Why is the British Army’s equipment procurement so shambolic?

Why is the British Army’s equipment procurement so shambolic?

by Stuart Crawford
article from Friday 16, October, 2020

GENERALLY SPEAKING, the British electorate doesn’t take much interest in defence matters. There are obvious exceptions to this statement – Battle of Britain Day, Remembrance Sunday, and various other anniversaries like Arnhem and D Day which seemed to come all at a rush recently. But for the rest of the time public knowledge of the military is rather as it was during Victorian times. We know we’ve got armed forces, but where they are and what they’re doing generally passes your average civilian by.

For military nerds and geeks (like me), though, there’s just so much going on. At the strategic level, if you like, there’s something called the Integrated Security and Defence Review (ISDR), a stop-start process which has been interrupted by the pandemic but which is apparently back on the move again and due to conclude this November, according to some sources. It is, essentially, the UK’s review of our security, defence, development, and foreign policy, which should march hand-in-hand with a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and it is hoped it will deliver its recommendations shortly. I’m not holding my breath, but such reviews come round with monotonous regularity in military circles and usually translate as “budget cuts”. But we’ll see in due course.

It’s the defence part of this process I’m interested in really, and there has been much chatter amongst those for whom military matters are their thing. And, because I used to work in the equipment procurement area when I was in uniform, I am particularly interested in that aspect of it all. Also, I used to be a tank soldier and that was my area of expertise if I could claim to any, so the British experience of procuring its armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) is a topic I continue to follow. 

By way of background, I think it’s fair to say that the British army as a whole has been sucking on the hind tit of late compared to the largesse which has been lavished on the other services. The Royal Navy (RN) has probably fared best of all in recent years, with two brand new aircraft carriers in HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales now in its inventory, the Offshore Patrol Vessels of which the fifth has just been delivered, plus the T26 frigates now in build, and the T31 frigates more or less confirmed, on top of which there appears to be no stopping the Dreadnought SSBN programme which will provide the next generation of delivery means for the UK’s Trident nuclear armed missiles.

The RAF has done not too badly either, with Typhoon now in service and upgraded, the introduction of the F-35B Lightning II (shared with the RN), ongoing purchase of the P8 Poseidon Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft (MRA), the initiation of the future Tempest aircraft programme to replace Typhoon (and F-35B?) and various other enhancements in the training fleet. Meanwhile the Army has looked on enviously from the sidelines, stuck with an ageing if not obsolescent vehicle and weapons inventory which is badly in need of upgrading and/or replacement. It seems like the Army has lost the habitual inter-service battle over finance in the last few spending rounds, and it isn’t looking any more optimistic for its prospects in the IDSR, I’m afraid.

Why should this be so? Well, some might say that the Army had its shot in the early 2000s, when embroilment in Iraq and Afghanistan prompted a flurry of urgent operational requirement (UOR) equipment purchases to provide special-to-theatre equipment, most of which no doubt languishes unloved in draughty warehouses awaiting the “next time”. Others might aver that the Army has simply been outmanoeuvred by the other two services in the corridors and tearooms of Whitehall. Or perhaps it is just that the focus of British military doctrine, such as it is, has shifted to favour expeditionary operations which tend to be RN or RAF-led. I suspect it is a combination of these and other factors, which we will look at later. But let’s first have a look at the Army’s AFV procurement programmes and see where it has all been going wrong. 

Challenger 2 

Starting at the very top of the food chain we have Britain’s current main battle tank (MBT), Challenger 2 (CR2). I have written elsewhere why CR2 was the wrong choice in the first place and won’t bore you with the details now. Suffice to say we staff officers recommended the purchase of the German Leopard 2 (Leo 2) at the time. 

