UK defence spending updates
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The UK’s process of buying military equipment has been hampered by a desire for “110 per cent perfection” but the increasing reliance of weapon systems on electronics and software could help solve the problem, according to Britain’s defence procurement minister.
Jeremy Quin said the long-running problem was a result of an attitude in the armed forces that new equipment had to have “every single mod com that is going to be needed in 10 years’ time” in an attempt to ensure it is future-proof.
“That means that you are essentially asking yourselves and asking industry to produce, hopefully for a set price and at a set time, an asset that you haven’t yet seen nor hasn’t yet necessarily been designed,” Quin told the FT in an interview at DSEI in London, Europe’s biggest arms fair.
Quin’s remarks underline the UK’s poor record on military procurement, which is littered with projects running late and over budget. The latest is a £5.5bn programme to procure a family of armoured vehicles for the army, known as Ajax.
The vehicles, equipped with the latest digital sensors that would increase battlefield surveillance, were meant to be part of the army’s transition into an era of high-tech warfare.
The UK signed the contract with US defence contractor General Dynamics (GD) in 2014 for 589 vehicles, based on an existing design for the Spanish and Austrian armed forces that entered service in 2002.
Deliveries of Ajax should have started four years ago but so far none have entered service. Instead, the vehicles have been beset by noise and excessive vibration problems, prompting concerns they could cause lasting hearing damage to their crews.
The issues are so acute that ministers have come under pressure to cancel the contract. Defence analysts have said that repeated modifications demanded by the army were part of the problem.
Quin said he had met with GD’s chief executive, Phebe Novakovic, to discuss the problems, noting the company was “determined to get this sorted”.
However, he acknowledged he could not “100 per cent guarantee” that a resolution would be found and insisted the government would “never accept” a vehicle that did not meet its requirements. Independent trials of Ajax had resumed, he added, which would allow the MoD to identify “where the vibration is inside the vehicle”.
GD said it was working “very closely with the British Army to deliver this transformational capability” and was committed to “supporting the Ministry of Defence fully in getting this critical platform into service”.
Quin said the government’s new defence and security industrial strategy, published in March, would lead to a more “sensible approach” to procurement. One that was focused on bringing into service “in a more rapid, timely way kit that has real utility but with the scope to be enhanced”. The process would be easier than it was several years ago, he added, as upgrades were increasingly electronic or software related.
He also defended the government’s stance on the recent spate of defence takeovers which have fuelled concern of a hollowing out of British manufacturing.
Two of Britian’s defence industry stalwarts, Meggitt and Ultra Electronics, are the target of bids by foreign buyers. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng last month intervened in the proposed takeover of Ultra citing national security concerns.
The government kept a “very close watch” on all takeover activity, Quin said, while acknowledging that the country needed to strike a “balance” between attracting investment and preserving critical capabilities.
“We benefit in the UK from having companies that are investing globally and are investing in the UK. There are tens of thousands of UK jobs . . . where employees are employed by international companies including international defence companies and investment in the sector is good.”
“Making certain that we also have UK companies providing specific needs for the UK armed forces . . . is also important,” he said.