Monday, July 24, 2006

A Politician Got it Right

Concerns had been raised about the safety of the Snatch Land Rover, used in Basra and attacked by road side bombs.

Michael Smith takes up the story in the Times:

The day after the articles appeared, Des Browne, the defence secretary, stood up in parliament and said that while he accepted that Snatch had been the right vehicle for use in Basra’s narrow streets, the advent of the new roadside bombs meant that things had changed. “The weapons that the terrorists are using have changed radically. I have seen that that is a serious issue, and have asked for a review.”

The cynics among us thought that a very good way of silencing the critics. It always works. The review into this that, or virtually anything, goes on and on. Inquiries will be met with the response that officials are still working on it. Eventually everyone will forget about it, until another soldier dies of course, and then it will emerge, among much hand-wringing, that the review found there was simply no alternative but to use Snatch.

........But in the case of the Snatch Land Rover, something astonishing happened. The review not only took place, it took place “urgently”, reporting in near record time. Last week, I was tipped off that the MoD was about to announce a big order for the South African built RG31 armoured patrol vehicle, which was said by campaigners, wrongly as it turned out, to be virtually immune to the new roadside bombs.

Attempting to stand up the story with the MoD, I was surprised to be told by one official that they weren’t going to buy the RG31, “because it isn’t good enough”. They were going to buy the Cougar, which has had impressive results when used by the US Marines in Iraq. But even that wasn’t good enough, they were going to add extra armour.

There had to be a downside to this. There wouldn’t be any more money from the notoriously frugal Treasury, so something else would obviously have to go. Some other vital piece of equipment – the lack of which would cause untold problems for British troops - would be axed. What was it? To my utter astonishment, I was told that no piece of equipment would be lost. Des Browne had gone to his mate the Chancellor and persuaded him to stump up the cash.

It was all far too good to be true. But you can always rely on the British defence procurement system to mess things up. After all, the Cougar is built in the US. The system demands that if we decide something American is the best bit of kit around, the one thing we mustn’t do is buy it straight off the US manufacturer. The politicians need jobs from their constituents. So we have to waste millions of pounds setting up our own production lines, to produce the paltry number of vehicles, or aircraft, or widgets our forces are going to get at four or five time the cost of buying from America, thereby ensuring that, by the time the things are delivered, they are no longer any use.

But no, we are going to buy them direct from the US manufacturer, and as a result they are going to be ready by November. “Browne accepted the arguments in favour of the Snatch Land Rover but ruled that the new range of IEDs meant the situation had changed,” the source said. “He insisted that the new vehicle was bought as fast as possible without the usual procurement crap.”

I’m stumped. I don’t know what to say. Here was a real matter of life and death and a politician got it right, belatedly of course, but Des Browne has only just been appointed defence secretary so he can’t be blamed for the previous failings. Come to think of it, two politicians actually got this one right, because Gordon Brown stumped up the £40m cost of paying for the things.

It's nice to see stories like this in the press. Of course our government tries very hard all the time to get it right - but it's seldom acknowledged in the press.

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