Friday, February 24, 2006

Where did we go wrong?

With the Turkish Army on the process of re-equipping and developing into a formidable modern force, an intriguing report appeared recently in DefenseNews, which harped back to another story on which we reported back in September last.

The report itself simply confirms that which we reported earlier, that Turkey’s procurement authorities have now formally launched bidding for the local manufacture of new-generation main battle tanks. This is a reversal of the initial gush of Euro-enthusiasm after it had been agreed that Turkey could commence entry negotiations, when there were reports that the Turks would equip their army with surplus German Leopard II tanks.

The significance of this move is obvious, in that Turkey is hedging its bets on joining the EU, and is maintaining a degree of strategic independence, to the extent that it is permitting only companies based in Turkey and owned more than 50 percent by Turkish entities to bid for the tank programme.

But if this is significant in Turkish terms, it also points up the stark contrast with the British arms procurement policy and, on the broader front, they way we have treated our defence manufacturing industry.

While the Turks, who have a limited industrial base and no previous experience in building such highly complex weapons such as main battle tanks, are setting about gearing their industries for the task of indigenous supply, the UK – with a long traditional of industrial excellence and, as the inventor of the tank in the First World War – now feels it necessary to go to Sweden for its new generation of armoured vehicles, which are to form the background of the FRES programme.

Similarly, while successive governments have felt it necessary to embark on European collaborative schemes in order to equip our front-line fighter squadrons, France – supposedly the most Euro-enthusiastic of all nations – has maintained its own independent aviation industry and is equipping its squadrons with home-built Rafale fighters.

Amazingly, even Sweden, with a population size of less than greater London, is able to produce its own fighter aircraft – currently the Gripen (illustrated) – perversely in partnership with the British-owned BAE Systems, a company which has not been trusted to produce aircraft for our own forces.

On the ground, we have a country with an automotive industry that also stretches back to the invention of the horseless carriage. We have a population with good engineering skills and world-class designers, with plenty of spare capacity and good infrastructure, yet our government chose to equip our Army with Austrian-built vehicles rather than allow them to be home-produced, thereby turning its back for the foreseeable future on maintaining a domestic military vehicle industry.

How is it that the UK, again with a small-arms industry of long antiquity, cannot support even the one factory needed to supply its own armed forces with rifles? For sure, Germany maintains its own manufacturing capability, but how come such industrial giants like Austria and Belgium can maintain world-class industries of their own, despite not having armies worthy of the name?

Then, when it comes to ammunition and explosives, why do we need to go to France and Germany for our supplies? Why is it not possible for British industry to survive on the orders from the most active and heavily engaged armies in Europe?

And, as for ships, why is it that France, Italy and Germany have the capability to build their warships and support vessels in-house, and Spain is able not only to supply her own navy but maintain an active export industry – selling to Australia amongst others – yet our shipyards are so run-down that our government needs to consider awarding contracts for our replenishment vessels offshore.

These are the basics but a country which claims to be a high-tech, advanced nation, also has to go offshore for its missiles, for its mine countermeasures, for its anti-battery radars – despite having invented radar - and, latterly, its helicopters. Never in the history of the UK have we ever been so dependent on offshore suppliers for our weapons than we are at the moment.

In following the twists and turns of this and preceding UK government’s procurement policies, we have of course, focused on the European dimension, and in so doing have been accused of distortion, and worse. Not a few of our critics have suggested that turning away from European suppliers would simply make us even more dependent on the US, which could be just as bad.

But what the Turkish decision points up, therefore, is that other factor – the strange destruction of our own defence industries, which has left us dependent on foreign suppliers, which are increasingly of European origin.

To some extent, we know that the wind-down has been influenced by European policy, not least in shipbuilding, where the UK government has cut back subsidies while other member states have continued theirs, and we know that certain politicians have show more than usual enthusiasm for integrating our defence industries – Michael Heseltine comes to mind.

And it is on these issues that we intend to focus some of our energies, to develop this theme future posts.


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