Two articles in leading defence journals this week, respectively DefenseNews and Defense Daily, raise interesting questions about the state of the US-UK special relationship.
One the one hand, Defense Daily (25 August) records that, within the next two weeks, the United States and the United Kingdom are expected to conclude an agreement that will pave the way for building compatible networks for the US Future Combat Systems (FCS) programme and the UK Future Rapid Effects System (FRES). An MoD spokesperson said a project agreement is to be signed by 5 September.
This, on the face of it looks highly encouraging as there is to be a formal Memorandum of Understanding. This does suggest renewed interest in the special relationship, which seems to be further reinforced by an MoD decision to award a contract to the US firm General Dynamics for a key part of FRES.
The contract is to undertake "risk-reduction" work on a hybrid electric-drive chassis for the armoured vehicles which form the basis of the system. It is aimed at giving the MoD a "better understand the technology" before making a decision to move forward on development and production of FRES.
However, nothing is all it seems. Negotiations have also been under way with BAE Systems on a second hybrid electric-drive produced by the Swedish company Hagglunds – the so-called SEP, or Splitterskyddad Enhetsplattform, developed as part of a Swedish government programme.
What makes this an especially strong contender is that a co-operation agreement is already in place between the British and Swedish governments to develop the programme.
The MoD could, therefore, be setting up a blind, using General Dynamics to give the impression of an open competition, whence the contract will eventually be awarded to BAE systems fronting the Hagglunds SEP.
In this light, it could be that the co-operation agreement between the UK and the US represents a realisation by the US government of how far the British government has drifted into the European camp and is offering co-operation in an attempt to pull the UK back into the US sphere, plus an attempt to tilt the FRES contract in the direction of the US supplier.
However, the agreement does not seem to add much to the working co-operation already in place on the British Bowman radios and US Joint Tactical Radio Systems, where limited interoperability has already been secured and work is continuing.
Whether any useful information can be exchanged is a mute point. With the US ITAR legislation in place, which is limiting technology transfer, the British government is already finding it difficult to get the US government to release technology on the Joint Strike Fighter. Since much of FCS technology will be either commercially or militarily sensitive, it is doubtful whether the US government will be too enthusiastic about sharing high-end technology on this project either.
Anyhow, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. This is the most expensive single Army project ever to be procured – for a system worth some £14 billion – and platform contract is expected to be awarded at the end of the year. Whether it goes to General Dynamics, or BAE systems, fronting for Hagglunds, will be a crucial litmus test of the special relationship.