Friday, May 11, 2007

FRES is dead – long live … er?

Now there is a headline you'll never see in The Sun - a line guaranteed to have your reader move on to pastures new, and especially our "toy-phobic" constituency.

But, back in the real world – the one where our government spends increasing amounts of money for very little return – the MoD has published its response to the Defence Committee's report on FRES, provoking a press release from the Committee which, sadly, has about as much hope of getting space in the nation media as a weather report from Outer Mongolia.

With not a little justification, the Committee feels it is vindicated by the response to its main charge, that there have been delays in delivering the Army's new armoured vehicles. Not least, the MoD has not sought to deny that we are looking at 2017 before we see the first tranche of vehicles in service.

But the real show-stopper, buried in the MoD report is an admission, for the first time, that keeping the weight of the new vehicles down is not the main priority, in order to allow air-portability, and that protection has the higher priority. Thus says the MoD:

The question of the relative priority of force protection in theatre and air deployability has been resolved. Whilst both are important, protection in theatre is a higher priority than air deployability by A400M/C17.
Initially, the weight limit was set as 22 tons, allowing transport by the ubiquitous C-130 Hercules, then it was upped, with the proviso that vehicles could still be transported by the Airbus A400M, which is expected to form the backbone of the RAF's tactical transport fleet. But now, the MoD is conceding that not only is transport by the A400M not a priority, it is even prepared to rule out the possibility of transport by the bigger C-17 Globemaster transports, which are capable of carrying 65-ton main battle tanks.

All this is brought about by the operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Warriors and even Challenger tanks have succumbed to the theatre scourge – the IED, and where protection from the RPG is also at a premium. And, to counter both weapons, the MoD is conceding the need for increased levels of protection.

This is precisely the conclusion the US forces have drawn and defence secretary Gates is seeking to expedite the delivery of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, now aiming to phase out the entire armoured Humvee fleet. In the meantime, their own FRES equivalent, the Future Combat System (FCS), while not actually cancelled, has been quietly put on the back burner.

As for FRES, although the name remains, the concept is effectively dead. The original idea was to trade weight for high-tech surveillance and communication systems which would allow the enemy to be detected before it got into range. This would allow it to be taken out by long-range, stand-off weapons, dispensing with the need for heavy armour.

Now, the armour takes priority and we are effectively to get a new series of medium/heavy-weight vehicles which will amount to little more than an upgrade of existing vehicles like the Warrior.

The original concept, though, was vital for the emerging rapid reaction forces, enabling military forces to be flown rapidly to trouble spots, complete with its equipment, without having to wait for sea lift or overland transport. Effectively, therefore, the whole idea of airborne rapid reaction forces is also under threat. In time, we may even be able to say goodbye to the European Rapid Reaction Force.

The political implications of this are, to say the least, interesting.

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