When Is a Ladder Not a Ladder

Afghamistan Composite Ladder 1MechBde-2013

Back in February last year I bemoaned the lack of engineering technical expertise within DE&S, not that it isn’t there but what is there is obviously in short supply which results in the MoD having to buy in technical consultants or contract specific projects. In years gone by, when the MoD was technical skills rich the kinds of projects we are now outsourcing would have been handled in house.

With the sale of DERA/QinetiQ and reduction in technical skills in favour of management skills, the MoD becoming a commissioning entity rather than a systems developer, the costs are only starting to become clear now.

The example I used in the previous post was the humble ladder, much used in Afghanistan for small gap crossing and getting onto a compound roof.

Defense News ran with a story describing how when faced with a requirement from Afghanistan for a portable short gap crossing system (that’s a ladder to you and me) instead of calling on the resources of its 22,500 employees it outsourced the job to BMT.

Responding to an urgent operational request from the frontline to come up with a better method of crossing ditches and scaling walls than a conventional ladder the Ministry of Defence turned to BMT Defence Services to provide an answer.

In the space of five weeks this summer the Bath, England-based consultancy conducted a survey of possible solutions and completed a competition involving more than a dozen bidders from the U.K. and overseas.

Eugene Morgan, the director of systems at BMT Defence Services, says the consultancy team running the project spoke to designers ranging from a supplier of ship gangways to a Formula 1 racing team in order to find the best possible solutions.

Morgan said recommendations on the top three or four designs for the 3 metre bridge requirement was submitted to the MoD last month.

I suppose it’s a good thing that the requirement was met in double quick time but when ministers talk up the UoR process as a triumph for the MoD, how it is responding to need, being flexible blah blah do they actually mean

‘we just pay someone else to do it for us because we are too busy buying aircraft carriers’

Is this another indicator of something we covered earlier, it’s not the numbers of civil servants that count but the types. If DE&S doesn’t have the bandwidth to run an acquisition exercise for what is more or less an upgraded ladder, then we need to be concerned.

A year after BMT submitted their recommendations the MoD has released details of the resulting product.

Roger Pidgeon, the DE&S team’s project manager for the short gap crossing, said:

“We received an urgent request for an ultra-lightweight and man-portable short gap crossing capability.

“In the first instance we looked to deliver a commercial off-the-shelf solution, but none was immediately available on the market.

“BMT’s engineering knowledge helped us to reach specialist suppliers in the motorsport and aerospace sectors who have extensive experience in lightweight aluminium, carbon fibre or composite structures.

“Our requirement was turned into a bespoke design solution by BMT in just four weeks.”

The bridges designed by Alpha Composites can be carried by each member of a patrol. Troops can also use the system as a lightweight assault ladder, replacing the bulkier, heavier in-service equipment. Alpha Composites are a market leading company in hi technology materials and I wonder if any of the trials team or IPT managed to blag themselves a gucci briefcase !!

What does this tell us?

First, there are valuable and cutting edge capabilities within the UK manufacturing sector that we absolutely need to exploit so the MoD/Automotive sector partnership that was started a few years ago has to be nurtured and expanded.

Second, whilst BMT are no doubt an excellent organisation, this kind of facilitated access to manufacturers and technical evaluation role should be a core MoD function. If the MoD and DE&S is going to improve its woeful record on buying equipment for the armed forces it needs to bring back in house the expertise it hastily discarded.

Finally, here is an excellent example of not buying off the shelf, not going with the 80% or ‘good enough’ solution. However, given the quite staggering loads being carried by infantry soldiers in Afghanistan it is equally an example where insisting on something other than good enough and developing a bespoke solution was absolutely the right thing to do.

Those advocating more of the former might perhaps like to carry those extra kilograms in 40 degree heat.

Of course we don’t know if it is any good or substantially lighter than the traditional alternatives.

Maybe it really is a Short Gap Crossing and definitely not a ladder!

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