How the MoD Wastes Billions

ministry-of-defence

An interesting and pretty hard-hitting programme, as soon as we start talking about service personnel bleeding to death in a minefield because of a lack of medium helicopter lift or being killed when their Nimrod MR2 crashes because of a fire onboard it immediately hits home that the subject we like discussing is serious stuff.

For this reason, I want to try and do justice to what was a well-intentioned documentary so will briefly go through it now and perhaps follow up some of the points in later posts.

The first blow was a pretty low one, a bit of class envy and a contribution from Patrick Mercer who would have the well-taken advantage of the same married quarters as being portrayed. The point about being top-heavy is well made, it’s a point we have made before but in comparing the Army with the USMC the programme makes its first blunder.

The USMC is of course part of the US Navy and falls within its larger command structure, size is almost irrelevant in this instance because the USMC does not have the breadth of responsibilities that the Army has. It would have been much better to look into the real facts about rank inflation rather than making inappropriate comparisons. We are not alone in suffering rank inflation, I will try and compare France and the US in a future post and bring the issue up to date.

Helicopters for the Chiefs is pretty shocking but the point about the married quarters brimming with servants is way off the mark, these are often used for official functions including medal ceremonies and entertaining foreign diplomats or military personnel, all part of the defence diplomacy activity.

Listing the cost of private school tuition is another pretty low blow because while the narration says ‘all service personnel’ it is narrated over a clip of people quaffing champagne to the sound of violins. Just to make the point, all service personnel can benefit from this but also have to make a contribution.

Kevan Jones talks about Abbey Wood having a railway station, Bristol Parkway, next door like he used it every time he visited, but I thought it was Filton Abbey Wood.

In the round though, yes we need to address rank inflation but this is a small beer.

We then move on to weapon systems with an introduction from Douglas Carswell.

First up is the Nimrod, to support the narrative about BAe being useless it selectively quotes from the Haddon-Cave enquiry but fails to point out that the words were directed at the MoD, QinetiQ AND BAe. This is selective quoting at best and at worse, would seem to be misleading and unfair. The whole issue of wings not fitting is covered but also fails to mention the role of the MoD or indeed Boeing in the whole MRA4 debacle.

Then it makes a bold assertion that in a recent report major MoD procurement projects run on average 40% over budget and 80% late, listing the poster child of the overrun, the Astute and Type 45. Not sure what report that would be because the last Major Equipment Review from the National Audit office paints a different picture, an 8% increase in cost for example. The film states that all the projects that have gone over by a billion pounds are BAe ones, without delving too deeply into this claim there are plenty of other non-BAe projects that go over by proportional amounts, or more.

Douglas Carswell then goes on to make the ‘protectionist racket’ claim which is again, unfair. The Defence Industrial Strategy is a complex issue and just throwing the UK industry to the dogma of free-market thinking whilst conveniently forgetting the very real issues of sovereign capability, returns to the taxpayer and the issue of overseas manufacturers enjoying the same so-called protectionism that UK manufacturers do.

The reality is that the UK has one of the most open defence markets in the world is not for one second entertained, go and look at a French, German, Italian, Swedish, US, Russian or Chinese soldier and see what equipment they are using, or more importantly where it is obtained from. The defence market is becoming increasingly international anyway. Buying off the shelf just means you become the victim of an overseas monopoly protectionist industry. In fairness to the programme-makers, a range of views on this was shown.

The SA80 gets a mention but credibility takes a bit of a nosedive when it says that if it is good enough for the SAS it is good enough for most soldiers, there are completely different issues at stake with a general service rifle and one used in niche roles and very small quantities. As for the shiny pop studs on issue body armour being visible to infrared sensors, have a look at any night image from the MoD website and you will IR patches to do exactly that.

The revolving door issue between the MoD and industry is highlighted, making comparisons with other departments. I tend to agree that this needs seriously looking at but if you have been a soldier for 30 odd years and someone offers you a job that uses your accumulated skill and experience to carry on paying your mortgage it’s hard to refuse.

Quite rightly the short term saving versus long term cost increase issue and inter-service rivalry comes in for serious criticism.

The final act looks at helicopters and particular re-supply. As we have seen, these have become the focus for the shortcomings of the MoD but it would be fair to say at this point that helicopters are not the only equipment that is needed for resupply, our focus on logistics in recent posts, everything from vehicles to containers to asset tracking software shows the issue is a bit more complex than just helicopters.

Future Lynx, the answer to a question that no one knows, is held up as a prime example of how the MoD gets things wrong. This gets interesting when the issue of Future Lynx, its non-competitive contract, how generally poor it will be in the battlefield utility role, Sir Kevin Tebitt and revolving doors. We have covered this issue many many times and in general, I agree that the Army Wildcat might be just about OK for a limited set of recce and light utility roles, medium-lift it ain’t.

Comparing Wildcat and Blackhawk is like comparing a Transit van and Focus, the Puma would be a more appropriate comparison but then in what I think is the most incredible part of the programme, Sir Richard Dannatt continues to show why the inter-service rivalry is so pernicious. The Army has always seemed OK with the RAF/RN flying Puma, Merlin and Sea King so why not Blackhawk.

Frankly, if the issues highlighted in this section, that inter-service politics dictated the Wildcat purchase ahead of something more appropriate like Blackhawk or NH90 then the service chiefs should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. I think things are a bit more complex than that but seriously, my gob was hanging loose when this particular section was aired.

The report mentions a £44bn budget and £17bn on equipment, is this right, I thought it was £37bn and £9bn.

Sorry if this post seems rushed, been rewinding and fast-forwarding through the programme.

In general, it was a reasonable programme and made some good points, despite being poor in places, one-sided, inaccurate and spectacularly missing the point in others. Perhaps it was too wide in its remit, distilling the issue in a balanced way in less than 60 minutes was always going to be tough and this lack of focus showed.

However, if it gets people talking then its a good thing.

The report ends with the words

Chronic waste and inefficiency is no longer an option

For all the issues we might take with the aim and accuracy I think we can all agree with this.

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