Sunday, August 08, 2004

Booker: Berlaymont and FRES

In his column today, Booker features the re-opening of the Berlaymont, the EU commission's headquarters in Brussels. Closed for 13 years after an asbestos scare, Booker reveals that, over £1 billion later, the scare was unwarranted and, in fact, the replacement material may be more hazardous than the material taken out.

For those who would like to read a longer account of the debacle of the Berlaymont, there is an interesting account in the Ackroyd Publications journal, The Bulletin.

For his second of two EU-related stories, Booker writes about FRES, the "Future Rapid Effects System" upon which Hoon is relying to replace the conventional Army infantry divisions for which this country is rightly famed.

As one would expect, Booker concentrates on the European integration aspect, noting that the idea of FRES is to provide the centrepiece for the EU's Rapid Reaction Force. But Booker also hints that the system itself may be inadequate because the Europeans cannot afford the complete electronic package. They will get a cut-price version which may not be able to operate effectively.

That is a point which, one hopes, the media will eventually pick up. Although in an earlier Blog much has been made of the expense of the project - which, at £6 billion for a fleet of 900 vehicles, is astronomic – what is beginning to emerge is the system is not expensive enough. The US is planning to spend $92 billion, and only on the first phase of its Future Combat System (FCS), on which FRES is supposed to be modelled.

The expense the Americans are committing to their project gives some idea of its sophistication and the complexity. What they will get for their money is a totally integrated battle information system, which allows real time intelligence from multiple inputs to be processed, electronically integrated and then disseminated to all individual units in a fighting formation at vehicle and sub-unit level, all with amazing speed.

Furthermore, input is permitted from sub-unit level which can be integrated into the overall battle plot and shared immediately between all other units. It is that degree of integration (and the speed with which it is undertaken) which makes FCS unique. It also accounts for the huge software requirement (the 34 million lines of computer code).

What seems to be happening in the UK is that some of the elements that can be found in the FCS are being provided – such as the medium-weight, air-transportable armoured vehicles, and some highly sophisticated battlefield surveillance platforms (manned and unmanned) but the multi-feed processing and system integration, plus the widespread distribution of information, are absent. This means that there will still be transmission delays to field units and unit commanders will be getting multiple feeds instead of a single, integrated display.

Commanders will still have to analyse and interpret data from those diverse sources - some of which will have been filtered by command. Here one has to observe that the separate parts are worse than the sum of the whole. In the modern battlefield, with so much input, the problems are data management and information overload.

The more information that is put into the system, the more difficult it gets to rank it and analyse it, so that the volume increase simply adds to stress and confounds good decision-making. You can get to a point where elements of the system are discarded because there is no longer the ability to cope with the information, or the whole system seizes up - especially when there are multiple decision-makers, each putting a different premium on data from different inputs.

This presents a crucial problem for the Europeans. The very essence of FCS is that it dispenses with the heavy armoured protection afforded by main battle tanks such as the Abrams in return for highly sophisticated surveillance and command and control systems, together with "smart", long-range weaponry. The combination allows formations to detect threats and neutralise them before they come within lethal range, while the exceptional degree of "situational awareness" afforded by the system permits small packages of forces to be used with maximum effect,

Only that makes possible the concept of putting lightly protected armoured vehicles in high-threat environments. With an incomplete, cut-price system, we risk putting our troops at considerable risk.

What is coming, therefore, is a massive "reality check". The "Europeans" may have ambitions of becoming a "superpower" to match the United States but, when the chips are down, they simply cannot afford the technology that will put them in the same league. The danger is putting a cut-price system into the field will prove the worst of all possible worlds. We dispense with those elements of our forces which are proven, and much admired, and replace it with a half-baked, pretend system which may fool the public but, unfortunately will fail to impress – or subdue – our enemies.

Furthermore, nothing of the new system yet exists. The MoD is only issuing initial contracts in the autumn, for a two-year evaluation phase, which will bring us to the end of 2006 before even design contracts can be awarded – yet FRES is supposed to be fully operational by 2009. There is not a hope in hell of this timetable being met.

Gerald Howarth, Conservative shadow defence minister for procurement, told us, "We are cutting today's proven capability for jam tomorrow – when we don't even know what the ingredients are or how to cook it". And, as Booker writes, all so that the EU can puff itself up as a rival "superpower" to the US.

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