Saturday, August 20, 2005

The million pound bomb

Many people will remember the disastrous Tornado raid in the first Gulf War, which ended in the aircraft being shot down and Flt Lt John Nichol being humiliated on Iraqi television.

Amongst the lessons learnt from that episode was that it wasn’t an incredibly good idea to fly low-level into heavily defended airspace in order to lob a bomb at a target. A much better idea is to launch a guided stand-off bomb from a hundred miles or so away and let it find its own way to the target, allowing you to toodle back to the base and down a stiff gin or two.

Anyhow, by the time the next Gulf War came along, RAF Tornados were happily equipped with these bombs, better known as "Storm Shadow" cruise missiles. The RAF's 617 Squadron managed to fire off some 27 of them - compared with an estimated 400 or so "Tomahawks", mostly ship-launched, by the United States.

Back on the Home Front, however, ministers were being extraordinarily reticent about how much these new toys cost. Mike Hancock, Lib-Dem MP for Portsmouth South tried to find out in February 1998, when he was just told the current estimated cost of the programme, which then stood at £934 million.

By July 2002, when Hancock tried again, the cost of the project had increased to £981 million but the minister refused to give information on the cost of an individual missile, on "security grounds".

Undaunted, this fearless author consulted another source, Wikipedia which ventured where ministers feared to tread, informing us that the UK had ordered 900 Storm Shadows. That puts the price of the toys at over £1 million each – the million pound bomb.

Once again, though, the "curse of Europe" strikes. Storm Shadow is a French designed weapon, built by Matra Défense for the French Air Force under the name SCALP EG. It was built for the RAF by Matra BAe Dynamics, which was awarded the contract in February 1997 by the then Conservative government.

Had the government not been obsessed with buying European, it could have done a much better deal. Even at the time, it could have procured the well-tried US Tomahawk cruise missile, originally at $1.1 - 1.4 million but, as the "tactical Tomahawk", reduced to the bargain-basement price of $575,000. For sure, these were ship-launched, but for the 27 launched during the Gulf War, at a cost of £29.43 million, we could have saved over £20 million.

However, bearing in mind that Storm Shadow is primarily intended for the Eurofighter, which is just coming into service, an even better deal was waiting in the wings. Coming on-stream in greater numbers is the Lockheed Martin Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), and you will just love the price - $300,000 (£167,000).

Needless to say, after buying US-designed air-defence destroyers at £600 million, as against our Type 45s at £1 billion each for less capable ships, the Australians are planning to buy JASSM for their Air Force.

The missile itself is slightly lighter than the Storm Shadow (2250 lbs as opposed to 2860) but carried the same weight of explosives and has a longer range of 200nm against 150nm for the Storm Shadow. Had we had the sense that the Australians clearly have, our inventory of 900 missiles that is costing us £981 million could have been purchased for £150 million, a saving of over £830 million.

But then, French is so chic, don't you think.

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