Export potential of new equipment key for MoD procurement shake-up, says minister

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The export potential of new equipment will become crucial in assessing whether to buy kit for Britain’s armed forces in a move aimed at fixing the country’s disastrous record in defence procurement, according to the minister in charge of the shake-up.

James Cartlidge said overseas sales prospects would get greater weighting when the defence ministry assesses bids for new weapons and kit as part of a series of reforms that come into effect from Monday.

The defence procurement minister said the move was designed to avoid the problems inherent in what he termed “exquisite procurement”, where extra capabilities are added during the development process resulting in delays and cost overruns.

The overhaul, first announced in February, is the latest attempt by successive governments to fix a system that has come under fire for wasting billions of taxpayers’ money on equipment delivered late and over budget.

The reforms are in part a response to the most recent high-profile failure — the £5.5bn Ajax armoured vehicle programme — and a subsequent review which found several systemic problems at the Ministry of Defence.

Ministers and officials would “be subjecting the military requirements not just to the UK needs but assessing them against a potential global market”, Cartlidge told the Financial Times.

“In my view that almost acts as a check and balance against overly exquisite procurement, [in other words when] so many requirements are put in that you end up taking years.” He added the reforms might “not guarantee against a new Ajax but will make it less likely”. 

An independent report into the troubled Ajax programme published last year gave a damning indictment of the UK military’s procurement process.

The contract signed in 2014 was meant to deliver a family of state of the art armoured vehicles to the army starting three years later to replace ones that were designed in the 1960s.

The vehicles were beset by noise and vibration issues that caused hearing damage to some crews involved in trials. The problems were eventually fixed, according to the defence ministry, but the army will now have to wait until 2029 to have all 589 vehicles fully operational.

Cartlidge said one of the first programmes that the reforms will apply to is a delayed competition to build a new, medium-sized transport helicopter for the army and air force, which will give “much greater weighting for exportability”.

He said bidders would have to commit to doing the design work in the UK. Three consortiums, led by Airbus, Leonardo and Lockheed Martin, are in the running. 

“It’s important to have a sovereign rotary [aircraft] workforce and skills base. To sustain that, we don’t just want to have the UK order, they also need to get exports,” Cartlidge added.

Other reforms to the procurement process will include the use of “spiral development” designed to allow troops to start using the kit sooner with about 80 per cent capability, which would then be built out while it is in service.

Cartlidge said another change would be to ensure ministers could get a “second opinion” on big programmes “so that you can properly kick the tyres”. 

He said Britain needed to have a procurement system that was “much more agile, more pacy and more integrated across defence” if it was to be able to compete with adversaries, some of whom “are procuring at a rapid rate and on a great scale”.

The conflict in Ukraine had shown the “importance of pace” in procurement, he added.

Tory MP and former armed forces minister Mark Francois, who has been highly critical of the procurement process, welcomed the changes but warned: “The proof of the pudding will still be in the eating”.

The reforms come amid growing concern over the state of the UK’s armed forces and calls for the government to increase its defence spending in the growing threat from Russia and China.


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