In all the best TV cookery shows the presenter does a spot of preparation and then swiftly opens the oven and with a ‘here’s one we made earlier statement, out pops a fully formed dish, ready for serving.
As we know General Dynamics UK has been awarded a £500m demonstration phase contract for FRES Specialist Vehicles to include 7 prototypes. Reconnaissance Block 1 of the FRES programme consists of scout, repair, recovery and protected mobility vehicles, roughly analogous to the CVR(T) Scimitar, Sampson and Spartan.
Despite my significant reservations about its weight and bulk creating serious strategic and tactical mobility issues, the vehicle will be good news for the Army, finally replacing the 40-year-old CVR(T) that is definitely showing its age.
What causes more concern is the cost of developing 7 prototypes.
£500m and not a production vehicle in sight.
Just to repeat that, £500 million for 7 prototypes.
To put that £500 million into perspective;
- In 1996 Spain ordered the first batch of the Pizarro (Spanish version of the ASCOD), a total of 122 Pizarro fighting vehicles and 22 command post variants for the grand total of £207 million with the order completed in 2002
- In 2003, Spain ordered the second batch of their ASCOD Pizarro’s, 170 IFV’s, 5 command posts, 28 forward observer, 8 recovery vehicles and 1 engineer variant, the total cost of £454 million (different web sources cite slightly different numbers)
Even taking into account variations in numbers and costs from different web sources this still looks like a good value for money deal, Spain has a fleet of about 350 armoured vehicles of various types, including upgraded batch 1 vehicles, for, let’s call it £800 million, give or take the odd 40 or 50 million.
And this was for a vehicle developed from scratch along with multiple variants.
If General Dynamics were developing a brand new vehicle from scratch, chock full with the latest automotive and electronic technology then fair enough, but it is not.
There are no elevating sensor masts, no hybrid propulsion and no composite construction for example. It really is a design that shows so little design ambition it is pretty depressing when one looks at the advance that CVR(T) made 40 years ago and the massive advance that TRACER was striving to make 10 years ago. Successive programme failures have knocked the innovative zeal out of the MoD and FRES SV represents a low-risk solution that will be better than what we already have, but not that much better.
ASCOD, on which FRES SV is based, started its trials 20 years ago next year.
That’s right, our brand new vehicle is based on a 20-year-old design.
This, of course, matters not one bit if the vehicle meets requirements but back to £500m for 7 prototypes.
From the General Dynamics website
The demonstration phase will see the development of seven prototypes for the Scout reconnaissance vehicle and supporting variants built on the ASCOD SV Common Base Platform, as well as providing associated training equipment.
It is not very clear what the ‘supporting variants’ will be but it has been reported that the demonstration contract consists of three Scout with the balance being made up of protected mobility (common base platform) and repair/recovery
Ambulance, command, direct fire and bridge laying may come in later.
To justify the significant cost in developing the UK variant of the Pizarro/Ulan then surely it must be a new vehicle.
FRES Scout will use the General Vehicle Architecture, a brilliant concept that seeks to create a unified vehicle electronic and electrical architecture but much of the work for this has already been done.
The sensor systems appear to be military off the shelf, the engine, transmission and tracking systems likewise.
The 40mm CTA cannon has been in development for a long time, it’s certainly paid for.
Lockheed Martin INSYS will be providing three turrets as part of the demonstration phase, a new turret perhaps?
Not really, it will be based on a modified Rheinmetall LANCE turret, another off the shelf design.
Engineer variant, in service with the Spanish Army
Recovery variant, already in service with the Spanish Army
The Royal Thai Marines will be taking delivery of 15 ASCOD variants equipped with the Denel LT105 turret. They will also be receiving the Command and Recovery variants as well.
Protected mobility variant, not in service but here is a picture of one GD made earlier
Fancy a hybrid drive version, Renk and General Dynamics have already worked out the details
Training vehicle, already developed
But aren’t we getting a more powerful engine and transmission capable of dealing with the extra power?
The Austrian Ulan is powered by an MTU 8V 199 TE20 8V-90 diesel engine developing 721 hp at 2,300 rpm, or 530kW in new money.
The transmission is the Renk HSWL 106
It is worth noting that the dimensions of these two engine variants are exactly the same but the 256b transmission is larger, it is still commercially available, straight off the shelf.
What are we getting?
There is no doubt FRES SV will be a superior vehicle to Pizarro/Ulan, FRES SV is definitely not the same as a Pizarro; new turret, better weapon, more power, more advanced sensors and an open electronic architecture but are these changes really worth half a billion pounds to develop?
We must be very careful to recognise that ASCOD is not the same as FRES SV but given the start point, are we getting value for money?
In fact, are we getting upgraded military off the shelf at a boutique, bespoke development prices?