One often hears the call for more military equipment to be obtained off the shelf to reduce in service timescales and costs. It is a well trodden path but it is not without its own particular set of issues and is not the panacea that is often supposed. There are couple of variants of off the shelf;
Military Off the Shelf (MOTS) describes military equipment that is available without significant development effort, certification or modification. Some minor work may be needed to customise them for the local market.
Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) describes civilian equipment that is available without significant development effort, certification or modification.
The goal of utilising off the shelf products is to achieve economies of scale, avoiding expensive bespoke development and small production runs. Military forces of all nations use a combination of MOTS and COTS products to a greater or lesser extent. Off the shelf products are also available, as the term implies, quickly.
For some items this obviously makes good sense and where timescales are tight and options are limited, it may be the only route available.
The recent Urgent Operational Request (UOR) system has been a success in delivering much needed equipment to operations, although it could be argued that many UOR’s are a fundamental failure of planning, many of the gaps they are filling are well documented and very rarely a surprise.
The Defence Industrial Strategy defines a number of capability areas where sovereign design, manufacture and maintenance should be maintained. One of the capabilities areas where sovereign capability was defined as not strategically important was vehicles.
In mid 2005 these two factors conspired to create circumstances where a military off the shelf product was the only solution.
The increasing unsuitability of existing vehicles in Iraq against the threat of IED’s resulted in an Urgent Operational Requirement for protected patrol vehicles able to survive IED attacks. The issue of IED protected vehicles is a controversial one but there can be no doubt that the MoD was slow to react even though it had had much experience in Bosnia with this type of vehicle and the overall need for them. Incredibly, the ones used in Bosnia by the Royal Engineers for route proving were sold to other nations, subsequently turning up in Iraq whilst UK personnel were being killed and injured in Snatch Land Rovers. There have been many reasons put forward for this lateness including basic arrogance, a lack of appreciation of the threat and its wider strategic implications and the desire to preserve funding for the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES).
When the MoD did move, it was late and under severe pressure not only from the troops in theatre but a wide coalition of bloggers, political commentators, journalists, MP’s, the families of those killed and injured in lesser protected vehicles and former senior military personnel.
One should also not discount the difference of opinion internally within the MoD.
Whilst the decision makers were obviously against the concept many in the MoD were not, their voices could not have been heard outside but they were voicing them nevertheless.
The MoD ultimately had to move and move quickly.
The normal route would have been to create a statement of requirements and go down the normal procurement process, a process which would have cost a small fortune and resulted in a vehicle available for service years after the conflict had ended.
The MoD did not have the time and therefore in the absence of a UK manufactured product (remember the DIS, vehicles are no longer part of the strategic manufacturing landscape) it had to look elsewhere.
Enter Force Protection with its Cougar product, a product that was saving lives on a regular basis in service with the US armed forces in Iraq.
The Mastiff is a medium mobility design derived from the US Force Protection Cougar 6×6. Additional modifications included electronic countermeasures, BOWMAN radio installation, additional side armour to protect against off route mines using explosively formed projectiles(EFP) and a number of other minor modifications. It took only 23 weeks after the decision was made to procure the Mastiff before it was deployed in theatre, a superb achivement.
The modifications were carried out by a UK company, NP Aerospace. NP aerospace have have a long track record in modifying vehicles for use in hostile conditions, much of its business is for protected saloons. They are an extremely well established MoD supplier supplying body armour, helmets and the CAMAC composite armour system.
First deployed to Iraq where they were an instant success the Mastiffs were eventually deployed to Afghanistan.
The terrain of Afghanistan is much harsher and challenging than Iraq and this together with the intensity of operations in Afghanistan combined with the extra weight inherent with the Mastiff modifications placed considerable strain on the vehicle. Without apportioning blame the demand for spare parts was significantly greater than planned for and as the spares demand system started to move it eventually ended up at the contract holder, NP Aerospace.
It was here that problems arose.
Problem Number 1 – None on the shelf
Force Protection inc in the USA were working flat out to meet demand from the USA and other countries and in addition US law states that the needs of the US military come first. Spare parts were increasingly difficult top obtain as parts were being assembled into complete vehicles as fast as they could.
Problem Number 2 – You can only buy them from us but we don’t have any, sorry
The second issue is a contractual one. The terms of the contract between NP Aerospace and Force Protection stated that NP Aerospace could only source spare parts from Force Protection, a fairly typical single source contract. This is not as mean spirited as it might sound and is simply Force Protection seeking to protect and maximise their investment. Force Protection had invested significant sums in design and development, created a large manufacturing capability all largely speculatively before the large orders came in. They fully understood that production would peak and then tail off rapidly as orders were fulfilled, Force Protection is a single ‘product’ company so seeking to protect an ongoing revenue stream after the bulk of manufacturing orders had been fulfilled is entirely understandable.
As one can imagine, the small print of a contract thousands of miles away was of little value or interest to the REME vehicle mechanics in Helmand but the result was a lack of spares and a lack of spares meant a lack of serviceable vehicles, the number of VOR’s (Vehicle Off Road) mounted rapidly to a peak of 30%. Substitute vehicles were forced to be used one cannot be certain that these replacement vehicles, perhaps Snatch or Vector, were attacked. Operations might have been curtailed in other areas because of the lack of available vehicles.
The inference is obvious, a lack of spares meant a lack of vehicles which could have meant unnecessary injuries and deaths.
After 18 months of negotiations the contract was amended, NP Aerospace were allowed to source spares from other manufacturers and the problems largely resolved. The Mastiff 2 with improvements in most areas including better suspension and axles is being used in theatre.
Roll forward and NP Aerospace and Force Protection have formed a joint venture in the UK called Integrated Survivability Technologies Limited (IST). The new joint venture will be the single point of contact and design authority for all UK Force Protection variants including the Mastiff (Cougar 6×6), Ridgeback (Cougar 4×4), Wolfhound (cargo variant of the Mastiff) and the Buffalo mine protected vehicle that is part of the Talisman route clearance system.
Despite these issues the Mastiff has been a great success but because of the speed of deployment the traditional and largely unseen by the public activities such as establishing spares demand profiles based on trials usage patterns, driver training, maintenance training and documentation were slower to be established, real problems resulted and the spares issue is perhaps the highest profile of many.
With the benefit of hindsight it is obvious that the contract between NP Aerospace and Force Protection was unsuitable but when the MoD is forced to rely on external parties, in this case NP Aerospace, for relatively simple integration work it is only once removed from the small print.
In years past this integration would have been carried out by the MoD itself and the contract for spares much more robust.
The UOR system should be commended but it creates many problems not least of which is the obvious need to buy more or less off the shelf.
By neglecting your own manufacturing and integration capability, either public or private, you are forced into a position of having to look on someone else’s shelf, after queuing at the shop door.