A total of 446 CR2 were delivered; 408 to the British Army and 38 to Oman. No other nation has purchased them. In stark contrast, 3,600 Leo 2s have been built and are operated by roughly 20 nations with a couple more in the pipeline. On top of this, or perhaps because of this, Leo 2 has had continuous updates since its first introduction into the Bundeswehr in 1979 and the wider user community has benefitted from the economies of scale its overall numbers allow. In contrast, CR2  has had minimal, if any, real enhancement since it entered service in 1998 – 22 years ago.

CR2 now compares badly to Leo 2 (and other MBTs too). In particular, its gun/ammunition combination is now inferior, it does not share NATO ammunition compatibility because it has a different gun (rifled, as opposed to smoothbore on Leo 2), and is badly in need of upgrading in other areas. There are, however, various programmes to effect this upgrade, of which we need only concern ourselves with two here. These are the Challenger Lethality Improvement Programme (CLIP), which basically sought to replace the British rifled gun with the German Rheinmetall 120 mm smoothbore, and the Challenger Life Extension Programme (CLEP) which proposed a multitude of other improvements. 

Neither programme has progressed beyond demonstrator vehicles and both are now at risk of funding being withdrawn in the ISDR. If CLEP does go ahead, which appears doubtful, it may be that only 150 of the remaining fleet of 227 will be upgraded, which has led to many of us commenting that the UK might as well give up its MBT capability altogether. 

Warrior 

Now let’s look at the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). Even older than CR2, and originally designed to replace the ancient FV432 Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) which equipped British mechanised infantry battalions, Warrior was accepted into service in 1984. The British army got a total of 789 Warrior and variants, while a further 254 of a modified version called Desert Warrior were produced for the Kuwaitis.

Since then, apart from new radios and thermal imaging (TI) sights on some of the vehicles, plus protection enhancements for various conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Warrior has remained basically the same and is in dire need of either replacement or further upgrading. The Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme (WCSP) plans to enhance some, but not all, of the fleet to bring it up to date and allow it to soldier on until 2040, when some of the hulls may be over 50 years old. A new turret and gun are also part of the programme. However, as at June this year the programme was running four years late and some £227 million over budget. It too is ripe for the chop. 

Ajax & Boxer 

All of this pales into significance, however, when compared to the disastrous slow-motion car crash that is Britain’s attempts to modernise its light-to-medium AFV fleet, which, amongst other things, is needed to replace the aforementioned FV432 (introduced in the early 1960s, maybe as many as 500 still in British service) and the Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance, Tracked (CVRT) fleet (one of whose design parameters was allegedly to be able to pass between rubber trees in Malaysian plantations, which shows its age). Others have written in detail on this fiasco but it is a sorry tale. Recently, an expert witness at the Defence Select Committee inquiry into the topic suggested that £5.6 billion had been expended since year 2000 and not one vehicle had been delivered to units to date. (Not quite true; fourAres versions of the Ajax series have been delivered at time of writing.)

However, the UK has, at long last and much wasted time and expense, eventually settled – we think – on its future medium AFV equipments in the form of Ajax and Boxer. Ajax is the long-awaited replacement for CVR(T) and in its primary form is a tracked, turreted vehicle with a suite of sensors more fitting for the modern battlefield. It is also a much more substantial AFV, weighing in at 32 tonnes compared to CVR(T)’s 8.2 tonnes. Sadly, however, the programme has once again been beset with difficulties and most recently the first batch of production standard vehicles was found to be “not ready for delivery”. Not for the first time, therefore, its planned in service date has been delayed.

The British procurement of Boxer, an eight-wheeled MIV of German-Dutch design (mainly) and which has had considerable success on the international arms market, is also a salutary saga. It is a modular design, comprising a drive module and interchangeable mission modules and is by all accounts an impressive vehicle. To date Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Australia have adopted it, with the UK, Algeria, and Slovenia next in line. But Britain was part of the original international consortium at the very start of the Boxer project, together with Germany and France, way back in the late 1990s, only to withdraw from the programme in 2003 to pursue UK national projects. The UK then re-joined the project in 2018 when national alternatives had come to nought. In effect the UK will get Boxer at least ten years late and no doubt at significant additional cost. 

