I commiserate with the Minister, who has drawn the short straw to be the Minister on duty while his colleagues are, no doubt, enjoying themselves on the Solent, at the review celebrating the glorious victory of Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. I agree with Nelson's descendant that the politically correct competition between the red and blue teams is unnecessary, although I welcome the visiting fleets, because without them there would not be much of a review to show Her Majesty. However, in line with Nelson's words:
"England expects that every man will do his duty", perhaps I should do my duty and get on to the subject in hand.
"The balanced land force of the future will consist of two heavy armoured brigades, three medium-weight brigades, based around the future rapid effects system family of medium-weight vehicles—FRES—and a light brigade, in addition to the air assault and commando brigades. We launched the assessment phase of the FRES project in April this year and we expect to sign a contract for technology demonstration work to start later this year."—[Hansard, 21 July 2004; Vol. 424, c. 344.]
"the Ministry of Defence has signed a contract with Atkins in respect of the systems house role for the future rapid effects system".
The statement concluded:
"Finally, FRES is a complex programme, with obvious tension between competing demands such as capability, time to delivery and affordability. However, the award of this contract to Atkins provides us with the necessary industrial expertise and realism to examine those competing demands in detail and to make informed decisions in order to achieve the optimum FRES solution."—[Hansard, 16 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 76–77WS.]
I shall highlight some of the areas that I believe should be kept under scrutiny about the feasibility of FRES and its objectives. The previous Secretary of State, who was supported by the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, said of the new capabilities, when speaking about the future of the army structure:
"They are being backed up by an impressive re-equipment programme," and went on to discuss
"modern vehicles such as the Panther armoured reconnaissance vehicle"— which is now classed as the Panther command and liaison vehicle—
"and looking further ahead, the ambitious FRES armoured fighting vehicle programme, which will modernise the armoured vehicle fleet and form the basis of the medium-weight capability. These enhancements will directly improve the ability of the Army to deploy, support and sustain itself on the range of operations that we envisage. That can only be achieved as the result of the planned reduction by four in the number of infantry battalions, which will release around 2,400 posts for redeployment across the force structure."—[Hansard, 16 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1796.]
In an article published on
"FRES exists mainly in the minds of the planners, and has evinced numerous conflicting opinions and interpretations as to its significance. These may be summarized as ranging from 'an elephant giving birth to a mouse', to 'a revolution in UK land warfaring.'"
On its website, Atkins describes FRES as:
It goes on to say that the key drivers for FRES are the needs for: an armoured rapid effect land capability; wide operational utility; maximum interoperability with other parts of deployed forces, other components and allies; and addressing the obsolescence of existing fleets.
Those drivers are closely aligned to the Army's strategic development themes of agile forces, effects-based operations and directed logistics, and seek, as the Ministry of Defence procurement agency website, updated on
"To enhance UK land forces' capability to conduct rapid Intervention, Warfighting and other Warfighting operations through a network-capable system of platforms allowing supremacy in battle space awareness, command and control, precision engagement, survivability, mobility, and availability".
Some see FRES, however, as a new medium-weight armoured fighting vehicle ideal for a future European Union battle group for rapid deployment, eventually creating a single European Union defence and security policy. In such a situation the United Kingdom might well lose command of its own forces in the future as a single EU defence system, enabled by the procurement route, is established. I can understand the Chief of the General Staff's logic that there is a shortfall in rapid intervention capability.
A soldier today is asked to conduct almost simultaneously hand-to-hand combat, peace enforcement and humanitarian operations. A key part to fill the gap in the medium-weight capability will be the future rapid effects system.
It is also necessary to look at what is happening in the United States of America. Its equivalent is the future combat system or FCS, which is a $110 billion project. The concept is based on all vehicles and other devices, and all soldiers being networked and tied into such effective sensors that near total situational awareness is achieved. That awareness, so the theory goes, enables the unit to kill from afar with precision weapons and supposedly ensures that combat forces are never tactically surprised. However, Afghanistan and Iraq have shown this presumption to be mistaken, as the enemy knows only too well not to take on sophisticated forces in the open but to draw them into urban areas for tactical surprise and a close fight where landmines and multiple attacks by rocket propelled grenades are most effective.
It is planned that 2,131 American Stryker vehicles are to be built, costing the future combat system huge sums of money and starving other projects of funding. The Stryker is an eight-wheeled monster, an oversized vehicle, unmanoeuvrable in urban areas, unstable when suitably armoured, poor as a gun platform, incapable of precision engagement and far too expensive to be used anywhere where it might be destroyed.
