The UK’s fleet of Infantry Vehicles isn’t only aging arithmetically, it is also aging tactically – calling for new contracts to be brokered for their replacement. The British Army currently uses CVR, Warrior and Bulldog vehicles, designed respectively in 1967, 1980 and 1963. Recent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan showed a drastic turn in the evolution of modern warfare, highlighting how cold-war era equipment was ill-adapted to counter-insurgency. An RFP was therefore launched to consider replacement candidates for the next generation of infantry fighting vehicles, after considering upgrades which were scrapped eventually. Soldiers have long been keen, therefore, on receiving the best vehicles the market has to offer.
Mark Hookham reported for the Times: “One of the British Army’s armoured infantry brigades is set to be disbanded and hundreds of its fighting vehicles scrapped as part of a cost-cutting defence review, Whitehall sources claimed last night. Army chiefs had been planning to spend £1.3bn refurbishing up to 380 Warrior armoured vehicles.” But the standard procurement process, the RFP, is said to be interrupted shortly, by decision of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, who is considering direct purchase of the German-Dutch version of IFVs, the lightly-armed Boxer.
Such a decision is perceived as strange, both economically and technically. What are the reasons for dismissing mandatory budget guidelines, by interrupting an RFP, especially of such strategic importance as IFVs, which keep troops alive on the ground? A request for proposals has the double advantage of comparing technical solutions and compressing prices under the pressure of competition – something the British Army is in dire need of, in times of budget pressure. Alice Budge reports: “The UK Defence Committee has expressed its lack of confidence in the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) ability to realise extensive efficiency targets essential for the success of its equipment plan. In a report released 18 December, the committee warned that MoD is unlikely to successfully generate the cost-saving efficiencies.”
Alan Tovey, Telegraph reporter, points out how strained finances are across the Defence industry: “An assessment of the Ministry of Defence’s long-term equipment plan last week revealed a potential £21bn funding hole, raising further worries about suppliers”. A new military procurement officer was brought in early in 2018, to manage the strain on military finances, as reported by Andrew Chuter for Defense News: “Guto Bebb, 49, takes over from Harriett Baldwin as undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Defence at a crucial time for British procurement. The government is expected to delay a decision about providing additional defense funding in order to head off potentially major capability and program cuts required to get a budget black hole under control.”
The choice also makes little technical sense. The global market for Infantry Fighting Vehicles is under dramatic change, with the introduction of new calibres which push firepower close to that of heavy armour and greatly extend range. However, these upgrades are not evenly spread, due to how recent they are. In fact, the most recent technological breakthrough is patented by the British Defense Industry themselves, and would therefore not be available from the German supplier, when the Boxer is purchased. It will be a difficult task to sell the idea to military circles, which will undoubtedly consider the choice as a deliberate to buy second-best equipment.
One possible explanation for the decision is the rounding of edges with Germany, one of the most powerful and historically inflexible European partners. By deliberately purchasing German military equipment, Williamson may be portraying himself as someone the Germans could do business with, in lieu of notoriously hard-line Theresa May. If Europeans negotiation partners are confident they can push Theresa May out of office for being too rigid in the ongoing talks, they are likely to appreciate gestures of goodwill from the Defence Secretary.
Eleanore Doughty writes for Inews “Somehow, despite all of this, Mr Williamson, it is said, has designs on Number 10. Alas, the Ministry of Defence it seems will be a mere staging post in his long trek up Westminster’s greasy pole. His latest idea to give troops a pay rise is a good one, with which few would disagree.” Gavin Williamson positioned himself as pro-Brexit but has never associated his image with hardliners. His pragmatic moderation, as well, as his suspected decision of having suspended the IFV-replacement RFP in favour of the German Defence Industry, would therefore place him in a favourable position to become the next PM, a position in which he knows he will need to maintain and strengthen ties with Germany.
But here’s the catch: this stunt isn’t to the liking of the military who, according to certain sources, wonder what worth the secretary grants to the British Army’s use and future. Soldiers willbe stuck with these vehicles for tens of years. And killing off the RFP would simply amount, according to some officers, to sacrificing operational effectiveness and security for the sake of political tactics.
The matter at hand is the following one: is the British army better off simply with the best gear, or in good terms with its European partners. While the Boxer is not a bad piece of kit, it clearly lags in terms of upgrade capacities of future potential, far behind other European or American alternatives. But if the UK is backpedalling from its shock-decision to leave the EU, it may be the safe way to reunite with Germany, and the continental centre of gravity. It won’t be long before we find out the price to pay for good relations with Germany, and whether it’s up to soldiers to pay for it.