In a debate on Defence Procurement in the House of Commons yesterday, Minister for the Armed Forces, Bob Ainsworth, reaffirmed that the Government is committed to giving the British military the equipment they need.
In his opening speech at the debate on Monday 20 April 2009, Mr Ainsworth said while improvements have been made in the way the UK has equipped its Armed Forces over the past years, we can and must do better.
Highlighting the commitment to this endeavour, Mr Ainsworth reiterated that the Defence Budget has risen consistently at a rate above inflation since 2000 saying that, in real terms, by 2010/11 it will be over £3bn, or 10 per cent higher than in 1997. He said:
“Providing good equipment is a fundamental component of the military covenant. We ask the Armed Forces to risk all on our behalf on operations. In return we must support them properly, giving them the equipment and the training they need to do the job we ask them to do today and the job that we may ask of them tomorrow.”
In addition to the rises in the Defence Budget Mr Ainsworth stated that since 2001 the Treasury Reserve has provided around £14bn to ensure our Forces are properly trained, equipped and supported for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, including £4.2bn approved for Urgent Operational Requirements, the majority of which is related to force protection equipment.
He said: “We must, in the allocation of funds, give priority to current operations. However we cannot take this too far because we need to continue to insure against the threats that we may face in years to come. The National Security Strategy, published in March last year, highlights the sheer range of potential security threats facing the UK, from international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflicts and failed states to pandemics, and trans-national crime.
“We live in a complicated and unpredictable world. It is this unpredictability which makes it so important that in fighting today’s war, we do not irreparably damage our ability to prepare for tomorrow’s, whatever it may be.
“No matter how good the equipment package we procure through our core budget, the unpredictability of conflict means that we need a rapid procurement programme of some kind to allow us to tailor and supplement the kit we give our forces.
“Our Urgent Operational Requirement [UOR] programme has done this job. Working with industry we have used it to slash dramatically procurement lead times and to fast track equipment specifically tailored to the demands of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“For example, in 2005, we used the UOR process to introduce new Kestrel and Osprey body armour for our forces in theatre. This represented a step change in capability over the body armour they had before. But we can’t rest. Feedback from troops is, predictably, that they like the protection but not the extra weight. We are now working on a better fit of body armour, which will make carriage easier and which we expect to be in theatre by summer. We are also making further improvements to the infantryman’s helmet.”
Mr Ainsworth also said that he got good feedback from the Royal Marines he visited in Afghanistan in December 2008 on the equipment package, adding:
“Everywhere I went, marines of all ranks had nothing but praise for the Jackal. There are now 200 Jackals in service and the new improved Jackal 2 is due to be delivered later this year, six months after this requirement was first raised.
“Jackal is only one small part of the vehicle fleet which we are delivering under UOR to the front line. We have approved over £1bn on new vehicles for operations, with a focus on providing our commanders with a range of options to allow them to select the most appropriate vehicle for the task in hand. As well as heavily armoured vehicles, they must have more mobile vehicles which can penetrate the narrow streets of villages in the Green Zone in Helmand or vehicles which can cover rough terrain in pursuit of the enemy.
“We have been making good progress in delivering this comprehensive programme. In October 2008, the Secretary of State announced that we would be procuring approximately 700 new and upgraded armoured vehicles, including £350m for over 400 new light, medium and heavy protected utility vehicles, to be known respectively as Coyote, Husky and Wolfhound. We have now signed contracts for Husky and Wolfhound and expect to sign the contract for Coyote very shortly.
“Mastiff continues to prove its worth in Iraq and Afghanistan and deliveries of the enhanced Mastiff 2 began in late 2008, bringing the available Mastiff fleet to over 280. Ridgback, which will provide similar levels of protection to the Mastiff but is based around the smaller Cougar 4×4 chassis, is expected to start arriving in theatre later this month. And the first batch of Panther command and liaison vehicles has arrived in theatre and are expected to become operational in the next few weeks.”
Mr Ainsworth also said that while the UOR programme is used to ensure that we are prepared for operations today, we have to ensure that our core budget is properly balanced between equipment designed for the kind of operations we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and those we may face in future.
He said: “We need to make sure we don’t abandon our high-end capabilities on the altar of the needs of today. Once abandoned, these capabilities, dependent on complex equipment and highly trained personnel, would be difficult to regrow. In our uncertain world our Armed Forces will need the tools to deal with many potential threats. Equipment like Trident, Astute, Type 45, the new Carriers, Typhoon, JSF [Joint Strike Fighter], and the Future Surface Combatant is essential to our ability to defend ourselves and to project force.
“The reality is that high-end equipment can be used very effectively across the spectrum of conflict. This is borne out by the experience of current operations. The Armed Forces are using equipment designed with very different threats in mind, in roles which they were not originally intended for. Equipment such as the Tornado, bought as a deep attack bomber, but employed in Iraq for close air support, and soon to be performing the same role in Afghanistan.
“However making the right decisions about the equipment we need is only one side of the equation. The other side is ensuring that we then go on to procure it as efficiently and as effectively as possible.
“We have a duty to the taxpayer and to our Armed Forces to ensure that we procure as efficiently and cost effectively as possible, particularly in the current financial climate. The Defence Industrial Strategy still forms the basis of these endeavours, its principles remain at the core of how we do procurement and we are working with industry to deliver it.
“We also need to make sure we draw on every source we can to find ways to improve. For example there are many lessons to be learned from the UOR experience: requirements driven by the needs of the user rather than the allure of technology; industry involved right from the start of the process; a premium placed on speed rather than perfection. That is why the Secretary of State commissioned Bernard Gray to conduct a review into our processes for procuring and delivering major equipment programmes. The review will conclude later this year.”
Mr Ainsworth finished his opening speech at yesterday’s debate saying:
“We will never be able to predict the future accurately. Instead we can only train, equip and support our Armed Forces so that they are as prepared as they can be to face the unknown. There have been improvements in this area over the past years but we can and must do better. We owe it to our Armed Forces and to the British taxpayer to ensure that we do.”