Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Oh for a grown-up newspaper

It is rather curious that The Daily Telegraph seems more interested in US military equipment than the kit bought for our own forces, hence a story in yesterday's paper, reporting that the "Humvee comes to the end of the road".

Iraqi insurgents, the paper reports, have mortally wounded the humvee. At least 350 American soldiers have been killed while riding in humvees in Iraq, about a quarter of all combat casualties. Many hundreds of vehicles have been wrecked. The Pentagon, therefore, has decided to bring forward by a decade the hunt for a successor.

What makes this report specially curious is that, just as the Americans are deciding that the Humvee has had its day, the MoD has bought 401 Italian-built Panthers for the British Army. These, it turns out, are based on a 1977 design put up to compete for the contract from which the Humvee emerged, paying four times the price that the US pays for the up-armoured vehicles that it is about to make redundant.

The plot become even more convoluted when one learns that, as an interim measure, the US forces have bought a number of the South African designed RG31s, which at, £289,000 each are £124,000 cheaper than the Panther, yet these same vehicles were rejected by the MoD even though they are built by a wholly owned subsidiary of BAE Systems.

Yet, apart from the Booker column, not one British newspaper has thought to mention these curious developments.

Nor, indeed does any newspaper – apart from The Financial Times - seem to be at all interested that a battle royal seems to be being played out over the fate of MoD contracts for the FRES system. The Telegraph last mentioned the system (but not by name) in October 2003 when it announced then that all or part of the contracts would be awarded "within the next few months". It now seems entirely incurious that it is two years later that we are coming to the stage of contract awards, with the cost having increased from £6 to £14 billion.

Yet, as reported on this Blog, where the MoD awards the contracts will be a crucial litmus test as to which way defence policy is going.

At stake are not only are the "platform" contracts – the description given to the basic armoured vehicles – but the electronic "architecture", the various electronic systems which equip the vehicles and can account for up to 80 percent of the final price.

The MoD has not named the companies involved, but it is expected that US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and the French-owned Thales UK each will receive contracts to look at potential electronic systems. If Thales gets a contract, it looks likely that it will be fronting a Swedish-built Hägglunds CV90 vehicle which has been converted to hybrid electric drive for FRES demonstrations.

Hägglunds is wholly owned by BAE Systems and, intriguingly, its officials are saying that the vehicle is in Sweden, "where it is doing work for the MoD." "What work?", one might ask, but it would be useful if grown-up newspapers also started asking about the most expensive equipment project ever undertaken for the British Army.

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