Britain’s FRES Program has a Full February
February 2007 has been an eventful month for the FRES program. Some important milestones were reached, political controversy over the MoD’s medium armored vehicle strategy erupted in the Parliamentary Defence Committee, and the MoD fired back with a response.
The first event was the attainment of an important milestone. Following the endorsement of the FRES Acquisition Strategy and the publication of the EOI(Expression of Interest) for the Utility Vehicle competitions, the latest FRES requirements documents were made available to industry. The UK Defence Procurement Agency release to industry, via the Defence Contracts Bulletin (DCB) on January 25th, offered an invitation to tender (ITT) for both the vehicle integrator and design packages of the FRES-UV programme. The move will bring FRES’ initial assessment phase to a close, as it begins a transition toward acquisition.
The second event involved the UK’s Parliamentary Defence Committee published its Seventh Report of Session 2006-07: The Army’s requirement for armoured vehicles: the FRES programme, HC 159. The accompanying press release was titled: “Make Up Your Mind On Army’s Armoured Vehicles, Defence Committee Tells MoD.” The report is highly critical of the UK MoD’s multiple plans over the years to replace Britain’s medium armor, and conveys “system house” integrator Atkins’ doubts that FRES can be fielded before 2017. An excerpt or two follows:
“92. Nine years on from the Strategic Defence Review, the Army’s requirement for a medium-weight vehicle remains unmet. Despite having spent GBP 188 million on the TRACER and MRAV programmes and at least GBP 120 million so far on FRES, the solution is nothing more tangible than a concept.
93. This is a sorry story of indecision, constantly changing requirements and delay. We are concerned that the FRES requirement may simply be unachievable without a major technical breakthrough. The tension between the survivability and deployability is particularly acute: satisfying both requirements may prove impossible. It is high time the MoD decided where its priorities lay. We shall take further evidence on the FRES programme in the Autumn of this year.”
Worries were expressed that further delays would force more interim vehicle purchases, which would mean more unplanned costs. Indeed, the committee relayed the belief of FRES “system house” program manager Atkins that FRES may not be operational before 2017, and added that the UK MoD gives no indication of when the Heavy and Reconnaissance variants of FRES will even enter their Initial Assessment Phase.
Concern was also expressed with respect to weight gains:
“Increasing the armour of the proposed FRES vehicle has increased the weight specification from 17 tonnes to between 20-27 tonnes. The increased weight specification in turn resulted in the MoD dropping its requirement that the Utility vehicle be transportable by a C-130J Hercules transport aircraft and instead specifying that it be transportable by the proposed C-130J replacement, the A400M. CDP told us that:
There is no nation in the world today that has a plan for being able to produce a vehicle that light which has the degree to be able to be transported in a C-130J and to be able to have the protective mobility when it is deployed and goes on operations.“
This statement opens a larger debate about procurement approaches and vehicle needs. FV430/M113 type APCs and BvS10 Vikings do fit under this limit, as does Germany’s Wiesel. The Viking and Wiesel have their uses, but FRES does not aim to replace vehicles like that. A modernized FV430 family does not appear to be Britain’s goal for FRES at this stage, either; for various reasons, the UK MoD does not believe that to be a solution to their requirements. Britain’s Warriors, Scimitars, et. al. are within this weight limit and are currently being used to strong effect in Iraq by commanders like Lt. Col. David Labouchere, whose methods bear more attention. Labouchere operates outside of urban zones, however, and many in the UK MoD believe that one key lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is the need for heavier armor and more protection on Britain’s medium vehicles.
The UK Parliamentary Defence Committee did not take up a debate regarding vehicle mix, requirements in the context of that mix, or concepts of operations. They simply said noted that the weight requirements keep changing, which creates a moving target for industry, confusion re: concept of operations plans, likely delays to the program, and/or interim vehicle buys as a result. They added that weight and survivability requirements were diametrically opposed (as always), and were not sure the two could be reconciled absent a technology breakthrough.
Across the pond, meanwhile, the USA has taken two major runs at this same C-130 transportability requirement, via its serving Stryker IAV family and its $160+ billion Future Combat Systems program. Both times, it has had to announce failure after spending billions of dollars. The Europeans looked at this and concluded that perhaps it would be better to design a tactical transport aircraft around survivable land vehicle weights instead – hence the 35-ton capacity A400M which Britain also plans to buy. The bad news? At a price tag of $100-120 million per aircraft, the price per ton lifted is about the same as a $60-70 million C-130J.
The Committee Report also noted US (Future Combat Systems), Swedish (SEP, one of the FRES base vehicle candidates) and European (via the EU EDA’s urgings to consolidate Infantry Fighting Vehicle programs) efforts, and said:
“51. We consider it surprising that the MoD has found no scope for collaboration with international partners on developing FRES, particularly at the sub-systems level. The MoD should consider whether there is any scope for exploiting synergies with the programmes of other nations aimed at meeting a similar requirement to FRES.”
Finally, issues were raised regarding soldier input:
“57. In our Defence Procurement 2006 inquiry, CDP acknowledged that front-line users were not consulted regularly enough on equipment procurement projects. We were keen to determine whether the ultimate front-line user of FRES, the soldier, was consulted adequately throughout the FRES programme.”
The UK MoD’s reply asserts that risk reduction and recent field experience requires the current pace, and alludes to the fact that past Parliamentary compaints re: the MoD have involved excessive risk and project overruns:
“We accept that the FRES project has taken several years to get to this point and that the Army’s requirement has changed during this time. However, recent experience on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and recent developments in vehicle technology and protection systems drove the need to review the FRES procurement strategy in 2006… The procurement strategy has now been announced and an Expressions of Interest Request was published earlier this month.
We are now making rapid progress on the FRES programme – candidate vehicles will undertake proving trials run by the Army this summer and the winning vehicles will be selected in November 2007. It is essential to carry out this detailed assessment and drive out risk before the major investment decision is taken.
The FRES programme, which will deliver the future Army’s armoured fighting and utility vehicles in the long term, should not be confused with the recent urgent operational requirements to procure additional protected patrol vehicles to complement Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The recent and very rapid procurement of vehicles such as MASTIFF, VECTOR and BULLDOG [DID: link added], is not related to the FRES requirement. These patrol vehicles are important additions to the capabilities at the disposal of commanders, but are separate from the FRES programme.”