This Weeks Dispatches, Channel 4


In the run into the publication of the SDSR the Channel 4 Dispatches team and respected author/journalist Sam Kiley will be airing a hard-hitting documentary this week on the MoD and Defence Industry. Titled ‘How the MoD Wastes Our Billions‘ it accuses the MoD of wasting billions of pounds, favouring a small number of defence companies, operating a protectionist acquisition regime and killing baby seals with the bones of orphan children!

It’s hard not to want to like this but the trials so far seem a tad one-sided and this paragraph from the introduction

A three-month investigation by the Dispatches team uncovered a ministry which has wasted staggering amounts of public money in buying inappropriate equipment that arrives years lat

seems like accusing bears of shitting in wooded areas or accusing the Pope of being a Catholic.

It doesn’t take much investigative zeal to read National Audit Office or Defence Select Committee reports which basically say the same thing.

Like Mystic Meg, I am going to make a prediction, the £8million Blackhawk and £27million Lynx Wildcat will get star billing with a supporting cast of BAe and gin-swilling top brass. The introduction below, from Sam Kiley, mentions the Blackhawk.

The United Kingdom has one of the biggest defence budgets in the world. But for the last decade soldiers on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan have struggled to get the right equipment. How the MoD Wastes Our Billions asks how this can be.

With a budget of around £42 billion a year, how is it possible that the Ministry of Defence is set to go over budget by some £36 billion over the next 10 years? Is there a way that the British taxpayer can make sure that men and women at war literally get bigger and better bangs, for the taxpayer’s buck?

The MoD will face savage cuts in the October spending review. It may lose up to 20% of its budget. But the current threats to national security have not evaporated just because the United Kingdom finds itself short of cash.

A three-month investigation by the Dispatches team uncovered a ministry which has wasted staggering amounts of public money in buying inappropriate equipment that arrives years late.

The excuse for this has been that Britain needed to preserve its defence industry to ensure ‘sovereignty of supply’. But the reality has been that much of the £17 billion spent by the MoD each year on equipment and supplies goes to BAE Systems and a handful of smaller firms.

The arms industry is effectively one of the last state-subsidised industry industries left in the UK.

Costs have also soared because of a ‘conspiracy of optimism’ in which MoD officials, and their defence contractors, are so keen to get new projects off the ground that they underestimate the real cost of production in order to get the projects going. Once the project is well advanced, and after tens of millions have been spent on it, the costs are allowed to creep up to reflect reality.

Dispatches investigated the cosy relationship which exists between the British arms industry and the top echelons of the military and civil service. More than a third of all jobs taken in the private sector by former government employees with relevant contractors involve MoD officials taking positions in the defence industry. Despite industry appointments having to be approved by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), critics suggest that such appointments should be more strictly controlled to avoid allegations of a conflict of interest.

On top of this, Dispatches found that turf wars over funding pit the army, navy and air force against one another.

The consequences of such inefficiency are sometimes fatal. Fourteen RAF personnel were killed when their Nimrod spy plane crashed in Afghanistan in 2006. The ageing aircraft was only flying because its replacement, the Nimrod MRA4, had been delayed by years which meant the older version had to be kept in the air long after it should have been retired.

Since the beginning of operations in Helmand, southern Afghanistan, in 2006 front line soldiers have been desperately short of helicopters. Paul Hartley and half a dozen other soldiers spent hours trapped in a minefield in Kajaki before an American Blackhawk helicopter could be found to winch them to safety. One of the men bled to death.

The workhorse of the US Armed Forces, the Blackhawk, has been the favoured choice of helicopter for soldiers in the field for years.

But Britain has recently opted to buy the smaller Lynx Wildcat, which is built in the West Country. It can carry only four infantrymen in fighting kit, compared to at least eight in a Blackhawk.

Senior army officers were wary of Blackhawk because it would have been defined, by its weight, as an RAF aircraft. The army wanted army pilots to be flying army personnel around the battlefield and so opted for the new Lynx as ‘better than nothing’.

Whether the MoD is buying rifles or radio equipment for the infantry, fighters and bombers for the RAF or Destroyers for the Royal Navy, successive defence ministers, former senior officers and top civil servants agreed that the ministry needs a drastic overhaul.

Dispatches found that the MoD has been desperately trying to balance the books in one year by shoving costs from expensive procurement projects into the next year, or delaying them even further. This has resulted in lengthy delays and huge cost overruns – not only of the original equipment but further costs from having to maintain ageing kit which, like the Nimrod MRA4, should no longer have been in service.

Strong vested interests exist inside the arms industry, which has hired former top level MoD officials who are able to lobby their former ministry. These top level officials, together with unions, will be keen to protect the tens of thousands of jobs generated by the defence industry, and will argue against heavy cuts.

Ministers know that if the British armed forces are to remain anything to be reckoned with then they will have to finally abandon a historic ‘buy British’ policy in arms, end the protection of the local defence industry, and drastically streamline the current procurement system by instead buying ready-made equipment ‘off the peg’.

Reform of the MoD would save the tax payer money and give British troops a fighting chance in Afghanistan and future wars.

I think we can expect the conclusions to be the over-simplistic ‘buy off the shelf to protect our brave boys’ but I am looking forward to this, Sam Kiley and the Dispatches team are well regarded and I hope that it stirs things up a bit

As for much of the budget going to BAe and a handful of smaller companies, have a look at the MoD DASA site for a list of that ‘ handful of smaller companies’

Didn’t take me 3 months!

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