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Where is the debate?

Posted by Richard Thursday, October 21, 2004

My thanks to all those who responded to my paper on the special relationship, which I delivered to the King’s College London European Society yesterday.

Although a mixed group of graduates and undergraduates, some strongly for the European Union and others opposed, the paper was well received, and there was remarkable unanimity on one point – that the issues raised were important and should be the subject of a wider public debate.

More than one person criticised the media for its lack of coverage of the whole subject of European defence integration. Others questioned the apparent lack of interest shown by MPs in strategic defence issues and one other made a very pertinent remark about how the whole of government now seemed to rely on keeping the population uninformed about vital issues.

As it happens, there is a debate on defence in the Commons today, but one fears that the focus will be on the deployment of the Black Watch to the southern area of Baghdad, and the strategic issues will be lost.

One issue which certainly should be highlighted by MPs – but my bet is that it will not – is the recent decision by the MoD to award preferred bidder status to the German MAN company for the supply of trucks to the British Army.

That decision looks more bizarre by the day, it already having been established a British firm, Multidrive of Thirsk, in one of the unsuccessful consortiums had won a contract to develop designs for the advanced Future Cargo Vehicle for the US Army.

It now transpires that the US aviation giant, Lockheed Martin, is to go into the military truck business, to capitalise on the billion dollar a year US military truck market and has chosen vehicles designed by Bristol-based HMT vehicles.

It seems there is no shortage of design talent in the UK, when it comes to military vehicles, which makes it all the more inexplicable that the MoD should go to a German firm, the trucks from which are, apparently, based on a thirty-year-old design.

Another piece of the jigsaw is fitting into place as well, raised in an earlier Blog, relating to the role of the electronics systems supplied with the vehicles, and the FRES project under way for the British Army. It was suggested that the choice of MAN as a supplier might in some way be conditioned by the need for the truck electronics to be compatible with FRES electronics, and that the MAN purchase might indicate a preparedness to go for European collaboration when the contracts are issued for the FRES hardware.

It further transpires that the lead firm of another losing consortium, Oshkosh Trucks, is working on the US Army’s Future Tactical Truck System, which will harmonise with the Army’s FCS, thus adding weight to the suspicions that the MoD, by rejecting the Oshkosh bid, has already made up its mind on European collaboration on FRES.

The only bet on this, however, is nothing of these details will be discussed by Parliament, nor by the media which is obsessed with trivia such as the adventures of Boris Johnson and the fate of the Kilroy-Silk leadership bid for UKIP.

Yet, as my audience yesterday would readily attest, it is a travesty that both Parliament and the fourth estate are so unwilling to deal with matters of substance. After all, with FRES alone, the government is preparing to commit £56 billion over term, which is no small sum of money.

We have remarked before that UKIP could have had a field day on this issue – if it could tear itself away from its perennial, internecine squabbling - and, as for parliament, it could take some lessons from the US.

While it is oh so fashionable to sneer at the Americans, and parade our moral superiority, Congress has held back $250 million of the £2.9 billion appropriation allocated for next year to fund FCS, until the Army provides more information on the system. Yet here, despite the serious political implications, we have yet to have a single debate on FRES, the UK equivalent.

With a few honourable exceptions, our MPs should be ashamed of themselves.