Saturday, December 24, 2011

A retreat into dogma

Ministers, we are told are considering proposals under which the private sector could play a large role in the procurement of weapons and equipment for the armed forces. Says The Guardian, the civil servant in charge of defence procurement, Bernard Gray, has submitted a report setting out options for bringing in private expertise, and a decision is expected in the New Year.

The problems, however, are not going to be solved this way. Contrary to popular belief, the procurement system is actually quite efficient. If the services want a particular type of widget, and tells the system to go out and buy a requisite number, it will usually do it, on time and within budget.

Where we have the major issues with "big ticket" equipment purchases, though, the excess costs arise for a number of reasons. One is the failure of the services to define properly what they want, and then to keep changing the specification through the procurement process.

Another is the use the defence budget to support British (and increasingly European) defence industries, with purchases dictated by political rather than operational need. And then there is the "pork barrel" dynamic, where equipment is purchase from specific areas, again for political advantage.

Of all the issues, though, the definition problem is perhaps the most acute – and the most expensive. That, basically stems from the fact that we have lost sight of what we really want our Armed Forces to do. Military equipment is (or should be) the ultimate in functionality, and if we are unclear as to the functions needed, it is almost impossible to specify the right equipment.

Thus, it seems as if we have a Tory-led government, with no real idea of what to do, retreating into dogma, and privatising some functions which should properly remain in the public sector. After all, if you don't know what kit you really want, getting Tesco to buy it isn't going to make things any better.

That aside though, whatever the merits or otherwise of such decisions, now – during the Christmas break - is not the time to announce them. These are major changes, with profound implications. They should be subject to full discussion, and should not be rushed.