On top of all this, we should just mention artillery and air defence in passing. Whilst the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) fielded by the Royal Artillery (RA) is probably still marginally current, the rest of the British army’s elderly systems – the AS90 self propelled 155mm gun and the 105mm Light Gun – are both now outmatched, outranged, and outnumbered by peer level potential enemies, in particular Russia. In addition, recent experience of the vulnerability of AFVs to drones and loitering munitions in the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict show the importance of integrated air defence in the deployment of armoured formations. Once again the UK is found badly wanting here. The budget currently does not cater to improvements and/or replacement of either.

I could go on, but by now I think the picture has been adequately painted. The big question is, of course, why has all of this happened? I believe there are several reasons. First and most importantly, my own admittedly not-so-recent time spent in defence procurement demonstrated to me a sclerotic system firmly rooted in the past. In the 1920s-1950s, even during the Second World War, Britain’s AFV production effort has been described as a cottage industry, with assorted firms and teams, some competent and innovative, some not, tinkering away on their own pet projects with no real sense of a coordinated, national effort. 

I suspect aspects of this may pertain today, that is if there’s much AFV industry left. The MoD effort seemed to be mired in the days when you built a prototype, tested it, bent some metal to iron out the glitches and repeated the system ad nauseam. No wonder the flash-to-bang time of UK AFV procurement has tended historically to be in excess of ten years. (That is the time between conception and delivery. Army slang relating to the time between the flash of the gun and the bang of the round arriving.) This is hopeless, of course, when modern advances in technology can render new equipment obsolete in about six months!

It also doesn’t help when military officers in the equipment procurement world tend to hold their positions short term, with most being posted elsewhere within an 18 months to two-year timeframe to ensure their planned career paths continue. Accordingly military officers are seldom around to take responsibility for the decisions they make, which can lead to a certain sang froid when dealing with such matters. And the important decisions are usually taken by senior officers who may not be up-to-speed with more recent technological developments, leaving them easy prey to persuasion from commercial interests.

This egregious state of affairs is exacerbated by what defence analysis Francis Tusa has labelled during evidence given to the Select Defence Committee, 6th October 2020, as “British exceptionalism”, sometimes described less kindly as “not invented here syndrome”. This is an institutionalised resistance in the equipment procurement system to anything that does not originate within the UK or from UK initiatives, which is surprising given that the British armed services are awash with weapons systems sourced from abroad. The “exceptionalism” bit kicks in when, even when accepting another country’s AFV, for example, as being the best fit for the requirement, there is insistence on a multitude of changes to make it “ours”. 

Then there’s “specification creep” and “gold-plating”, in which the requirement itself changes owing to new advances or trying to make things better or do additional things. All of which flies in the face of the old adages that the best is the enemy of the good enough, and better to achieve 80 per cent of the requirement on time than 100 per cent too late. 

Put all of these factors together and they go some way to explaining the disaster that has been British defence procurement over the past 20 years. The UK is now faced with a situation where more or less the entire British army’s equipment is obsolescent and needs replacing at the same time, there isn’t enough money in the budget to do it, and what funds as exist are in danger of being cut in the ISDR. Something is going to have to give, and the clever money is on the abandonment of CR2 LEP and Warrior WCSP, but we shall see.

Against this background we can only hope that Dominic Cummings gets his wish and goes through the MoD like a dose of salts. But even if he does, those responsible for the debacle will be long gone, tending their rose gardens in Wiltshire and huffing and puffing from their leather armchairs in their London clubs. No blame will be laid and no heads will roll. It has ever been thus. 

The British army deserves better than this. Who will rise to the challenge? Famously, Winston Churchill put Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian newspaper magnate, in charge of RAF aircraft production during the early days of the Second World War to galvanise the industry. Will Boris Johnson take a leaf from his averred hero’s book and do the same for the British army? 

© Stuart Crawford 2020 

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