Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Who needs troops and tanks when you’re armed with a snappy soundbite?


THE Telegraph reports that Dominic Cummings is citing USAF General Bernard Schriever as the exemplar of how to do military procurement. Schriever (1910-2005) developed the US ballistic missile programme from scratch to fully deployed in about six years, with successor missiles coming on line throughout the Cold War. A great achievement for sure, but somewhat aided by the fact that the US ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile)was given the highest national priority by President Eisenhower. The project ended up employing some 64,000 people (that’s almost the size of the entire British Army). Yes, it ran procurement in a new manner (mostly because ICBMs were an entirely new weapon). And, with unstinting Presidential support from Eisenhower, and later JFK and LBJ, its budget was assured. I suspect ‘value for money’ and ‘whole life cost’ measures (the scourge of current UK procurement) were not part of the project management lexicon.

The same article quotes Defence Secretary Ben Wallace as mouthing the platitude that the defence review will reshape the armed forces to be ‘fit for tomorrow’s battles, not fighting yesterday’s’. Note that this soundbite skips over the problems of fighting today’s battles. It avoids the question of what will tomorrow’s battles look like. Let’s face it, governments frequently fail to predict or anticipate future conflicts. The Falklands, where naval air power was key, happened at a time when UK naval air power was to be run down. Gulf 1 happened when John Major had decided that armoured warfare was no longer likely. No one predicted the mess of Yugoslavia, Syria, Libya or Gulf 2. Nor had anyone thought through the requirements of Afghanistan.

Surely as a UN Security Council member which has (just about) regained control of our foreign policy from the EU, it is likely that we will be busy protecting and securing sea lanes. And yet our pitifully small Navy is not being increased (Pepys and Nelson knew the answer: ‘more frigates’). Aircraft carriers need aircraft, and if a squadron or two of F35s is afloat in, say, the Indian Ocean, those airframes can’t be used for protecting the UK’s airspace. Nor can they contribute to providing air cover for any other deployed units, for example the Army in the Baltics or the Sahel.

The Army is a conceptual mess. With just three regular tank regiments and five armoured infantry battalions, it is hardly a significant player in high-intensity wars. And that is before you consider the obsolescence of its tank. The Army has a further 28 regular infantry battalions. Some get to war by parachute, some by wheeled infantry carriers (the ‘new’ Boxer), some by upgraded and rebranded 1960s-era tracked vehicles (the Bulldog) and the rest by truck (i.e. 1930s technology). All of them fight dismounted (1914 technology). The net result of the last few defence reviews is that the British Army has developed from one actually ready for the war it fought to one that has regressed by several generations.

The Army is proud of its (newish) 77 Brigade, which supports psychological and information warfare. The Army seems also to be acquiring responsibility for ‘space and cyber’ warfare – whatever that may be – as well of course as building hospitals and supporting the government when all else fails (foot and mouth, floods, the Olympics, coronavirus etc.)

It is generally accepted that the two most successful military procurements in the world were the US F-16 programme and the Israeli Merkava tank. The F-16 was not originally intended to equip the USAF, so the concept developed quickly and with minimum cost or oversight. The concept was so good that companies were requested to tender, with competing planes flying two years later in 1974.  One went on to become the F-16 and the other the F-18 – both still in service today (to be replaced by F-35).  The Merkava was developed at pace when Harold Wilson refused to permit the Israelis to order the (then world-beating) Chieftain tank in the late 1960s. In the face of this, Israel Tal (a former Israeli armour commander) developed the Merkava, which came into service inside nine years. Like the US ICBM programme, the Israeli need for a tank was a national priority and the person running the programme had the expertise and authority to deliver. And no budgetary constraints.

This may, of course, not be the lesson that the government wanted to learn.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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