Richard North

Europe is costing us a bomb

Richard North reveals that we are imperilling the special relationship with America by wasting billions on overpriced European weaponry

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The threat to our national security has seldom been greater. Not only are historic regiments being scrapped — or amalgamated — but the fundamental reorganisation of armed forces now under way is likely to undermine the special relationship with the United States, and thus a key element in our defence strategy.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in principle with the reorganisation: it has been embarked on to accommodate a technological revolution in warfare. This revolution is as profound as the switch from horse to tank. The term for the new military technology is ‘netcentric warfare’ and it aims to meld high-tech weaponry with the power of computers, satellites and advanced digital communications. It will create units of unprecedented capability, refining and developing the ‘shock and awe’ strategies pioneered by the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the second Iraqi war.

There is also, however, a hidden political agenda here, and it is that which threatens the special relationship.

The government is — quietly but consistently — aligning our forces with those of our European Union partners, to help it fulfil its obligations for an ‘autonomous defence capability’ in the form of the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF).

This process started with the meeting between Tony Blair and the French President Jacques Chirac in St Malo in 1998. Seeking to keep his place at the ‘top table’ of Europe after being unable to take the UK into the single currency, Mr Blair pledged the British armed forces — unequivocally admired throughout the EU — to the cause of European political integration.

Unwilling to do this openly, given the hostile public reaction to a ‘European army’, Blair appears to have chosen instead to do this by stealth, through harmonising military equipment and weapons. The MoD has adopted a covert ‘Europe first’ defence procurement policy for all the new systems needed for netcentric warfare. This will, in time, inevitably bring our forces into line with Europe.

The first victim was the joint UK/US project known in the UK as ‘Tracer’. This project began in 1996 when the Conservative government decided to replace the army’s obsolescent light reconnaissance tanks, but it was quickly abandoned after St Malo. While the US wanted to press ahead with a more ambitious Future Combat System (FCS), the Labour government suddenly decided to develop its own version of FCS. This project, which is now known as the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), is now the most expensive single procurement project ever to be undertaken for the ground forces, with a bill for the British army of £12 billion. Much of the project is now being commissioned for Swedish and German companies.

A consistent pattern is emerging. There are some programmes where it is too late or costly to change suppliers. There are some where there is no European equivalent. But in all other cases — in other words, the majority of British procurement — new equipment is being obtained from Europe, even in preference to cheaper and more capable US alternatives. Amazingly, consortia of US and British companies offering superior, British-built equipment have been passed over.

Take, for instance, last year’s contract for replacing the entire fleet of the army’s trucks, at a cost of over £1.2 billion. Although two US-led consortia offered superior, battle-tested products and UK manufacturing, the contract went to MAN Nutzfahrzeuge, the Austrian subsidiary of the German MAN conglomerate. This happened despite the fact that the National Audit Office revealed that the vehicles were not capable of meeting ‘Defence Planning Assumptions’ or ‘capable of operating in worldwide climatic conditions’.

Nor, indeed, is performance the issue. In theory we are wedded to ‘best value’, but in fact anything seems to go when it comes to European equipment. Faced with the choice of a South African vehicle at £152,000 and an Italian-built version at £413,000 each for its Future Command and Liaison Vehicle programme, the MoD unerringly went Italian. When it needed battlefield radar sets, instead of buying from the US — at £9.6 million each — the MoD went for German-built sets at £17 million each.

So obsessive has the MoD become about its ‘Europe first’ policy that it even sought to equip the army with a new medium-range anti-tank missile from the Franco–German ‘Euromissile’ consortium. After wasting more than £109 million on the project, the consortium failed to deliver and the MoD was forced to buy an off-the-shelf US weapon. Similarly, to arm the US-built Apache attack helicopters — ordered before the ‘Europe first’ policy came into being — it wasted £205 million on a European missile before pulling out to buy a US missile that had been built especially for the Apache.

Then there is the Eurofighter. This new generation of fighter planes will cost the taxpayer £20 billion. For its air-to-air missiles, the US offered a package costing £500 million. Instead, the MoD went for an untried French missile, a package now costing £1.4 billion. For the aircraft’s attack role, US-built, air-launched cruise missiles were available at a unit cost of £167,000. Again, the MoD opted for French-designed missiles, paying £981 million for 900 — the incredible ‘million pound bomb’.

The MoD is also spending £1 billion each for six new air defence destroyers and their French-built missile systems. The Australians bought equivalents from the US — to be built in their own yards — for £600 million each, ships which, unlike the British ones, will also have anti-submarine and land attack capabilities.

Altogether, favouring European equipment has wasted — either through cancellation costs of joint US/UK projects, paying for failed European projects or rejecting cheaper, often more capable equipment from other sources — at least £5.8 billion.

On top of that, the army’s £14 billion Future Rapid Effects System will provide three medium, largely European-equipped armoured brigades at a cost of £4.6 billion each. US costs for their equivalent are £1.8 billion each. The £8 billion difference, plus the £5.8 billion wasted, makes nearly £14 billion. That is the hidden cost of Europeanisation of the armed forces.

All this equipment is being built to ‘European’ rather than Nato or US standards, now laid down by the new European Defence Agency in Brussels. This creates not just a growing technical divergence but also a doctrinal conflict with the US and Nato practice. It will be increasingly difficult for forces on each side of this divide to work together, or even to share the same battle zones.

Yet the most startling feature of this immense political and military transformation is that it is moving ahead without being admitted by the government, or challenged by the opposition.

It will shortly be too late to reverse this trend. The EU Commission is now also proposing to control intra-EU movements of military products, thereby making the actions of British forces dependent on their EU partners’ consent, potentially preventing the UK from operating independently or alongside the US. It would be irreversibly committed to operating within a framework defined by European Union interests.

The ‘special relationship’ will be over.

The Wrong Side of the Hill: the Secret Realignment of UK Defence Policy with the EU by Richard North is published today by Centre for Policy Studies (< /a>).