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A white elephant in the making

Posted by Richard Thursday, September 29, 2005

I have been following the adventures of Council Tax refusnik Sylvia Hardy with more than usual interest, having been banged up myself for the heinous crime of withholding a small amount of money from the Police precept, after PC plod has so singularly failed to protect our neighbourhood from a rash of burglaries.

It really does seem to say it all, when the establishment will go to any length to protect its income-stream, even to the extent of locking up pensioners, when many a criminal wanders abroad without the slightest fear of having his collar felt.

But there are two aspects to this issue – the first, about which Sylvia Hardy has been voluble, is the fact that our taxes seem to increase exponentially, without any regard for peoples' ability to pay. The second, though, is about the sheer waste of money, the awareness that so much of our hard-earned money is squandered.

It is in that context that I return to the theme of defence spending, using this to illustrate just how much money is pouring down the drain on a scale that simply beggars the imagination.

This is perhaps why the scandal is so little reported, as the sheer amount of money involved is too huge to conceive. If, after all, it takes 11 days and nights to count to a million, it takes 30 years to count a billion and, in the latest mad project from the MoD, it is proposing to spend £14 billion… an amount of money in pound coins that would take an individual 420 years to count.

I am, of course, talking about the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), the largest single defence procurement project for the Army ever planned. This has grown over three years from its original estimate of £6 billion to the current £14 billion, all to equip the Army with three Brigades of medium-weight armoured vehicles, linked by a sophisticated computer and communications network to form a networked whole – all to service that equally mad EU project the European Rapid Reaction Force.

What brings it to the fore is a report this week from DefenseNews which indicates that the United States, which pioneered the so-called "net-centric" concept on which FRES is based, and was planning to spend $123 billion on its own version called the Future Combat System (FCS) is now having second thoughts about the whole idea.

Regular readers of this Blog will know that the central idea was to replace the heavy tanks and armoured fighting vehicles of conventional forces with lightweight, air-portable vehicles, which could be transported rapidly anywhere in the world to deal with brushfire wars and other crises.

To make up for the lack of protection afforded by heavy armour, the idea was to use sophisticated technology to deal with weapons, plus saturating the area of operation with high-tech sensors, all linked with each other and with field vehicles. That latter idea is supposed to give the fighting forces the capability to detect enemies before they come in range, and to take out their "assets" with long-range and stand-off weapons, before they can pose a threat.

But, last week, at a demonstration of some of the new FSC hardware at the US Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, Army Secretary Francis Harvey told reporters that the Army simply does not have the technology available to allow light vehicles to survive "future anti-armor threats".

This actually confirms what we have been seeing for some time. Instead of getting rid of its heavy Abrams tanks and its Bradley armoured fighting vehicles, the Army has committed to upgrading them, while it is increasingly buying a wide range of heavily armoured vehicles to deal with the threats it is experiencing in Iraq. On top of this, it is investing in more specialist military landing ships, which can transport heavy armour to any port on the globe within three weeks.

What this tells us is that, in the age of suicide bombers, the terrorist with the hand-held RPG7 anti-tank weapon and the increasingly sophisticated mines and roadside bombs, the whole concept of lightweight rapid reaction forces is technically flawed – and that is even without taking into account political considerations.

Yet, such is the political inertia of the European decision-making process – combined with out own – and the criminal lack of scrutiny of this issue by either the Conservative opposition or the media – that the British government remains committed to spending £14 billion on a system that may well prove to be a white elephant.

To put that in perspective, that is equivalent to taking a thousand pounds from twice the population of London – every man, woman and child, or from some 14 million Sylvia Hardys.

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