UK military deals: red-flag alert!

The buying of Britain's defence equipment is a litany of cost, waste – and cosiness

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 December 2018

Boeing E-3D Sentry AEW1, 2015. Wikicommons. Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford and Largs, UK. Some rights reserved.

In the past decade, the UK military has been embroiled in countless equipment sagas involving waste, delay, and cost overrun. Of them all, two are most glaring: the failure to replace the RAF’s maritime reconnaissance capability, and the problems attending the Royal Navy’s fleet of six Type-45 air-defence destroyers. A new report highlights the process whereby just one expensive contract was agreed.   

But first, a recap on those two sagas. The maritime role was based on the old Nimrods, which were most often in the news when deployed to search far offshore for ships in trouble. An ever more costly BAE Systems upgrade was due to replace them, until the whole project – development and management alike – proved a fiasco. The ministry of defence (MoD) finally cancelled it in 2010.  

Since then, the RAF has lacked a replacement force. Supplying it will take at least two more years; in the meantime, Canadian, French and other forces (and a few far less advanced British aircraft) will fill the old roles.  

The destroyers too are in the midst of costly repairs which, when finished, will have overcome an acutely embarrassing problem: the entire propulsion system's tendency to cut out when sailing in warm water. In the Gulf or the South China Sea, that is really not very helpful.  

The Nimrod and Type-45 debacles are just two of many cases where the government faces major problems with military infrastructure. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), an independent oversight body, previously identified five other defence-equipment programmes in such serious trouble as to raise doubts over their completion (see  "Britain's defence, Labour's winner", 19 July 2018). 

Of these, the first was "red flagged") in 2017, and the other four newly identified in 2018:

* New nuclear-reactor cores for submarines, a £1.5 billion programme

* Astute-class submarine, a £9.9 bn programme 

* Marshall military air-traffic-control system, a £1.8 bn programme

* Protector armed-drone, a £907 million programme

* Warrior armoured-fighting vehicle upgrade, a £1.6 billion programme.

Some analysts see such projects as emblematic of an opaque set of relationships connecting the military, politicians and the defence industries. In this light, diligent investigation by the military journal Jane’s Defence Weekly – using freedom-of-information (FoA) legislation – has just exposed another particularly interesting example.

The waste-promoting hydra

The heart of the story is that the RAF is replacing (belatedly, in many experts' eyes) its Boeing E-3D Sentry airborne early-warning planes, an ageing fleet. Until recently there were three contenders for what will be a very substantial contract, which will be awarded under the RAF's E-RD replacement programme (whose unwieldy title is the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme, or WCSP). 

One of these was a new Boeing system, the E-7 Wedgetail. The other two were an Israel-based system, widely considered to be less than viable, and a more serious joint Saab-Airbus offer combining the former’s radar system with the latter’s aircraft. It has now been confirmed that Boeing has been selected as the source.   

Here is where it gets interesting. Jane’s, through the FoA request, discovered that of the candidates proposing to build the aircraft, the RAF selection team visited only a Boeing plant. According to the journal, the team met Boeing executives on twelve occasions over the past year, inspected an E-7 at the Farnborough air show in July, and flew in it soon afterwards when visiting RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. By contrast, the RAF team had just one meeting with the Israeli candidate, and four with Saab-Airbus – but in neither case did it actually inspect the system at close quarters or fly in the actual planes!  

The MoD responded to queries on this sole-source contract by saying that increasing problems with the current system created a degree of urgency, and the Boeing system was the obvious follow-on. Even if valid, the whole basis of the decision-making only became public knowledge thanks to smart journalistic inquiry.  

The cosy relationship uncovered here helps explain why the IPA has had to “red flag” so many major weapons programmes. It is yet another example of Dwight D Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, or the war-promoting hydra. The next equipment debacle is ever just around the corner.

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