The UK has transformed its military procurement and support processes, but can the change succeed in delivering?

The UK Ministry of Defence is faced with a conundrum: how to balance its stretched procurement budget to meet today's warfighting needs, while also acquiring the right equipment to meet its operational requirements for the decades ahead. With a month having passed since its formation, the MoD's new Defence Equipment and Support organisation is trying to come up with the answer.

The needs of the UK armed forces to support continuing combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have strengthened a recent trend to fund small, but rapidly delivered packages of equipment to meet their urgent operational requirements (UOR). "In some areas UORs have become the core business," says DE&S chief operating officer David Gould, referring to a process described by some as linking the foxhole with the factory.

Minister for defence equipment and support Lord Drayson says: "The tempo in supplying kit is fast. We are trying to turn around projects inside six months."

While the MoD says such projects are delivering an average 97% success rate in its current campaigns, its UOR process is in danger of clashing with the core DE&S objective of addressing through-life capability. "Sticking plaster is all very well, but sustainment over time is another issue," says deputy chief of the defence staff (equipment capability) Lt Gen Andrew Figgures. Echoing this concern, Gould says: "When there's a lot of now going on it's quite easy to forget about the future."

DE&S is responsible for managing an annual budget of £16 billion ($32 billion), including the procurement this year of new equipment worth £6.6 billion, and for supporting a tri-service inventory worth £75 billion.

The MoD is awaiting the outcome later this year of a government-wide comprehensive spending review, which will determine whether additional resources will be provided to support a military that is experiencing overstretch in a large number of areas.

"I believe we need to invest more in defence," says Drayson, while noting that procurement reform also has a vital contribution to make. "We have to make sure that every pound counts." Citing a decade's experience of so-called "Smart Procurement", Drayson says the current process of selecting, producing and fielding military equipment is too slow. "We have to go up a gear in our performance, in pace and in strengthening innovation. Time costs money and time costs lives. That's something that we've got to address."

© Craig Hoyle/Flight International 
Modifying Danish EH101s for RAF use will also boost AgustaWestland

Speaking at the Royal Aero­nautical Society's Aerospace 2007 conference in London on 24 April, Drayson singled out lengthy delays in concluding a private finance initiative contract with the EADS UK-led AirTanker consortium for the Royal Air Force's Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft, commenting: "It's just not good enough." Recent funding to prepare the RAF's eight grounded Boeing CH-47 Chinook HC3 transport helicopters for service also followed "many years of dithering", he said.

Although the UOR process is currently dominating much of the UK's procurement activity, Gould believes that new equipment should stay in service longer and receive more frequent drops of new capability to remain operationally relevant. "The [current] pattern of major step changes is too slow and too expensive," he says.

The DE&S organisation - formed on 2 April through the merger of the UK's former Defence Procurement Agency and Defence Logistics Organisation - must also be prepared to take more risk while acquiring new equipment, said Drayson at the conference. "We have to accept risk, and that means that there will be failures and criticism." The military should learn lessons from the commercial sector and embrace the concept of due diligence to remove uncertainty, rather than conduct lengthy assessment phases, he believes.

Current examples of such work - all pursued through the UOR process - include the acquisition of new countermeasures equipment for transport aircraft and helicopters and more efficient rotor blades to improve "hot and high" performance. Additional procurements, such as of Lockheed Martin Sniper and Rafael Litening III targeting pods for the BAE Systems Harrier GR9/9A and Panavia Tornado GR4, and of General Atomics Predator B unmanned air vehicles, should be viewed as "de-risking projects" for future capability, says Figgures. 100% of the UOR projects funded to support operations in Afghanistan have been successful, along with 94% in Iraq, he adds.

Drayson identified the MoD's strategic partnering agreement with AgustaWestland as a sign of positive change in the procurement sector, noting: "It's really making a difference." The pact has provided the manufacturer with long-term assurances, for example through its involvement in determining half of the UK's annual rotorcraft research activity, and remedied a relationship that according to Gould had been "a succession of cliff edges".

AgustaWestland will prepare six Royal Danish Air Force EH101s for RAF service this year, in addition to continuing development work on the Future Lynx. The MoD also intends to sign a long-term partnering agreement on fixed-wing activities with BAE before year-end as part of a DE&S drive to see its leading suppliers become "thin primes", outsourcing some of their current work to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

"The push that we are putting in this year to get things done is only getting stronger," said Drayson. Anticipating the outcome of the current spending review, he believes "this is going to be the year when real clarity emerges".

Source: Flight International