Future Rapid Effects System

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton 12:30 pm, 28th June 2005

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 future rapid effects system came to the fore almost a year ago when the then Secretary of State for Defence, who is now the Leader of the House of Commons, said:

"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.]

On 16 November, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence announced in a written statement that:

"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 27 August 2003 in Jane's International Defence Review, Rupert Pengelley said:

"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:

"the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) programme to provide the British Army with a family of medium-weight, network-enabled, air-deployable armoured vehicles to meet up to 16 battlespace roles."

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 16 May, under its FRES goal states:

"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.