Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Another blunder of Eurofighter proportions

There was something particularly revealing about Javier Solana’s comments (recorded in this Blog) that "the US must treat the European Union as a full partner in an effective and balanced partnership", and "The European Union has to show the US that it is worthy of that title."

This yet again illustrates a mindset in the EU – despite its inherent anti-Americanism –the intense jealousy of the US. And the outward manifestation is an almost child-like determination to prove that "Europe" is at least as good as, if not better than, the US, in every possible way.

It is that ethos, as much as anything, that has driven the EU to commit £3 billion or more to the Galileo satellite navigation and positioning system – despite the provision by the US of their "free-to-all" GPS system. Much the same thinking drives the determination of the EU to maintain its own space programme, and to fund Airbus with such generous subsidies.

But this thinking is also driving the EU military procurement programme, to the extent that anything the US has, the EU must have too. This is most obvious in the pursuit of the A400M large military transport aircraft, despite the availability of proven US designs, which are undoubtedly cheaper and in many respects better.

However, this drive to match the US now seems to be pushing the EU – and the UK in particular - into making another blunder in military procurement, of Eurofighter proportions in expenditure terms, and drive UK defence up a cul-de-sac from which it may never recover.  That "blunder" is called FRES, standing for "Future Rapid Effects System".

Nevertheless, although it seems to have formed the centrepiece of defence minister Geoff Hoon’s recently announced Strategic Defence Review, very few people know anything about FRES. All we know is that Hoon is relying on it as the technological fix that will enable him to cut back on human resources – like soldiers. By this means, he thinks he will have bundles of cash left to give Gordon, to spend on the bureaucrats running schools 'n' hospitals, to say nothing of the 3,500 office chairs in the Department of Defence, at a cool £1,000 each.

That so few people are aware of what FRES actually is can hardly be surprising. Two years ago, Gregory Fetter, a senior land-warfare analyst at Forecast International/DMS, observed that it was "too early to try to figure out what FRES will look like …It's like trying to grab a cloud of smoke."

And, as late as March of this year, Nicholas Soames, shadow defence secretary – in a debate in the Commons on defence policy - noted that defence contractors had been "anxiously awaiting a decision from the Government on the future rapid effects system battlefield vehicle that the Chief of the General Staff requires to be in service by 2009, but for which there is not yet even a drawing".

Small wonder that, in the report of the defence select committee published today, the committee expressed concern that the proposed in-service date of 2009 "will not be met".

So what is FRES?

The quote from Soames actually give some clue. He calls it a "battlefield vehicle", but it is more than that. It is a whole family of vehicles which are intended for the Army of the 21st Century, equipping it for its role as a rapid reaction force. It will enable it to deal quickly and effectively with trouble spots around the world, with maximum efficiency and the minimum expenditure of manpower. At least, that is how the propaganda goes.

For that, the government is preparing to sink around £6 billion into buying 900 vehicles, with an estimated budget for the total costs of ownership over the expected 30-year service life of almost £50 billion. That is a staggering £6.7 million average cost to buy each vehicle and an unbelievable life-time cost per vehicle – yes, each vehicle - of £55.5 million. To say that it would be cheaper to drive our troops into battle in a fleet of top-of-the-range Rolls-Royces hardly begins to illustrate the extravagance.

Whatever the merits of the vehicles – and these will be discussed shortly – the point is that FRES is not a British, or even European idea. It is copied from a US military programme known as FCS, or "Future Combat System". This is an armoured vehicle family designed as a "system of systems", operating in a network, fully equipped with the latest in electronics, combat systems and weapons, all inter-linked through satellite communications. And because the Americans are having it, "Europe" must have it as well.

Furthermore, although Hoon is highlighting it in his own defence review, FRES has very much become a "European" project. Such are the vast development costs that no single European nation can afford them, so it has become another of those joint programmes of which the Eurofighter project is the model.

Already, the European skills at designing just what is needed are coming to the fore. A fore-runner of FRES was the tri-nation programme to develop what was known as the MRAV – the " multi-role armoured vehicle", funded by the UK, German and Dutch governments and managed by the European armaments agency, OCCAR (Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation).

In a mirror image of the Eurofighter project, the French were also originally involved, but they pulled out to produce their own vehicle called the VBCI. Perhaps this was just as well for, after the expenditure of untold millions, the tri-nation consortium produced a prototype which they named the Boxer, only to find that at 33 tons, it was too heavy for airborne rapid deployment.

But the European involvement has not yet ended – not by any means. Despite honeyed words from the DoD to UK manufacturers, the leading contender for building FRES is a German firm, Rheinmetall DeTec. Should its designs be accepted, the outcome will undoubtedly be the formation of another European consortium to build it, as national sensibilities would not allow British forces to be equipped with German-built machines. And, with costs already escalating, we have another Eurofighter in the making.

So where does this leave us?

Here the political element comes in. Effectively, we are committing ourselves to enormous expenditure to buy "state of the art" but wholly unproven equipment, primarily to allow British armed forces to take part in what will almost certainly be an EU "rapid reaction force". The bulk of our new spending on procurement for the Army is being designated to that end. Effectively, to play a leading role in this force, we must have FRES. That is solely because FRES is what the US "rapid reaction force" will have and if the Americans have it, we (the Europeans) must have it too.

However, no one seems to be addressing the question as to whether FRES is actually a good idea – or necessary. Certainly, it may be suitable for the US, which is wealthier and can afford both new technology and maintain its existing force levels. Here, if we have to cut back out forces, in order to buy the technology – as Hoon is doing – we may have the worst end of the deal.

But even in the US, there are serious voices being raised, warning against the over-reliance on military technology in battle zones, noting that doctrine and tactics are equally important, if not more so, and that the human element is the vital factor.

On the UK front, we are getting into an even more serious situation where the costs of military "assets" is now so huge that we cannot afford to use them in combat zones where their loss might be threatened. Where an Iraqi insurgent can buy an RPG7 in a Baghdad bazaar for $20, it is a brave military commander that will risk a machine worth nearly £8 million, when it can be taken out with one round loosed off by a teenager.

Not for nothing, it should be noted, are US forces now patrolling the streets of Baghdad in Vietnam-era M113 armoured personnel carriers. They might not afford as good protection as the proposed FRES – or its US-equivalent – (although neither will protect from an RPG7) but at least they are affordable, and available.

Whether the Europeans will learn this lesson is debatable, and unlikely. Certainly, it looks like Hoon has bought into the European dream – that anything the US has, we must have too. Furthermore, he seems willing to bankrupt our forces to pay for it. There seems nothing now that can stop us lurching into another blunder of Eurofighter proportions.

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