Whatever happened to them Gucci ladders?

The time stamp for the image below is as follows

This photo was taken on January 21, 2012

Those ladders look like the plain old common or garden variety

British Soldiers From Queen's Royal Hussars on Patrol in Afghanistan
British soldiers from the QRH (The Queen’s Royal Hussars) Battle Group are pictured patrolling during Operation Zmaray Ibda (Lions’ Discovery) in the district of Lashkar Gah, Helmand province. British soldiers from the QRH(The Queen’s Royal Hussars) Battle Group, consisting of troops from Support Company(Coy) 1 Yorks alongside C Coy QRH took part in Operation Zmaray Ibda(Lions’ discovery). Having deployed by Chinook helicopter into a rural outreach of Lashkar Gah, the mission was to apprehend an insurgent commander. The Operation was partnered with the ANP (Afghan National Police) throughout.

Back in February 2010 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 state sanctioned vandalism that saw the rundown of the government research establishments and the ultimate sale of DERA/QinetiQ the reduction in technical skills, in favour of management skills, resulted in the the MoD becoming a commissioning entity rather than a systems developer or integrator, the costs of this are only starting to become clear now.

There has been much in the papers over the last few days about how much the MoD spends on consultants, it is always an emotive subject.

The arguments for moving to technical consultants and contractors is based on the simple premise that a non MoD employee does not attract pension contributions and are therefore much cheaper, even accounting for the significantly greater day rate. A secondary argument, to the cynic, is that reducing the number of so called ‘fat arsed civil servants’ plays well with the House of Parliament and tabloids.

I hold no truck whatsoever with argument because we should be measuring value in other ways and it is pretty shameless for this government and others, the MoD and even the media to portray MoD civil servants in such a bad light. They should know better and stand on for their people.

Anyway, back to the ladder.

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 (thats 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.

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.

Sorry for the crap picture..


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 is 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 variable record on buying equipment for the armed forces it needs to bring back in house the expertise it hastily discarded and continues to discard.

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!

Which brings me back to the question posed in the title of this post.

If they are so fantastic why does the first image above, the one taken last month, not have the Short Gap Crossing system on view.

Is it because they are in short supply?

Is it because they are not needed?


Is it something else?

Perhaps this comment from a TD contributor might have something to do with it.

Ah that ladder. Awesome for crossing ditches. But heavier than a normal ladder and extremely uncomfortable to carry. Know what the SF guys did? Wrapped some hesco frame around the old normal ladder! Voila! Works better too. Oh to answer your questions at the end. No it’s not lighter. And everyone hated it as with the old ladders you could carry them by putting your arm through the rungs. You can’t do that with these ladders which made them heavier and incredibly fatiguing to carry. Yeah it’s good for crossing ditches but as I said the SF just wrapped hesco framing and got the same result but lighter and more comfortable to carry. I emphasise this because it’s such a good example of over engineering and wasted money. Yes folks. They f*cked up a ladder. A ladder! Horrible bit of kit. I shudder.

I assume there is more to this than meets the eye (there usually is) but in our rush to strip the MoD of civil servants are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water just to appease stupid politicians and journalists?



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Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
February 22, 2012 12:10 pm

What we need (in my humble civvy opinion) is more service research centres. TD’s brilliant Bridges series highlighted the essential role they performed in meeting, and even creating, requirements.

The other idea often mentioned here is to get a system of engineers and veterns evaluating different products and suggesting improvements. Surely it can’t be that difficult to tap the experience of serving soldiers, airmen and sailors?

February 22, 2012 1:37 pm

I suppose TD hasn’t noticed that Alpha Composites went to the wall last year? Looks like they’ve been snapped up into a new subsidiary of Avingtrans.

I guess they didn’t sell so many of those ladders…

I wonder how much their solution was at fault for the soldiers woes, and how much of it was down to the requirement spec for the design. Have we become so obsessed with reducing the weight of a soldiers kit that we forgotten more basic ergonomic requirements?

February 22, 2012 1:39 pm

@TD: earlier in my career, I arrived at what was then RARDE(CH) as a green student doing a summer job. I was attempting to prove a hypothesis about tank gun barrels, for which I needed a gizmo from HP, an instrumented hammer, and an accelerometer. We also needed some mounts for the latter: some squares of mild steel plate, drilled and tapped to accept. One of the staff drove me into town to a third party manufacturer, who agreed to supply some for a suitably small sum. I asked why we didn’t just pop 300 metres away to ask if one of the hundreds of machinists there couldn’t do the same in an afternoon: the answer was that it would take three months, and I was only there for ten weeks :-(

Don’t mourn for the MOD’s in house capabilities too much…

paul g
February 22, 2012 1:54 pm

BTW i know you’re doing a post on our favourite “grind your teeth in despair” vehicle, the springer. I’ve just seen there all for sale on the withams website, is this a record for the shortest being in service vehicle?

February 23, 2012 9:27 am

Actually, the real questions are ‘what trials were conducted’, ‘who were the trial troops’ and ‘what was thye outcome’. If MoD didn’t put a troop trials requirement into the contract with BMT then the blame lies with idiocy in MoD, and not necessarily with DE&S but with negligence by the capability sponsor who should have insisted, probably an infantryman!

February 23, 2012 10:16 am

All they had to do was make the gaps in the rungs wide enough to put an arm through. Then they could be carried comfortably without a sling. Then in a contact you can fling the ladder away from yourself. Using a sling just made hitting the deck emotional. Especially with a ladder sticking up as a great big ‘here i am’ sign. They got close. I just can’t understand why it wasn’t spotted in development. To a man we hated carrying those things instantly because a sling made it hard work.

February 24, 2012 1:02 pm

In fairness to the manufacturer, the ladder in its broken-down state was made up of sections of about a meter long.

February 24, 2012 2:32 pm

How does that matter?

February 24, 2012 7:07 pm

Yours truly carrying one of those things. A very long way out. And a very long way back in!


February 25, 2012 3:55 pm

It’s not just civil servants though is it? In the name of ‘cost cutting’ they have stripped the MOD of expertise from nearly every department and actually made it far more expensive to run.

February 27, 2012 9:20 am

; having only seen them on shelves I’d always pictured them not really being long enough balance comfortably if you put your arm through a rung, but I defer to your experience.

The big irony is that while TD originally posted this as the procurement process done ‘right’, entirely the opposite seems to have happened. A lengthy, intensive and expensive procurement process which ended in something entirely unsuitable being procured.

And far from supporting innovative small businesses, it caused caused a small company to expand in anticipation of a lucrative MoD contract, only to collapse when the army realised they’d made a cock-up and pulled the rug from under them.

And the big question is how something so obvious was missed. I don’t know how army procurement works, but surely the squaddies get some input? Didn’t they give the different designs to a few units on training exercise and ask them to score the ones they liked the most?