Donnerstag, 7. Juli 2011

The Strenuous Business of Defence Procurement

Everyone with some familiarity of the military knows how much patience is needed when it comes to defence procurement. Think about the Eurofighter Typhoon, a fighter plane that was originally scheduled to enter service in the early 1990s (and was hence originally known as the Jäger 90 in Germany). The plane was nearly two decades late and when it finally entered service it provided a fixed-wing aircraft-capability to gain air-superiority precisely at a time when air superiority had become virtually irrelevant, because, well, it is rarely contested. In the past R&D in fixed-wing aircraft was overlapping, meaning that the R&D process for the successor of the Tornado bomber would have had to start once the Typhoon would begin to enter service. As the Libya operation demonstrates, it is here that European NATO allies lack capabilities most and were hence particularly upset when the United States withdrew its AC 130s and A-10 Thunderbolts (more commonly known as warthogs) from the theatre. But given the lack of financial resources and the desire to cash a peace dividend that simply wasn't there, no bomber is being developed to replace the ageing fleet of the Tornadoes. The result being that we are largely stuck with a fleet of aircraft we don't need (Germany would love to axe around 80 Typhoons from its original order but simply cannot do so) and a lack of ability for the sort of operations we are now conducting for more than a decade.

All of that is a long way to introduce the following thought: When Secretary Gates complained on his final European tour [pdf] that most European nations do not live up to their defence commitments, not only was he right, he was actually understating the issue. Because not only have we reduced our spending, the money we do spend is often being used to finance and maintain weapons-systems not relevant for today's missions. A Typhoon for instance needs costly maintenance, trained pilots, fuel, a logistical network, etc. At the same time personnel costs are climbing and the money available for the sort of adaptation the wars we actually are fighting is calling for is declining. So, why is it, you might ask, that it takes two decades for an advanced weapons-systems to enter service. Well, for one, we have always underestimated cost. But before a system actually enters service, there is no way to sincerely tell how much a system will cost in the end. So when costs go up, what they inevitably do, we spend more or buy less. Which is why we are buying fewer A 400 M military cargo planes than originally planned and are still needed and the full amount of Typhoons that we certainly won't need. Second is that these things have always taken more time than anticipated. Its the nature of the beast. But third and more importantly, we have always gone back to the manufacturers and changed parts of the contract, made additions to the envisioned capabilities and called for other costly changes. One of the ways to tackle that problem, many thought, was to buy off the shelf. That way, manufacturers would stick to costs, because the price was set in the procurement contracts. On the other hand, we would hardly be able to change the specifications of the system in line for procurement. There is only one problem. That is not working either. The US Navy is trying this approach for its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and is already running into huge problems with the first two ships commissioned. And the five newly acquired corvettes for the German Navy have not left harbour for two years.

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