Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Defence integration – by stealth?

The choice of a European supplier for British Army trucks - announced yesterday by the MoD – has such profound implications for UK defence policy that it cannot just be dismissed as a "best value" procurement decision.

Unless the MoD can come up with a very, very convincing justification for selecting MAN-Nutzfahrzeuge, there are good reasons for suspecting that there is a broader political agenda at play.

Not least, there are shades of the Sikorsky – Westland drama here, in that the choice was essentially between an American-led consortium, in Stewart and Stevenson, fronting up the British companies LDV Limited, Multidrive Limited and Lex Defence, and the European supplier MAN-Nutzfahrzeuge.

Unlike the Conservative government in 1985, however, this Labour administration has gone for the European option, making the British Army wholly reliant of German manufactured equipment.

What gets the political antenna twitching though are two separate issues. The first is the EU commission's publication of 23 September of this year the Green Paper on Defence Procurement (COM(2004) 608 final), flagged up in our earlier Blog (sleepwalking into disaster).

In this Blog, we noted that the commission stated that "the credibility of European defence policy depends on the existence and development of a European capacity and a strengthening of the industrial and technological base of the defence sector". It said it was anxious to work with the European Defence Agency to promote common, EU-wide procurement and standardisation throughout the forces of member states.

While it cannot yet be stated with any certainty that the choice of a German supplier of British Army trucks is at all influenced by this Green Paper and the commission's objective, it can be stated with certainty that it certainly does conform with the commission's objectives. On the other hand, the choice of a US-led consortium would confound the them.

The second issue of note is the recent rejection by the US congress of the ITAR waiver, whence it will be recalled that defence secretary Hoon threatened Rumsfeld that congressional opposition to the waivers "could steer London away from billions of dollars' of U.S. weapon purchases."

The waiver was vetoed on 6 October and here we are on 13 October learning that the UK has gone for a European rather than US option in selecting crucial British Army equipment.

On their own, these two issues could still, perhaps, be dismissed as coincidence, but there is another more profound factor in the wings. Long gone are the days when trucks – Army trucks, at least – were simply boxes on wheels, used to ship men and materiel. They are highly sophisticated pieces of equipment, which mesh into the whole logistics and combat system, relying on complex electronics to keep them integrated.

Surprise, surprise, MAN Nutzfahrzeuge AG is not just a truck manufacturer. It also produces a sophisticated electronic fleet management system, called "Telematics" which has been incorporated into the military programme, thus enabling what it calls "Network Centric Logistics".

This starts ringing alarm bells. At the forefront of modern military technology, is the concept of "digitising the battlespace", providing command and control capability throughout the force, with – in the jargon of the speciality – "a horizontally and vertically integrated digital information network that supports warfighting systems and assures command and control decision cycle superiority."

The logistic network is a central part of that capability, which will be incorporated into the British Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) which is at the heart of Hoon’s defence review, and underpins his cutting back of infantry strength.

The concept itself is based on the US Future Combat System (FCS) and the political implications of this system have been discussed in an earlier Blog.

In this respect, the crucial question for the UK, on the basis that it cannot afford to develop the system on its own, is whether it goes for European or US cooperation. If it chooses European cooperation, then it is highly unlikely that the resultant system will be compatible with the US, which will then mean that combined operations with US forces, on any scale, will effectively ruled out.

We are, therefore, in a situation where the choice of technology is actually dictating and circumscribing political choices, to the extent that we are having to choose between the US or Europe, and can no longer act in our traditional role as a bridge between the two. It has to be one or the other, and the selection of MAN Nutzfahrzeuge drags us further into the European camp.

Political issues aside, there are also profound technical issues. Although "tactical internet" and "Integrated Digital Information Networks" on the battlefield are new concepts, much of the US technology is battle-proven, having been deployed in the Iraq war, and the US Army is already deploying the technology in its "Interim Armoured Vehicle", the Stryker, with at least two brigades up and running.

For the Europeans, the concept is theoretical, with no proven experience. No European manufacturer, or armed service, has yet been able to put the technology into the field, yet we are drifting into a situation were we are being committed to participation in an untried European programme.

Furthermore, although at a relatively minor level compared to the electronic systems, with the experience of Iraq and other war zones, trucks are being fitted for optional installation of appliqué armour, to protect against mines, RPG7s and roadside bombs. And which country is world leader in armour technology? You guessed it, the Americans… and we are opting for German equipment.

All of this discounts the jobs issue, where the Stewart and Stevenson option would ensure that the vehicles were built in Britain by British workers. to say nothing of throwing away the possibility of export sales by abandoning domestic manufacturing. And, Xenophobic or not, there is the highly sensitive issue of British forces relying on German Army trucks. There are still many people around with memories of the Second World War who will feel uneasy at the prospect.

But the central issue, which has to be addressed, and addressed urgently, is whether the MAN Nutzfahrzeuge decision is politically driven, and part of an undeclared agenda which has at its heart European defence integration – by stealth. It this is the agenda, then we are putting the whole of the US special relationship at risk, with untold political consequences.

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