Mark Francois is the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a member of the Defence Select Committee and a former Armed Forces Minister.
It’s official: the MoD’s defence procurement system is “broken.” That is the verdict of the all-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which published an absolutely damning report on the subject in early November. The PAC’s conclusion, backed up by the National Audit Office (NAO) was that:
“To meet the aspirations of the Integrated Review, the Department’s broken system for acquiring military equipment needs an urgent rethink, led by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.”
This conclusion follows on from an extraordinary service of events, which began in 2021, just prior to the publication of the much-delayed Integrated Review of Defence and Foreign Policy. At that point, the Defence Committee Select Committee published an equally damming analysis of the MoD’s procurement arm, Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) and the British Army’s re-equipment plans.
Specifically, the report criticised the decade-long effort to upgrade the Warrior armoured infantry fighting vehicle, and also suggested there were problems with the new Ajax light tank too. On Ajax, the report highlighted that the programme was already running several years late.
It is difficult to exaggerate the effect which this extremely critical report had within the MoD. Ministers were assured by a combination of embarrassed civil servants and senior Army officers that the HCDC’s report was highly erroneous and ill-informed.
As a result, the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, publicly rubbished the report, even awarding it “one out of ten” on the floor of the House of Commons.
When the Integrated Review was subsequently published, shortly thereafter, the Warrior upgrade was cancelled (costing the taxpayer nearly half a billion pounds and ten years in wasted effort) whereas Ajax, which Ministers had been repeatedly assured was proceeding successfully, survived the Review.
However, within a few months, worrying reports emerged of very serious problems with Ajax, for which the MoD has contracted with General Dynamics for £5.5 billion, to deliver 589 vehicles – not far off £10 million each.
he fundamental problem is that not only that Ajax doesn’t work properly, it actually injures its own crew. Over 300 military personnel who have been involved in the trials programme have needed subsequent hearing checks, a number have required steroid injections for hearing loss, and several have been medically discharged from the Army.
Then, in July, things went from bad to worse. The Government’s own auditor, the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) published its annual report on major infrastructure projects across Government, from HS2 downwards.
The IPA grades each programme on a “traffic light” system, from Red (which basically means that the project is unlikely ever to succeed), through to Green (which means it is likely to be delivered both on schedule and within cost). It also audited the top 36 MoD procurement programmes.
In an excoriating analysis, two MoD programmes were rated Red (Ajax, and a Royal Navy helicopter airborne early warning programme called Crowsnest). Shockingly, not a single MoD programme out of all 36 – not even one – was rated Green.
This led to further consternation at the MoD’s procurement headquarters at Abbey Wood, just north of Bristol, especially as, by now, Ministers has begun to realise that they had almost certainly been duped about the failures of Ajax.
The MoD’s vast procurement bureaucracy employs well over 10,000 people, both military and civilian, with a collective salary bill approaching half a billion pounds – and yet not a single one of their major programmes is on track.
It has a four-star equivalent boss, five three-stars, 20 two-stars and, incredibly, over 100 one-star generals/commodores/air commodores or equivalents working within its ranks. (By contrast, the Israelis’ procurement organisation, which also buys submarines, tanks and jet aircraft, manages to do so fairly successfully with about a quarter of the UK headcount and absolutely nothing like the number of generals, or their equivalents, on its payroll).
Worse still, the four-star ranked official in charge of DE&S, Sir Simon Bollom, whose organisation is procuring Ajax, was recently awarded a £125,000 performance bonus, on top of his £275,000 plus annual salary.
This Kafkaesque situation was even more starkly highlighted in November, when the PAC published its own report, referred to above, which described the Ajax programme as “a catastrophe” and went on to include among its conclusions that:
“The Department’s system for delivering major equipment capabilities is broken and is repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money …. We are deeply concerned about departmental witnesses’ inability or unwillingness to answer basic questions and give a frank assessment of the state of its major programmes …. The Department continually fails to learn from its mistakes.”
By this stage, MoD Ministers had just about had enough. In the Commons last week, whilst outlining plans to restructure the British Army, Ben Wallace made the following, powerful statement:
“My Minister for Defence Procurement [Jeremy Quinn] is close to all those issues to the extent of examining emails to make sure that we get to the bottom of the whole range of problems on issues such as Ajax…. We will get to the bottom of not only what is happening to the programme.
In addition, I will leave no stone unturned in relation to how we apportion blame. I will consider external judicial, or perhaps former judicial, personnel to look at those issues, because it is really important not only that we are open about the challenges of the programme but that we fundamentally learn the lessons and people carry the can for some of their decisions.”
This is, when you think about it, a quite extraordinary revelation. MoD Ministers have apparently been checking through internal emails and now the Defence Secretary is even considering bringing in a retired high court judge, to help ascertain exactly who knew what and when.
In summary, while the MoD has been in denial for years about what has been an open secret across Whitehall – namely that its equipment procurement process is a total shambles – it appears that MoD Ministers have now, finally, begun to realise this awful (and, for the taxpayer, highly expensive truth) and are actually doing something about it.
Ajax is rapidly turning into a scandal, and close behind it comes Morpheus, a replacement communications system – which is also becoming a basket case and which, ironically, also has another division of General Dynamics, heavily involved in that programme too.
Aside from potentially saving the British taxpayer literally billions of pounds a year there is another reason why this apparent Damascene conversion on the Ministerial floor of the MoD is extremely important.
The principal role of our Armed Forces is to deter war – but to fight and to win, should deterrence fail. With NATO having recently been chased out of Afghanistan, Russian tanks massing on the Ukrainian border, and a Russian-inspired migrant crisis in Belarus, the West is now increasingly being tested by totalitarian states. We cannot deter such regimes militarily, if both they and we, know our kit doesn’t work.
So, our Defence procurement system, which is akin to a football team 36 – 0 down at half-time, really is broken and we cannot rely on the defence industry (some of which clearly benefits financially from its dysfunctionality) to fix it.
What is now required instead is a complete root and branch review of the entire system, designed to provide our Armed Forces with the right equipment, delivered on time, with which to keep us and our allies safe. To paraphrase Harold Macmillan, we need a “wind of change” to blow through Abbey Wood – preferably one of hurricane strength.