David Blackburn

Oh what a lovely war

Oh what a lovely war
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The triumvirate of Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy have presented a united front to NATO and the Arab League and said there will be no respite in Libya. Writing to the Times (£), they say:

‘Britain, France and the United States will not rest until the United Nations Security Council resolutions have been implemented and the Libyan people can choose their own future.’

They also add that to leave Gaddafi in power would be an ‘unconscionable betrayal’, a marked shift in emphasis.

It’s rousing stuff, designed to twist reluctant arms at the NATO summit in Berlin. However, as former ambassador to Tripoli Oliver Miles suggests, this letter is unlikely to be a line-breaker: no timescale for the deployment has been set and it is unclear how Gaddafi might be removed from power. These are the questions that exercise less warlike leaders in Berlin.

Also, Cameron must overcome a more immediate problem to ensure that there is no respite for Gaddafi. The Public Accounts Committee reports that a shortage of spares means that only 8 of the RAF’s 48 Typhoons are cleared for action in Libya; and grounded aircraft are being cannibalised to ensure that there are sufficient parts to keep those fighters airborne.

Once again, it seems, materiel has been over-extended in theatre and defence procurement is in the firing line. The MoD has released a statement in its defence, pointing out that the National Audit Office declared the Typhoon project ‘back on track’ last month. Actually, that report’s key finding was that costs have risen by 75 percent and Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, prefaced the document by saying:

"The Typhoon is currently performing important operational tasks but the full multi-role capability won’t be available for a number of years (2018). Until this happens the MOD will not have secured value for money from its over £20 billion investment in Typhoon. MOD has put some of the building blocks in place to enable this to happen. But difficult and deep-rooted problems remain to be overcome.

"Our examination has shown that key investment decisions were taken on an over-optimistic basis; the project suffered from corporate decisions to try to balance the defence budget; and the Department did not predict the substantial rate at which costs would rise. None of this suggests good cost control, a key determinant of value for money."

Of course, this government is not to blame: Typhoon's latest set-back is the consequence of years of baleful procurement practice. Lord Levene and Equipment Minister Peter Luff are working to arrest the 'conspiracy of optimism' at the heart of the MoD; but you can only fight with the weapons in hand. Clearly Typhoon is not fully capable and there are also major concerns about the suitability of Tornado to Britain’s current commitments. The case for reconsidering these elements of the Strategic Defence Review is growing.

UPDATE: The MoD has been in touch to say that operations in Libya are running smoothly. Britain has 8 Tornados, its primary ground attack aircraft, stationed at Gioia, in addition to the 8 Typhoons. There are also a number of trained pilots on call to sustain the operation. British aircraft are being used in both a grand attack capacity and an air-to-air patrol role.

The MoD also reiterated the government's committment to improve procurement. Liam Fox, for example, is to chair regular Major Projects Review Boards to ensure that Britain's armed forces are well equipped and get value for money.