I’ve been reading old House of Commons Defence Committee reports – I was ill, forgive me.
This one, from February, is likely to spin up to relevance any time now. It covers the Army’s FRES (Future Rapid Effects System) project, which was intended to provide a new armoured vehicle that would be light and handy enough to be deployed quickly by air as an alternative to either tanks, or else Land Rovers and boots.
So far, MOD has spent £192 million on “concept work” since 1998; this hasn’t involved any actual vehicles. To begin with, this work (perhaps this should be “work”?) was carried out as part of a US-UK joint project (TRACER), but then the Americans pulled out. It continued as part of a joint project, BOXER, with Germany and Holland, but then, another group of “concept workers” at BAE came up with a new concept which Geoff Hoon and Jacko bought into heavily, and so the MOD pulled out of BOXER to develop FRES.
Originally, they decided to have another company (Alvis Vickers’ Leeds plant) do the development, so as to have neutral advice; but BAE promptly bought it and its biggest US competitor too, so there ended up being neither competition nor impartiality. And, of course, in this vapourware realm the requirements just kept coming. It would have to replace the CVR(T) reconnaissance vehicle. It would have to replace the Saxon and FV430 APCs, and various utility vehicles. It would have to provide a completely new role for a lightweight vehicle with a big gun. It would have to fit in a C-130; a special request from the Paras.
The upshot was that the project has spent the last 10 years in dancing powerpoint mode, as those involved tried to stuff the mutually incompatible requirements into a vaguely credible design; meanwhile, the Army went to war with lots of Land Rovers. The news from Iraq and Afghanistan caused the vehicle to expand steadily as it got more and more armour; eventually the requirement to fit in a C-130 was dropped, which rather spoiled the point of the whole exercise. Now it’s got to fit in an A-400M, which is probably easier but for the problem that it doesn’t exist yet.
So here we are; the MOD has in the meantime bought a mass of other vehicles, including Mastiffs (MRAP-like trucks with armour), Bulldogs (old FV430s with more armour) and Vikings (BV-206 tracks, with more armour). Incredibly, the ad-hoc vehicle program actually cost less than the “concept work” on FRES. The MOD is now trying to decide between the vehicle that eventually emerged from BOXER, or the French NEXTER; this is despite the fact the Finnish Patria and Swedish SEB fit the requirement more closely and the American LAV III is cheaper. This appears to have been why Lord Drayson quit; nothing to do with Le Mans. (That was, however, the best ever ministerial resignation story; beats “spending more time with my family”.)
There are heavy rumours of more defence cuts next year; nothing should be simpler than terminating this project, which has long become almost proverbially toxic. Clearly, trying to fit four mutually contradictory roles on the same machine is profoundly stupid; type proliferation has already happened, anyway. Even if anything was delivered, it now looks like the recce variant , which was meant to be the top priority, will come a long way after the utility one, and God knows when the light tank one will arrive. The MOD should extend its ad-hoc buy to fill the infantry requirement, and look at some of the vehicles in service elsewhere for the recce and light tank jobs.