PREMIUM: 'Deplorable' AFV programmes leave British Army at risk from peer adversaries, Defence Committee warns
The House of Commons Defence Committee warned in a 14 March report that the British Army is at serious risk of being outmatched by peer adversaries due to its ageing fleet of ground vehicles.
Titled ‘Obsolescent and outgunned: the British Army’s armoured vehicle capability’, the document claimed that, in a fight against Russia in the next few years, UK soldiers would be forced to operate platforms that are 30 or more years old, which would be ‘very heavily outgunned’ with ‘poor mechanical reliability.’
Although future British Army capabilities will be defined by the Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (the first part of which was released on 16 March), the report drew conclusions and recommended steps for the UK MoD to take to maintain readiness.
Failures to deliver new types of ground platforms came from two decades of 'bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude', the Defence Committee noted.
Its report also attacked the recent history of the UK armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) capability as ‘deplorable', arguing that, since the end of the Cold War, army vehicles have been characterised by ‘increasing obsolescence and decreasing numbers'.
Whereas the UK had about 1,200 MBTs in 1990, today there are just 227 'and those that remain are in urgent need of modernisation', the Defence Committee added.
Since the late 1980s, it claimed, the MoD and the army embarked on a series of technically complex programmes, over-ambitious efforts and requirements which, even being cancelled, resulted in at least £321 million of expenditure and further £2.8 billion on filling urgent capability gaps.
The report noted how AFV obsolescence exposed soldiers to risk in Iraq and Afghanistan as they were inadequately protected on operations.
Additionally, UK troops currently in Estonia are equipped with lightly armoured (such as open-topped HTM 400 Jackal) or obsolescent (FV430 series) vehicles ‘in the face of a significant potential peer threat from Russian forces'.
The Challenger 2 is the British Army’s sole MBT. (Photo: BAE Systems)
Ongoing British Army projects attracted criticism from the Defence Committee. Its report stressed that the Challenger 2 and the Warrior IFV (pictured) ‘have been in service for decades without meaningful upgrades and are both awaiting decisions about modernisation programmes'.
Challenger 2 is the only MBT available to the army. It was introduced in the late 1990s and has not undergone any significant capability upgrades since then.
The report underlined concerns about whether Challenger 2 would be outmatched by the Russian T-14 Armata (an MBT with its share of development problems) as well as being less capable than its NATO counterparts such as the German Leopard 2 and the US Abrams.
The Challenger 2 Life Extension Project (LEP) aims to address specific obsolete features. A decision on whether to proceed with the upgrade project was to be taken in late 2020 but it has been postponed.
The Defence Committee complained about a perceived lack of clarity on the programme. Its report stressed that it is not clear how many of the 227 Challenger 2s would be modernised.
Warrior entered service in the late 1980s. In 2009, the Army began the Capability Sustainment Programme (WCSP) to upgrade the weapon and turret as well as to enhance armour protection and electronic systems. The contract for WCSP was awarded to Lockheed Martin UK in 2011.
According to the report, the programme has spent around 50% of the allocated budget (£800 million) but is yet to place a manufacturing contract.
The WCSP is currently £227 million over budget. Its in-service date originally was planned for 2017 but is now scheduled for 2024, given what the Defence Committee described as 'significant' technical problems, for example with the integration of a new turret and cannon.
The report emphasised that, after a decade of effort, the delay to deliver the modernised platform ‘is clearly totally unacceptable’ and ‘is symptomatic of the extremely weak management’ in recent years.
The report also touched on the need for retiring the FV430 fleet, which has been the workhorse of British Army mechanised units for 60 years.
‘Repeated failures in procuring replacement vehicles have required their retention for much longer than originally envisaged,’ the document pointed out.
It was added that ‘it is unacceptable’ that a new platform may not be in service until the 2030s, which means that part of the FV430 fleet ‘will have been in service for some 70 years'.
The first batch of Ajax vehicles was delivered in July 2020 (Photo: British Army).
The first vehicles were originally due to be handed over in April 2017 but the army received the first batch of vehicles in July 2020.
The Defence Committee report noted that the programme is behind schedule as another example of ‘chronic mismanagement'. It urged the MoD to ensure that there will be no further delays.
In the case of the Boxer Mechanised Infantry Vehicle, in 2019 the MoD acquired 508 vehicles from ARTEC, with initial deliveries scheduled to begin in 2023.
The Defence Committee claimed that one benefit of the Boxer family is its single chassis type, offering commonality of components and spare parts which simplifies logistic support and vehicle maintenance.
It emphasised that the procurement of Boxer should be accelerated to ensure the ‘army receives this new capability as soon as possible'.
Additionally, the report concludes that the retention of heavy armoured platforms in the UK requires an industrial base to support this capability, which will demand the MoD providing ‘greater certainty about future requirements and possible contracts.’
It also claimed that the proposal to develop a Land Industrial Strategy is a welcome step that would provide defence companies with ‘a clear roadmap for the coming decades’ and would incentivise ‘further investment in skills, technology and infrastructure.’
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