Lack of funding in the massive American military budget has meant that the successful 14,795 tracked M113 armoured personnel carriers have not been armour upgraded. The successful M113A3 is, however, the subject of what the Americans call a rise package and is being tested at present on banded tracks, which enables two of those vehicles to be airlifted compared with one Stryker. Although the HMMWV vehicle, a glorified truck, was useful for some transport, it has proved a disaster when used as a convoy escort in Iraq. They are not capable of withstanding landmine blasts or rocket-propelled grenades and have been responsible for many of those wounded and killed among American personnel. In short, in certain circumstances they are a death trap.
I can appreciate why the Ministry does not want to disclose any information about the armour of the future Panther command and liaison vehicle due for service in 2007. But as soon as they are in service it will become apparent whether they are up to the kind of combat in which our troops will then be engaged. I trust that the lives of our soldiers will not be put at undue risk and I am pleased that General Jackson has stressed that the medium-weight capability must have levels of firepower and protection as those vehicles will come up against anti-tank weapons.
It will surely be difficult to design a future FRES vehicle when one is not sure what will be put in it. Again, we can refer to the American experience, and debate whether it will be a wheeled or a tracked vehicle. The latter has the advantage of a very stable fire power platform, and the ability to turn on its own tracks for urban warfare and to go over obstructions. One of its disadvantages is higher maintenance, although that has been considerably reduced by the introduction of banded tracks. A tracked vehicle is also cheaper to produce, smaller and better armoured, with more internal space, and it is easier to airlift. Banded tracks virtually eliminate noise, and, when used in conjunction with hybrid electric drives, dramatically cut down acoustic signature.
We also know from the American experience that some new vehicles are not proving as effective as the old ones in certain operations. From answers to written parliamentary questions, we learn that FRES will involve a new breed of vehicle, not simply an updating of our present, effective S-series—the Scimitar and Sabre are probably the best known—of tracked vehicles, which are to be phased out by 2014. The expectation for the new vehicle will be for it to demonstrate a far greater ability, and not to turn out to be some fancy contraption based on technology that is useless in urban warfare. We want the very best for the safety and wellbeing of our soldiers, and should resist a boys and toys mentality by producing a vehicle that will do the job while giving maximum protection to those on operations.
If technology takes over from practicality, the estimated cost of FRES at £6 billion with running costs of £49 billion over 30 years is going to prove very expensive. It is a pittance in American defence expenditure, but with all the pundits predicting an economic black hole in the British economy, we have to ask whether it can be afforded. In the meantime, the Army has changed policy direction, destroying county regiments in the process for something that it is doubtful that the UK could ever afford as an independent nation.
The thought strikes me that perhaps the game plan is that the United Kingdom should further integrate its defence and security resources with those of the European Union. At the European Council meeting in Helsinki in December 1999, the EU decided to set up a military rapid reaction force in the context of the European security and defence policy, based on voluntary but co-ordinated national and multinational force contributions from member states. The goal was for a force consisting of 50,000 to 60,000 personnel, to be ready for deployment within 60 days and to be operational in 2003. The rapid reaction force was intended to be not a standing army, but a pool of forces that could be drawn upon for EU-led military operations, the first of which was in Macedonia in the spring of 2003. The aim of the EU is to be able to conduct so-called Petersberg operations, which were defined by the Western European Union in 1992 and which include humanitarian operations, evacuation missions and peacekeeping operations, including the separation of fighting forces.
The EU has under development a new headline goal called HG 2010. That is also the date of the introduction of FRES. I wonder whether that is pure co-incidence. One of the objectives is the improvement of performance of all levels of EU operation through appropriate compatibility and network linkage of all communication equipment and assets, both terrestrial and space based, by 2010.
I understand that the FRES concept is about the use of technology to achieve total battlespace awareness, replacing heavy armour with air-transportable light armoured vehicles. It is designed for rapid reaction, but that is a rapid reaction—may I say with tongue in cheek—decided by EU committees, which sounds like a recipe for disaster. We are also moving away from the situation in which British forces operate alongside American ones to one that will be dominated by the EU dimension. We risk losing the special relationship with the USA, and interoperability with it will become ever more difficult, even impossible, as the technology across the Atlantic moves away from ours.
Will FRES be dependent on the Galileo satellite navigation system, with all the attendant difficulties that that will cause between the United States and the European Union, especially if China is allowed access to EU technology? Technology is driving the politics, conditioning and constraining political choices, and dictating whether we can form military alliances. The UK is moving further towards technological co-operation with its European Union partners. If, as a result, the USA withholds its technology from us, the divide will grow to such an extent that the special UK-US relationship could end.
