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Procurement Problems - Britain's failure to equip its military

7 min read

Writer and consultant John Oxley looks at Britain’s failure to deliver the right equipment for its troops, and concludes there must be rapid improvement if we are to remain a credible military power.

In the spring of 1944, a great phantom army spread out across the south of England. Dummy landing craft, inflatable tanks and fictitious radio communications were all marshalled to pull the Nazis’ attention away from the planned sites of the Normandy landings. It was one of the greatest military deceptions of all time and helped facilitate the success of D-Day. Now, however, the British military and political classes seem more intent on deluding themselves.

The British projection of power and military might is caught between the desire to remain a global power and the realities of public finances. Ambitious goals and promising language resolve into reductions in the numbers of troops, planes, and ships, while our allies question our ability to lead major operations. Successive governments have also struggled to contend with shifting military priorities as first 9/11 and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine spurred geopolitical and doctrinal shifts.

Underneath all this sits a military procurement process which is beset by scandal. For decades now, the Ministry of Defence has appeared incapable of delivering the right projects on the right timescales for the correct budgets. Time and time again, much heralded pieces of military hardware have failed to materialise, come in on budget, or to match up with initial expectation. This has left budgets squandered and the armed forces lacking essential elements of their war-fighting.

Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee issued an excoriating report into military spending. Examining the next ten years of military spending, the Committee doubted that the rolling Equipment Process was affordable or agile enough to respond to new emerging threats. It accused MoD leaders of being swayed by “optimism bias” in their projections, which saw overspend in the next few years recouped by efficiencies after that – and echoed concerns that by the end of the decade the British military may not be able to field a NATO-standard operational division.

In launching the report Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Browne, Deputy Chairman of the PAC, issued a stern exhortation to the MoD to “break from this cycle of costly delay and failure and deliver a fundamental, root and branch reform of defence procurement”. The report highlighted concerns about projects that had been delivered late and overbudget and expressed little confidence that this could be fixed. The warnings were particularly stark as the Plan was written prior to the new demands of supporting Ukrainian forces and the subsequent rise in inflation.

Scepticism over procurement should come as a surprise to no one. Over the last few decades countless MoD projects have fallen into chaos, suggesting something deeply wrong with the procurement process. Contracts are often made, cancelled, and reissued, usually causing greater expense, while the forces struggle to receive equipment on time, leaving them dependent on legacy systems.

The most notorious failure in recent years has been the army’s Ajax project.  The fighting vehicle is intended to be the star of the UK’s next generation of armoured vehicles, deployed in six variations to provide armed reconnaissance, artillery support and command facilities, as well as equipment support and engineering versions. The project was launched in 2010 and was set to be deployed in 2017 – yet not a single battle-ready vehicle has been delivered.

Instead, the project has been mired in the testing period. Engineers have failed to find a solution for excess vibration and noise, which injured soldiers when first used. For parts of the trials the vehicles were not allowed to drive faster than 20mph and couldn’t fire when moving – two critical failures for a vehicle intended as a rapid and deadly battlefield implement. The army should get the vehicles in the summer of 2025, almost eight years too late.

This is not an isolated incident. A project to upgrade the Army’s Warrior vehicles was branded an “abject failure” after it was abandoned in 2021, with half a billion pounds already spent. The Boxer went through a similarly absurd process, with the MoD first committing to the project in the nineties, withdrawing from it, then recommitting in 2018.

The Royal Navy has suffered from similarly fraught processes. The replacements for the Vanguard Class of submarines were expected to come on stream in 2024 when the project was first approved, but they now look unlikely to arrive before the middle of the next decade. This has forced the extension of the lifetime of the existing nuclear submarines, while the National Audit Office heavily criticised management around other aspects of the nuclear weapons system. 

The UK’s two aircraft carriers, HMSS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales were also heavily delayed and over-budget. The ships cost £6.4 billion to deliver against a budget of £3.9 billion and had to be stripped of features such as catapult launchers (used by Chinese and US carriers) due to the overspend. A failure to grapple with the intricacies of some of the radar systems at the outset was one of several reasons for the ships being over three years late in entering service.

The RAF has faced similar chaos with its provision around its E3 Sentry planes, which provide battlefield intelligence from the skies. Other spending commitments during the Iraq and Afghan wars persuaded the government not to fund mid-life upgrades for the fleet, instead planning to replace them with the newer E7. Delays to this project, however, have led to increasing maintenance costs to extend the lifespan of the older planes, with the UK now set to replace six E3s with just three E7s.

 If it flies, floats or fights, chances are it will be delivered late and over-budget.

If it flies, floats or fights, chances are it will be delivered late and over-budget. This not only strains the finances but undermines operational effectiveness. Failure to deliver new kit means that troops are reliant on things that have outlived their usefulness and are outpaced by the enemy. Older kit also requires more maintenance time, taking it off operations more often and for longer – a problem exacerbated by new kit not arriving in sufficient numbers. Part of the risk to Britain being able to field operational battalions is a lack of depth to cover kit being out for essential maintenance.

The UK has bold ambitions for its military. It wants to remain a major strategic force, able to contribute above its weight in allied operations, as well as having the capability to lead humanitarian and military missions abroad. It has rightly drawn pride from the impact its arms and training have had in the support for Ukraine and remains committed to the NATO target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence.

This will only work though if it spends money wisely – something the MoD has routinely failed to do through successive governments and eras of military challenge. As the PAC and NAO have acknowledged, the same eras have been repeated and lessons not learned and at the moment there is little hope that the next decade of military spending will be deployed better than the last. 

Forecasting future defence needs isn’t easy. Projects take a long time to scope and deliver, while the geo-politics can pivot in hours. Yet the Russians have shown the peril of having a great force on paper, but whose equipment is lacking. If the UK is to remain a credible military power, it has to get procurement right. Phantom armies only work as cover for one that is real and deadly. Self-delusion and optimistic accounting will be brutally exposed on the battlefield.

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