems – an early day version of Siemens – the in-service date was 1991. Accepted slippage meant that it was not ready until 1994. Both sides agreed that tests at this stage proved the system’s designed capabilities. After these initial trials, however, the two sides have opposing views.

Siemens says the MoD changed its mind. By 1994, the political landscape had changed radically and the army wanted a more flexible system.

Siemens claims it built in extra flexibility, and tests were approved in 1995 and 1996.

But the MoD disputes this, claiming: `tests conducted during 1995 and 1996 demonstrated that Vixen has operational shortcomings’. The the system fell down on: `timeliness and quality of reporting, system availability and range, signals intelligence and the ability to support sustained operations’.

What went wrong? It has been suggested that the MoD changed its mind again and conducted its own separate trials, to see if it could expand the scope of Vixen, testing it for capabilities which it had not been designed for, and which were outside the contract.

All the MoD will say is that the tests were intended to help come up with an acceptable system.

If the MoD did change its mind on what it wanted Vixen to do, it is not likely to say. But it has done it before over the Boxer high security telephone network and the Defence Fixed Telecommunications System contract which selected a BT-led bid last November.

In the DFTS case, a change of heart by the MoD to extend the scope of the network was presented as a failure by the two bidders to come up with a viable solution.