Although the EU constitutional treaty has ground to a halt, the progress of one of its creations, the European Defence Agency, continues unchecked, despite the fact that it has no legal basis. The assessment phase of FRES will continue as if the democratic break of non-ratification of the treaty had not taken place. There is also no Treasury commitment to pay for FRES, which could, therefore, be under-funded, leaving the UK with an incomplete networking system, years behind schedule, and with totally the wrong vehicles, placing the lives of our servicemen in danger. There are even rumours that FRES will never see the light of day because of its huge cost and unproven technology. If that comes to pass, the infantry will have suffered for no valid reason.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the rise in terrorist and insurgent activity, the nature of UK defence has had to change, and our armed forces have adapted to those changes. We have huge advantages because, although we are a small nation, we have a long history of loyalty to our country, and British soldiers are acknowledged to be the best-trained fighting force in the world. We politicians should see that they are also the best equipped, and have the tools to do the job expected of them as safely as possible.
I fear that the FRES vehicles will be wheeled and will, therefore, put our forces at a disadvantage, given that some 50 to 80 per cent. of insurgents carry RPG7s. The old adage is still apt: "If it has wheels, shoot at it, if it has tracks, you will die." My greatest fear is that, where defence is concerned, the UK will become trapped in the quicksand of EU integration and that NATO will be further undermined. If that happens, Parliament will lose even more power and will be increasingly unable to defend the United Kingdom and UK interests on behalf of the British people from whom it obtains its authority. While I accept the need for medium-weight capability, FRES may cause us to lose our interoperability with our closest and oldest allies, the American forces, and to give way to a new alliance that has not stood the test of time. It is early days, but we need to watch the ongoing development of FRES like hawks.
May I, at the outset, apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who, as Ann Winterton said, is in Portsmouth for the fleet review? He would otherwise have been here to answer this debate.
In addition, I congratulate the hon. Lady on having obtained time for this debate on a key programme for defence and for the Army. I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to explain, on behalf of the Department, the thinking behind the future rapid effects system programme. Having asked a number of questions, taken part in debates and raised issues concerning FRES, the hon. Lady has built up quite a knowledge of the programme and the idea behind it. Her contribution has been helpful and appropriate in the context of the wide-ranging debate that we need to have.
It might be helpful if I clarify what FRES is. I shall outline the drivers for the requirement, and give details of the progress that we have made in an immensely complex and demanding programme. The underlying requirement for FRES stems from two strategic requirements. First, we need to replace some of our current armoured vehicles, such as the Saxon, the FV 430 and the CVR(T), and, secondly, we need to develop a medium-weight capability so that we have a balanced force of heavy, medium and light brigades.
FRES will also be rapidly deployable by air at battle group level—in other words, a battalion or regiment-sized force. The strategic defence review and its new chapter identified the need to enhance our expeditionary capability, but since then our thinking has developed further. The 2003 and 2004 defence White Papers clearly explain our vision to develop a highly effective medium-weight capability. As a result of the review, the Army will be rebalanced, reducing the emphasis on heavy armoured forces and increasing the emphasis on light and medium forces.
By ensuring that each deployable brigade is fully manned and has its own integral enablers and logistics, the Army will be better equipped and structured to conduct all types of operations. FRES is at the heart of the Army's equipment programme and it will have wide uses, not only in the medium forces, but also as a key support role for our heavy forces.
Whether for short intervention operations or enduring peace support, we often need forces with greater firepower, protection and mobility than that of light forces, but with deployability and agility that cannot be achieved by heavy forces. By providing this capability, FRES will underpin the rebalancing of the Army and the development of a truly effective medium-weight force.
In a nutshell, FRES will be a family of medium-weight armoured vehicles of around 20 tonnes, enabled by communications, information and surveillance systems, with the growth potential to develop over time. It will be the central pillar of the Army's capable and deployable balanced force, which will have a wide operational role, from warfighting to peacekeeping.
To help the hon. Lady, I can say that the issue of whether the vehicle is wheeled or tracked is under consideration as part of the assessment phase we are going through at this time.
FRES will fill a wide range of combat and support roles. Those roles will range from a vehicle to provide protected mobility for infantry, through command and control vehicles, to a new scout vehicle for reconnaissance tasks. These medium-weight armoured vehicles will mean that FRES will be significantly lighter than our current heavy armoured forces based on the Challenger 2 and the Warrior armoured infantry fighting vehicle, but I should make it clear that FRES will not replace Challenger 2, Warrior or the AS 90 guns in our heavy forces.
