Dr Richard North
A Crisis in the making
A Crisis in the making
So what is FRES?
So where does this leave us?
Implications for European integration
The centrepiece of secretary of state for defence Geoff Hoon's strategic defence review, announced recently, was a new military system about which very few people know anything. The system is the "Future Rapid Effects Systems" (FRES) and, on the basis of its introduction, Hoon is confident that he can dispense with 19 mainly Shire infantry regiments.
Before discussing FRES in detail, however, it is necessary to set a political framework into which this system fits, and this is best illustrated by recent comments from Javier Solana, the EU's "foreign minister, talking to a meeting of Italian Ambassadors. He told that that "the US must treat the European Union as a full partner in an effective and balanced partnership", and "The European Union has to show the US that it is worthy of that title."
These comments were important because they illustrate a mindset in the EU which, despite the inherent anti-Americanism, displays an intense jealousy of the US. The outward manifestation is an almost child-like determination to prove that "Europe" is at least as good as, if not better than, the US, in every possible way.
It is that ethos, as much as anything, that has driven the EU to commit £3 billion or more to the Galileo satellite navigation and positioning system - despite the provision by the US of their "free-to-all" GPS system. Much the same thinking drives the determination of the EU to maintain its own space programme, and to fund Airbus with such generous subsidies.
But this thinking is also driving the EU military procurement programme, to the extent that anything the US has, the EU must have too. This is most obvious in the pursuit of the A400M large military transport aircraft, despite the availability of proven US designs, which are undoubtedly cheaper and in many respects better.
However, this drive to match the US now seems to be pushing the EU - and the UK in particular - into making another blunder in military procurement, of Eurofighter proportions in expenditure terms, and drive UK defence up a cul-de-sac from which it may never recover. That "blunder" is FRES.
Nevertheless, despite it having formed the centrepiece of defence minister Geoff Hoon's recently announced Strategic Defence Review, very few people know anything about FRES. All we know is that Hoon is relying on it as the technological fix that will enable him to cut back on human resources - like soldiers. By this means, he thinks he will have bundles of cash left to give Gordon, to spend on the bureaucrats running schools 'n' hospitals, to say nothing of the 3,500 office chairs in the Department of Defence, at a cool £1,000 each.
That so few people are aware of what FRES actually is can hardly be surprising. Two years ago, Gregory Fetter, a senior land-warfare analyst at Forecast International/DMS, observed that it was "too early to try to figure out what FRES will look like ...It's like trying to grab a cloud of smoke."
And, as late as March of this year, Nicholas Soames, shadow defence secretary - in a debate in the Commons on defence policy - noted that defence contractors had been "anxiously awaiting a decision from the Government on the future rapid effects system battlefield vehicle that the Chief of the General Staff requires to be in service by 2009, but for which there is not yet even a drawing".
Small wonder that, in the report of the defence select committee published recently, the committee expressed concern that the proposed in-service date of 2009 "will not be met".
So what is FRES?
The quote from Soames actually give some clue. He calls it a "battlefield vehicle", but it is more than that. It is a whole family of vehicles that are intended for the Army of the 21st Century, equipping it for its role as a rapid reaction force. It will enable it to deal quickly and effectively with trouble spots around the world, with maximum efficiency and the minimum expenditure of manpower. At least, that is how the propaganda goes.
For that, the government is preparing to sink around £6 billion into buying 900 vehicles, with an estimated budget for the total costs of ownership over the expected 30-year service life of almost £50 billion. That is a staggering £6.7 million average cost to buy each vehicle and an unbelievable life-time cost per vehicle - yes, each vehicle - of £55.5 million. To say that it would be cheaper to drive our troops into battle in a fleet of top-of-the-range Rolls-Royces hardly begins to illustrate the extravagance.
Whatever the merits of the vehicles - and these will be discussed shortly - the point is that FRES is not a British, or even European idea. It is copied from a US military programme known as FCS, or "Future Combat System". This is an armoured vehicle family designed as a "system of systems", operating in a network, fully equipped with the latest in electronics, combat systems and weapons, all inter-linked through satellite communications. And because the Americans are having it, "Europe" must have it as well.
Furthermore, although Hoon is highlighting it in his own defence review, FRES has very much become a "European" project. Such are the vast development costs that no single European nation can afford them, so it has become another of those joint programmes of which the Eurofighter project is the model.
Already, the European skills at designing just what is needed are coming to the fore. A fore-runner of FRES was the tri-nation programme to develop what was known as the MRAV - the " multi-role armoured vehicle", funded by the UK, German and Dutch governments and managed by the European armaments agency, OCCAR (Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation).
In a mirror image of the Eurofighter project, the French were also originally involved, but they pulled out to produce their own vehicle called the VBCI. Perhaps this was just as well for, after the expenditure of untold millions, the tri-nation consortium produced a prototype which they named the Boxer, only to find that at 33 tons, it was too heavy for airborne rapid deployment.
But the European involvement has not yet ended - not by any means. Despite honeyed words from the DoD to UK manufacturers, the leading contender for building FRES is a German firm, Rheinmetall DeTec. Should its designs be accepted, the outcome will undoubtedly be the formation of another European consortium to build it, as national sensibilities would not allow British forces to be equipped with German-built machines. And, with costs already escalating, we have another Eurofighter in the making.
