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.