Des Browne’s departure from the Ministry of Defence, when it eventually happens, will do little to solve its underlying failures. Regardless of which Minister happens to be serving as the department’s mouthpiece, the MoD is institutionally incompetent.
As the recent "cash-for-sailors" fiasco has revealed, the problem at the MoD is that Ministers slavishly follow official advice, and official advice turns out to be unresponsive at best, and at worst, plain wrong. When the issue at stake is the relatively trivial question of how to handle media interest in returning hostages, this merely means embarrassment. When the issue is how best to allocate Britain’s £32 Billion annual defence budget, the consequences are more serious. Yet evidence shows that the MoD is every bit as inept at spending money wisely as they are at public relations.
Slavish adherence to poor official advice is undermining our armed forces. Vital equipment has been bought overprice, late or with key design flaws; Apache helicopters cost over £30 million each, almost three times what other countries paid. The new Lynx will not be ready until at least 2012. One batch of Chinooks turns out to be unable to fly at over 500 feet in cloudy conditions. And that is just the helicopters.
Bungled defence procurement is nothing new; the Nimrod early warning aircraft is proof of that. Problems with the SA80 rifle took years to sort out. Yet Nimrod and the SA80 merely tell us that incompetence at the MoD happens regardless of which politicians are nominally in charge.
What is different, however, is that MoD failures are starting to have a direct effect out there on the battle field. Tony Blair has committed UK forces to more conflicts than any other post-war Prime Minister. At a time when our armed forces are chronically overstretched, not having the right kit is starting to really matter. Eventually something has to give.
On a recent visit to Afghanistan, I discovered some shocking truths about the inadequacy of our helicopter lift capability. Not getting those procurement contracts right for the Apache, new Lynx and Chinooks is having real military consequences in Helmand today. No amount of lawyerly evasiveness to Parliamentary questions by whichever lowgrade Minister will be able to hide this fact.
There is a second important difference between the MoD’s current failings, and their ad hoc bungling in the past. While Nimrod might have been money badly spent, at least the MoD was attempting to buy a piece of kit we might actually have needed in the Cold War climate of the 1980’s.
Today, however, the MoD continues to lavish vast sums of our money on weapons systems designed for another age. The Eurofighter drains a massive £20 Billion of the defence budget, yet was conceived to meet a threat from Soviet MiGs that evaporated over a decade ago. The Navy maintains ships built to fight Russians in the Atlantic, yet cannot deal effectively with Iranian speed boats in the shallow waters of the Gulf.
If the MoD has proved unable to respond to meet the current challenges, what chance is there that it will manage to respond to future challenges and asymmetric threats? It is not only Iranian speed boats that the UK will have to contend with in future.
In 2000, the USS Cole – a multi-million dollar warship – was sunk by an old dhow and a bag of nitrate fertilizer. Last summer, Israeli tanks in southern Lebanon were crippled by cheap shoulder-launched missiles. Are conventional tanks and warships about to go the way of the mounted knight?
MoD officials have insisted to me that without the two new aircraft carriers they want, Britain will no longer have a "proper navy". Yet how vulnerable are the West’s "proper" navies to the new "improper" asymmetric threats? What use would a carrier have been in the Persian Gulf the other week? If an aircraft carrier is a platform for planes, and those planes are in turn a platform for missiles, might it not one day be an idea to build ships that don’t need that expensive middle bit? No one knows the answers for sure, but is the MoD even capable of asking the right questions?
It is not necessarily for politicians to micromanage the development of each weapons system (that said, without Lord Beaverbrook overseeing the construction of Spitfires and Hurricanes in the late 1930’s there may have been a different outcome in the Battle of Britain). Rather, it is for politicians to make the MoD accountable – and ensure that officials develop equipment that our armed forces need to fight the wars we are likely to ask them to fight.
The MoD needs a radical shake up. It is a disgrace that the Defence Procurement Agency has become an unaccountable quango. Oversight must be returned to Parliament. All senior civil service appointments in the upper reaches of the MoD should be ratified by the House of Commons Defence Committee through public hearings. Senior officials should have short fixed-term contracts. To prevent our limited defence budget being thrown at dead-end projects, like Eurofighter, the MoD should return to having annualised budgets, voted on by Parliament.
The defence industry needs shaking up. The pernicious influence of defence lobbyists needs curtailing. Too often the defence contractors have run circles around the MoD. Lock-in clauses tie Britain into buying equipment we no longer need, and at a price that is not worth paying.
In any market when there is a constraint on supply, the seller sets the terms of trade. So, too, in defence. Successive governments have consolidated the supply base, in the belief it would help procurement, yet it has achieved the precise opposite.
Instead government should encourage a range of suppliers, while consolidating demand. Arguments about "buying British" should come second to that of equipping our armed forces with the best kit in the world to do their job. We should look to make agreements to jointly purchase (not jointly build) the equipment that we need with our Anglosphere allies from across the world. Britain is not alone in having to make good value from her defence budget. Nor are we alone in having to protect ourselves from the global threats which arise from the non-democracies of the world. If we teamed up with Anglosphere allies, such as Australia, India, Canada, America, Israel or Holland, each time we needed a piece of kit built, the supplier might actually deliver on time and on price.
Before pledging a single extra pound, the new model Conservative party must make it a priority to ensure that the billions we already spend on defence are spent more wisely – and in the interests of our armed forces, not defence contractors.