FRES will take full advantage of investment in our communications and information systems network. We intend that it should be network capable; it will not provide the network, but it will contribute to it. It will make full use of network-enabled capability. By this I mean that it will provide the coherent integration of sensors, decision makers and weapons systems through communications and information systems. That will enable FRES to perform roles such as command and control, dissemination of intelligence and situational awareness and control of firepower.
FRES is a complex and demanding programme. The requirement is broad and covers a wide range of military capability. We will need to take a pragmatic view of how to balance some of the individual requirements, such as combining high levels of protection and low weight, or large capacity and small size. The programme will need to interface with a range of existing and planned equipment if we are to deliver the full benefits.
Beyond the equipment programme, the Army will also need to consider the programme's wider implications, such as the impact it will have on doctrine and how the Army trains. Given this complexity, we are approaching the programme with a careful, rigorous and objective assessment of the technical options. We will consider industrial issues and the acquisition strategy, as well as the broader implications for the Army of bringing FRES into service and, of course, the risk.
As part of the current assessment phase, which began last year, the FRES integrated project team assisted by Atkins, an independent systems house, is investigating those and other issues to ensure that FRES is cost-effective, value for money and successfully delivered. Until we make the main investment decision, time, cost and performance parameters will not be set. We will take that decision only when we are confident that the programme is mature enough to provide accurate answers to the issues that I have outlined.
The hon. Lady asked whether the 2010 date for the introduction of FRES was purely a coincidence, and from the Government's point of view, it is. She also asked whether FRES is affordable. Affordability is a key factor in the assessment phase. Costs will not be formally approved until the main investment decision point. We currently expect FRES to have an approximate total procurement cost of £14 billion. The hon. Lady also made some important points about the use of FRES in urban areas, and the lessons that we have learned in recent conflicts will be taken into account throughout the assessment and planning stage.
To take the project forward, we have identified a series of planning assumptions that provide a basis for the planning of FRES and for interacting programmes. As new information emerges from the assessment phase, those assumptions may evolve, but under our current assumptions, we expect FRES to deliver about 3,500 vehicles, with the first variants entering service early in the next decade.
The assessment phase is now well under way, with technology risks being addressed through rigorous systems engineering work and a number of technology demonstrator programmes. So far two such programmes have been placed: a contract for capacity and stowage has been placed with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and a contract for defensive aid suites is with Akers Krutbruk. Another five contracts—two for the chassis concept, two for the electronic architecture and one for electric armour—are currently being negotiated.
In parallel, the systems engineering work has developed a number of fleet options, which are now being assessed in more depth. The acquisition strategy will be critical to the successful delivery of FRES. Industrial capacity for armoured vehicle design, integration, manufacture and assembly is clearly key to the programme.
In the context of defence industrial policy, we will need to consider a wide range of issues, including employment. We must also assess the importance of retaining a UK industrial capacity and capability which, at a minimum, allows us to maintain and upgrade current and future equipment. The Defence Procurement Agency is currently considering how we can achieve that while delivering value for money.
As the hon. Lady suggested, another issue to consider is the scope for co-operation with other nations, including in the context of the European Defence Agency's initiatives. We are clear, however, that current FRES timelines must be maintained. No decisions on co-operation between FRES and other nations' armoured vehicle programmes have yet been made, nor do we expect to make any before the main investment decision point. I should also reassure the hon. Lady that FRES will not be dependent on the European satellite navigation system, Galileo, which is a civil programme under civil control.
FRES is a key programme for the Army and for defence and it is vital to fully achieving our vision of a rapidly deployable medium-weight capability. Its complexity means that we would be rash to rush into decisions before we have fully investigated all the issues. By following best practice, which is enshrined in the smart acquisition initiative, the programme is moving forward and it has considerable momentum. It remains a cornerstone of our future equipment programme.
Since the assessment phase started last year, a huge amount has been achieved. Atkins, the systems house, has been appointed and integrated into the FRES team. The system's engineering process has begun to narrow down the options, and the development of an acquisition strategy has begun. The technology demonstrator programmes are under way and more will start soon. A wide range of firms were informally engaged through a highly successful industry day in January.
FRES will be an important enhancement to our defence capability, and I hope that, as debate continues, we will be able to share our plans and ideas with people such as the hon. Lady. She has taken a considerable interest in the matter, and, again, I thank her for raising the issue today.