An Off the Shelf Lesson


When faced with the incredibly disturbing headlines of £15million light helicopters there is a temptation to automatically assume that a deal is a bad one because it is British. The Defence Industrial Strategy attempts to maintain both sovereign capabilities necessary for our strategic defence and a competitive landscape necessary for value for money.

It was actually a good attempt at balancing these seemingly opposing ideals but in the face of market led manufacturer consolidation and growth combined with short term and falling defence procurement budgets it is crying out for a revision. DIS 2 has long been promised but has now been kicked into the long grass of the next Strategic Defence Review, due, realistically after the next general election.

The difficulties of maintaining strategic sovereign capabilities AND a competitive market are not unique to the UK, looking at the G8 they all have the exactly the same problems to a greater or lesser degree. If one looks at the major equipments of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia or the USA there will be found mostly indigenous produced items. Aircraft, tanks, rifles, ships, helicopters and transport vehicles are typically those categories that have a large proportion of natively designed and produced equipments.

There are of course some variations but the trend is to by ‘home grown’

We should also not forget that after the USA we have the world’s largest defence export industry, earning valuable foreign currency, paying tax and supporting thousands of highly paid jobs, whose occupants also pay tax.

It is very tempting to say the Armed Forces should have the best the world can offer and to hell with the industrial consequences, the emotion of this argument is hard to counter but it is just as important for the status of the nation and in a practical way to own the means of maintaining one’s own defence.

When comparing Defence with other spending departments it should also be noted that other departments simply spend, health and social security for example, only support the economy by supporting a workforce. Defence not only does this but makes a significant contribution to the nation’s wealth by virtue of these exports.

Can we make a special case for defence?

With the rough comes the smooth, trying to juggle these conflicting priorities means we often end up with unmitigated disasters, huge losses, cancelled projects, poor equipment and massively late into service.

This is not however, systematic of having such an approach because there are examples where UK designed and produced equipment is both world beating in terms of capability but superb sellers on the open market.

These aircraft examples pre date the formalised DIS but are still relevant

The Case for the Prosecution – Nimrod AEW

A shocking waste of money, the Nimrod AEW3 was poorly conceived, badly managed and technologically well beyond the capabilities of the time. After extensive cost over runs the project was cancelled and the US AWACS purchased instead. The E3 Sentry AWACS was relatively low cost in comparison and has since given sterling service. The 11 Nimrods converted to AEW3 standard had the lowest flying hours in the overall fleet but because converted them back to MR2 standard would have been too expensive they were reduced to spares stock. The current problems with the Nimrod may well have been relieved by having these airframes available.

Buying off the shelf resulted in a relatively quick and relatively low cost capability that has enduring utility.

The Case for the Defence – The Hawk Trainer

The Hawk single engine jet trainer has not only given sterling and unsung service it has sold like hot cakes. Although perhaps coming to the end of its useful export life users include the USA, Australia, Canada, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Oman amongst many more.

The Case for the Confused – Apache WAH64 Attack Helicopter

We could have purchased the Apache helicopter direct from the USA but seemingly gold plated it, resulting in it being late into service and hugely expensive in comparison. But, look at this gold plating and it becomes evident why things are never clear cut. Improvements over the standard model include folding blades so it can go to see (the USA have the USMC Cobra so folding blades were never a requirement for the US Army), vastly improved avionics, sensors, defensive aids and other areas. It also changed the engine to a type that was planned to be in service on the Merlin, much more power as well. The cost savings of this decision should not be underestimated; maintaining logistic, training and maintenance streams for two engines when one might do is significant. Invest in one area and avoid spending more in another or achieve significant performance uplift. In fact, the US Army are now looking to transfer some of the technology from ours to their versions. The first 8 airframes were manufactured in the USA and the rest at Westlands and the overall programme was a significant investment at about £2.5 billion. Roughly a staggering £35-40 million each, hugely expensive.

This is getting confusing!

These are just three examples to illustrate the competing arguments from a narrow equipment perspective. No doubt others could be found to show different arguments. The point we are trying to make is the knee jerk reaction of buying everything off the shelf is not the magic bullet it would appear.

Looking at some of our other home grown major equipments the export success has been poor, Warrior, Type 23 Frigate, Type 45 Destroyer, Challenger tank, SA80 and many others are hardly setting the export market on fire but they are definitely the best in their class. Another example might be the Light Gun and 81mm mortar, both designed by the publically owned Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment and manufactured by Royal Ordnance. These have proven to be both world beaters in both a technical and commercial sense. The USA even use both, being the largest user as well.

The system we have is not brilliant and there is still huge room for improvement but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is simply not a sensible option, commercially, militarily or strategically.

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