For many years, British defence acquisition has been mired in problems and controversy. Now, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee has issued a new report, generating a coherent target list and creating a parliamentary benchmark for defence acquisition policy.
Given its central role for the national defence effort, the optimisation of defence acquisition is a crucial challenge for the British government. An array of serious problems must be addressed to ensure that the private sector delivers high-quality products and services, in time and on budget for the armed forces. The endeavour is arguably a complicated task. It demands difficult decisions with often long-term, not yet conceivable implications for future military capability, requires the balancing of various interests within government, the armed forces and the private sector, and must streamline the national and international dimensions of defence acquisition.
Notwithstanding their positive rudiments, numerous reform attempts have failed to successfully align the UK's defence acquisition system with the available financial resources and the armed forces' operational requirements. These include the Smart Procurement, Smart Acquisition, the Defence Acquisition Change Programme and the Defence Acquisition Reform Programme.
It leaves serious threats to the security of the British people unanswered.
In its role as a parliamentary oversight body, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee has a vested interest in the Government remedying these shortcomings in the UK's defence acquisition system. However, in the past not every output of the committee has been perceived as overly credible or able to advance the debate.
Against the background of the Defence White Paper published in February 2012 and the forthcoming Defence Material Strategy, the Committee this time has, therefore, gone to great length to anchor their findings in an in-depth assessment of the issues facing acquisition, drawing heavily on both direct evidence and subject papers.
After almost a year of evidence-gathering, analysis and drafting, it is no surprise that the report is lengthy and wide-ranging.
The Committee argues that the absence of a defence industrial strategy which supports appropriate national sovereignty, puts the UK at a disadvantage against competitor countries. It further questions how there can be confidence in a national security strategy which, in their opinion, does not show a clear grasp of what is needed for the defence of the United Kingdom. Therefore, the Committee recommends that the Government reconsiders the wisdom of not having a defence industrial strategy.
Pointing out that the 2012 Defence White Paper accepts that there are some capabilities possessed by defence suppliers that are critical to national sovereignty and must be protected onshore, the Committee also expects the Ministry of Defence to be clear about the capabilities that fall into this category and to have a clear sustainability plan developed with UK industry.
The Committee also calls on the MoD to pay due regard to the need to effectively understand and manage risks originating with private sector partners and in the supply chain when entering into contracts, especially the practicality of the placement of civilians, and in particular non-UK-national civilians, into harm's way.
There are also calls calls for a greater balance of emphasis from government in their treatment of prime contractors and SMEs. The White Paper's championing of smaller entities is welcomed, but not at the expense of larger businesses who often sponsor the SMEs in their supply chains.
Furthermore, the Committee demands an increase in spending on science and technology, believing the White Paper commitment of 1.2 per cent of defence spending to have no programme or scientific basis. It argues that the reduction in this spending in recent years (even though it has now been halted), together with the emphasis on off-the-shelf procurement and open competition, offers a serious threat to the UK's defence skills base, which in turn threatens the defence body of knowledge and may come to threaten the UK's ability to defend itself. Accordingly, the Committee believes that the Government should commit to a target of 2 per cent of the MoD budget being spent on UK-based R&D.
Finally, there is real concern about treating the Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) as a government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) organisation . Whilst the Committee recognises the skills challenge within the MoD and broader civil service, it seems to find the GoCo argument unconvincing. In particular, the Committee believes problems might arise if a non-UK company were given responsibility for UK defence acquisition, and it is vital that consultations are satisfactorily concluded with allies, to ensure that there is no adverse impact on co-operation before any proposals are implemented.
Challenge for Government
There are no surprises in these recommendations, as the Committee has identified the majority of issues exercising many analysts. A criticism therefore could be that the membership of the Committee has identified nothing new. But this would be missing the point, as the Committee has taken the key risks and uncertainties of acquisition and generated a coherent target list for Government and others to attack. Moreover, the structured assessment of UK defence acquisition contributes to knowledge building processes within Parliament itself and puts the key issues out in the public for debate.
Consequently, the Government will have to provide a comprehensive, detailed answer to the report and should regard it as the parliamentary benchmark of its future defence acquisition policy. To put it bluntly: the Defence Committee has done its homework properly in accordance with its parliamentary duties. The onus is now on the Government, which should acknowledge the opportunity this report presents for an advanced defence acquisition discourse.
Of course, such a discourse will not solve the fundamental problem that exists for defence acquisition as well as defence in the UK: the pressure on the defence budget to contribute to the government's efforts to balance the public budget. However, it could add to an improved understanding within government, parliament and wider society of the risks and uncertainties associated with the UK national defence effort in a time of austerity, and could allow for better informed decisions by policy makers in defence.