A few days ago the MoD issued a self-congratulatory press release announcing that the Army's new shoulder-launched anti-tank missile was entering service four months early.
This is the Javelin missile, which the MoD describes as "one of the most advanced anti-armour missile systems in the world". If the press release is taken at face value, then we can take some comfort in the MoD, after the many defence procurement disasters, having at least got this right.
However, as we have come to learn when dealing with New Labour and its "spin" machine, it is unwise to take anything from this government at face value. This is a case in point.
Contrary to the trend of "Europeanising" Britain’s armed forces, the Javelin is in fact a US-designed weapon, produced by Raytheon/Lockheed Martin.
Herein lies the first question mark. The missile was actually first issued to US forces in 1996 and ordered for the British Army by the MoD in January 2003, to replace the 20-year-old Milan missile. For the MoD to bring a missile, nearly ten years old, into British service, "six months early" does not, in itself, seem to be a great feat.
From here, though, the story gets murkier. The Javelin was not by any means the MoD's first choice of weapons system. It seems that its preference was for a European solution, to which effect, after a feasibility study had been carried out in 1980 and 1981, followed by a project definition exercise from 1983 to 1986, it set up a consortium called the Euromissile Dynamics Group, composed of Aerospatiale (France), MBD/UK (United Kingdom) and Daimler Benz Aerospace (Germany), to produce a missile known as MR (Medium Range) Trigat.
Belgium and the Netherlands joined the project later but, by June 1999, substantial delays had been experienced in the missile development. Nevertheless, the UK signed a "Memorandum of Understanding for the Industrialisation and Production" phase, announcing triumphantly in a press release how the decision also demonstrated "our determination to promote the restructuring of the European defence industry."
Other partners, however, were not so determined and, concerned that the project was going nowhere, refused to agree to the manufacturing phase. With that, the UK was now dangerously exposed as existing stocks of the Milan missile were running down. In July 2000, therefore, the MoD reluctantly announced that it was withdrawing from the project, leaving it no option but to buy an off-the-shelf system.
Only later, tucked in on page 29 of an obscure 32-page document did we learn the cost. There, a bland statement revealed that "a constructive loss estimated at £109,314,000" had been incurred during the development of the MR Trigat.
Nor indeed was that the full extent of the loss. There was another project in the offing, a missile system to arm the UK's Apache attack helicopters. Instead of the battle-proven US-built Longbow/Hellfire Weapons Systems, the MoD had decided to go "European" and procure the LR (Long Range) Trigat. That project also collapsed, with an estimated loss of £205,010,000, when the MoD finally decided to go ahead with the US weapons system.
Altogether, therefore, the grandiose project, fittingly named "Euromissile", cost the British taxpayer over £314 million - more than the £300 million cost of the Javelin contract - with absolutely nothing to show for it. We ended up buying proven US weapons which we could have had earlier, without the enormous costs and delays brought about by the attempt at European collaboration.
As for Euromissile, it has gone from strength to strength. Now a wholly-owned subsidiary of EADS, it has gone on to produce the Milan 3 and is now offering a missile system based on the Milan 3 firing post combined with the MR Trigat missile, to be known as Trigan. Built in France, with a substantial amount of its development costs found by the British taxpayer, it is intended as a replacement for the MR Trigat missile system for the French and German Ministries of Defence.
In a way, this typifies the whole European project – expensive, late and ultimately useless. And, in the final analysis, when it doesn't work, we end up running to the Yanks to bail us out, while the French are the ultimate beneficiaries.