So where does this leave us?
Here a political element comes in. Effectively, we are committing ourselves to enormous expenditure to buy "state of the art" but wholly unproven equipment, primarily to allow British armed forces to take part in what will almost certainly be an EU "rapid reaction force". The bulk of our new spending on procurement for the Army is being designated to that end. Effectively, to play a leading role in this force, we must have FRES. That is solely because FRES is what the US "rapid reaction force" will have and if the Americans have it, we (the Europeans) must have it too.
However, no one seems to be addressing the question as to whether FRES is actually a good idea - or necessary. Certainly, it may be suitable for the US, which is wealthier and can afford both new technology and maintain its existing force levels. Here, if we have to cut back out forces, in order to buy the technology - as Hoon is doing - we may have the worst end of the deal.
But even in the US, there are serious voices being raised, warning against the over-reliance on military technology in battle zones, noting that doctrine and tactics are equally important, if not more so, and that the human element is the vital factor.
On the UK front, we are getting into an even more serious situation where the costs of military "assets" is now so huge that we cannot afford to use them in combat zones where their loss might be threatened. Where an Iraqi insurgent can buy an RPG7 in a Baghdad bazaar for $20, it is a brave military commander that will risk a machine worth nearly £8 million, when it can be taken out with one round loosed off by a teenager.
Not for nothing, it should be noted, are US forces now patrolling the streets of Baghdad in Vietnam-era M113 armoured personnel carriers. They might not afford as good protection as the proposed FRES - or its US-equivalent - (although neither will protect from an RPG7) but at least they are affordable, and available.
Whether the Europeans will learn this lesson is debatable, and unlikely. Certainly, it looks like Hoon has bought into the European dream - that anything the US has, we must have too. Furthermore, he seems willing to bankrupt our forces to pay for it. There seems nothing now that can stop us lurching into another blunder of Eurofighter proportions.
Implications for European integration
What makes FRES particularly worrisome, however, it not so much the risk that we are going to end up with another expensive white elephant - although that is bad enough - but that it is forcing us down the road of European defence integration.
Basically, as preciously indicated, because the system is so hugely expensive and is beyond the capability of the UK to fully find and develop it on its own, it had the choice of tapping into an existing programme - and the only other game in town is the US "Future Combat System" - or collaborate with European partners.
Therein lies the crunch. Seemingly, without there having been any open debate on the issue - and certainly none that we can see in Parliament - a decision seems to have been made that we will throw our lot in with the Europeans, which means that the US and EU member states will be developing rival systems.
Several issues devolve from this. The first is one of inter-operability - whether the two rival systems can work alongside each other, and whether even they can communicate with each other. Again, there seems to have been no open debate on this issue either but, if the systems cannot be integrated on the battlefield, it means that British forces can no longer operate alongside US forces in any meaningful way. Multilateral operations will be only be possible alongside forces with similar - i.e., compatible - equipment, which would mean that we are locked into working only with our EU partners.
Secondly, although our forces will be almost reliant on highly sophisticated equipment, we will not have total control over its manufacture, or even critical sub-systems - such as the satellite navigation and positioning systems - on which the operational system depends. Nor indeed will we necessarily have control of critical components of the system itself, such as the software codes that makes it work.
As an indication of the sophistication of these types of system, the US FCS is estimated to require 34 million lines of software code, five times more than the Joint Strike Fighter, which so far is the largest defence undertaking in terms of software to be developed.
An analogy is buying a desktop computer - which has an operating system like Windows - but having no access to the operating system and being unable to repair it if it goes wrong. That is fine if you can get a "man" in to fix it, but not so good if it drives combat-critical systems which are under the control of other national political systems, which may or may not allow the release of vital data - or hardware - when it is most needed.
One must no forget, in this context, that the Belgians refused to supply ammunition to British forces during the first Gulf War and, while we were able to circumvent that bit of unpleasantness, it is wholly a different matter when we are relying on unique source codes of huge complexity that can only be obtained from one source.
In short, reliance on our European partners for this technology - albeit on a collaborative basis - could mean not only that we can only operate with their forces, but also that we lose our ability to operate independently, if our partners disapprove.
All of this - without a single debate on the implications - seems to be bringing Mr Monnet's dream of European integration to fruition in a manner that he could not even have imagined. When, in 1950, he persuaded French foreign minister Maurice Schuman, to launch the European Coal and Steel Community, his idea was that by integrating the two industries (then) essential to making war, he would deprive individual member states of the independent means of making war.
Over fifty years later, his dream seems to be coming true, as the equipment different armies of the EU member states is becoming so integrated, and nations so dependent on each other for that equipment, that no single member state will have the ability to conduct military operations without the permission of the others.
That may be all very well and good, but should not we have had at least a debate about it before Hoon committed us to yet another massive round of European integration?
Fortunately, it is not yet too late. No procurement contracts for the system have yet been awarded so, before we are finally committed to spending huge amounts of money and going down a road from which there is no return, we should have that debate. If we are going to surrender the independence of our armed forces - and our nation - we owe ourselves that.