Some newspapers have recently reported that hundreds of vehicles and thousands of ISO containers worth of equipment in Afghanistan could be left behind or scrapped as part of the withdrawal plans to ensure UK forces leave the country by 2015. This has raised eyebrows in some quarters over what may appear to be an example of profligate waste by a seemingly cash strapped department. In reality the authors own view is that is it not only inevitable, but actually rather sensible that not everything in Afghanistan comes back to the UK.
The first point is that all withdrawals of military equipment since time immemorial will result in a detritus of kit being left behind. Things that are too old, too broken or frankly just no longer needed will often be sold on, or scrapped locally, raising a small amount of money into the bargain. One only has to look at the post war drawdowns and withdrawal from various colonies to realise that a lot of equipment is often no longer required once a base shuts down. Its worth remembering that everything is purchased in Defence for a reason, and to meet a specific need, and that if once that need has been discharged, and no other defence use can be found (or funded) then there is no longer any need for the equipment to stay in service. This withdrawal is no different from previous ones, and it is inevitable that there will be kit that simply isn’t needed anymore.
It is of course frustrating to see that a range of what is seemingly perfectly good new vehicles or other equipment are being scrapped, but you need to consider several wider factors. Firstly, a lot of the equipment purchased under ‘Urgent Operational Requirements’ conditions is usually bought purely for use in one theatre only, and is not always suitable for wider use. Afghanistan is a very specific environment, and its relatively easy to source equipment which can meet the requirements of a hot, dusty and unforgiving climate where the environment is well known and understood. This makes off the shelf purchases much easier. The issue is when equipment is needed to work across the entire range of environments where the UK may operate, from the jungle to the Arctic, and where kit is less usable. There not much point retaining UOR kit in service where it has been purchased to meet the needs of an Afghan environment if it can’t be used as an asset for wider contingency operations.
|A lot of these will be needed in the HERRICK withdrawal (taken from www.thinkdefence.co.uk)|
In addition, UOR equipment is very good for HERRICK (or TELIC previously) but there is a significant difference between supporting a small number of vehicles for a specified operation and keeping them in a general usage pool. All of the support costs for UOR equipment is paid for separately from normal defence equipment support funding, which means that the Treasury is essentially paying directly for it to be purchased and maintained. When an operation comes to an end, a decision needs to be taken about whether that equipment has utility in the wider military environment (the so-called ‘bringing equipment into core’ process). If the equipment is to be run on, then the MOD will become liable for funding it as part of the wider equipment support programme – funding all the spares, upgrades and taking what has been a one theatre system and suddenly making it suitable for wider defence use. This is not cheap – don’t underestimate the hugely demanding nature of operations, and how many demands are put on vehicles and equipment. Many of the vehicles will need huge upgrades and refits, all of which comes at a price, and out of an already tight budget.
In the case of Afghanistan, it is probably fair to say that all the UOR equipment purchased has been constantly looked at with a wary eye to decide not only whether it may have potential for long term future use in the UK, but also whether the MOD can afford to do this. There are lots of UOR success stories, and one only has to look at the sort of equipment fielded by troops on HERRICK to realise that the British Army of today, on operations at least, has probably never been better equipped. But its also worth remembering that in terms of numbers, HERRICK has only taken up the best part of 2-3 brigades of troops in terms of equipment (the in use kit plus training elements plus a small reserve). This means that if a decision is made to bring it into core, then suddenly funding has to be found for it, possibly at a cost of other upgrades, and this may reduce funding for other army wide upgrade programmes. Also, there are costs associated with either running on small legacy fleets of equipment, which could at best support a small number of army units, or there are costs associated with funding increased procurement to make vehicles the default standard across the entire Army. Either way, there is a bill associated with bringing UOR equipment into service after an operation.
The state of the equipment is also worth considering too – military assets are worked hard on operations and will often require a vast amount of repair to bring them back up to standard. For UOR equipment, the question is whether it is actually worth funding this, particularly if it is diverting money away from core equipment programme options which could bring new vehicles into service for an army wide solution. Is it perhaps better to consider that disposal will be a more cost effective means of getting the Army new vehicles into service, rather than relying on a ‘Frankenstein fleet’ of diverse vehicles which were purchased in a hurry and which are not necessarily the ideal solution for all the UKs military commitments?
One final point to consider is the sheer challenge of recovering from HERRICK. It’s easy to forget that the UK (and NATO) will have a major challenge on their hands to recover all the various assets moved into place over the last 12 years. The flow of UK equipment and assets into theatre has been slow and steady, occasionally ramping up for surges in troop numbers. Now though, the UK is going to have to bring out a significantly larger force plus equipment in a very short timeframe (barely two years) and this will place great strain on wider UK logistical capabilities. There has had to be a lot of diplomatic work done to ensure the withdrawal has a range of routes to use to pull out the equipment. The UK will have to use a variety of routes and means of withdrawal and plan to do so in a manner which allows UK troops to continue in combat and mentoring roles for some time to come. This is a really complex operation, and one which once again demonstrates the value of strong logistical capabilities as a force enabler. Each piece of equipment brought home will cost the taxpayer money, and it does seem to be a less than effective use of time and resources to bring equipment home that will only be scrapped on its return. Far better to leave and dispose of it locally if possible. Also, the range of vehicles and equipment in place that may not be required could also provide good opportunities for defence sales to other nations in the region, which in turn may lead to good export opportunities for UK companies to sustain and increase these assets.
|An example of UOR procurement at work - the Foxhound armoured vehicle (copyright www.army.mod.uk)|
So, while it is easy to think that the UK is once again wasting money by disposing of assets in Afghanistan, in reality this is probably the most cost effective solution. It also highlights the value of the UOR system which has allowed the UK to build up a theatre specific force over the last 10 years which has been well equipped with weapons, vehicles and other kit that is designed to meet the unique operational characteristics of Afghanistan. Speaking to peers from other nations, Humphrey has found that many of them genuinely envy the UOR system and see it as a model of success. While it is easy to say that the UK has failed by not providing equipment that could do certain things, the author sees UORs as a very good way of meeting requirements that could not have been reasonably foreseen in advance.
One only has to look at the changing nature of tactics in HERRICK, and the rapidly advancing science of IED protection to realise that much of the equipment used today wasn’t even thought of 10 years ago. Its’ sadly taken a war and incredible courage by EOD operators to develop tactics and equipment now that can meet this threat. The beauty of the UOR system is that it provides a means to support this, which can produce quickly, and which is not hidebound by the usual procurement rules. There are downsides to this (it costs more, support solutions are not always for the long term and it may be very theatre specific), but overall it works well. A good summary of the UOR process, and just how much has been spent in various areas can be found over at the Think Defence website (http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2013/02/urgent-operational-requirements/).
Perhaps the best way to view it is to see the MOD as providing the best possible equipment relative to budgets to ensure the UK is able to conduct initial entry to an environment and then operate for a short period of time. As the operation develops, the UOR process provides a means to develop and procure the theatre specific kit that meets the specific requirements of the operation in question. It’s a good system and one which we should be very proud of – in particular we should be very proud of the civil servants and military staff in the DE&S who are the unsung heros here. They’ve never got the recognition they deserve in working very long hours to bring this equipment into service and deliver it, often in a very short timeframe. We should also be very proud of the ability of British industry to provide technical solutions to many of the UORs out there, and this is a testament to the versatility of the UK defence and scientific sector to deliver.
So, while it may appear to be a strange act at first to dispose of equipment, in reality this seems to be something which makes quite a lot of sense for the MOD and the UK taxpayer as a whole. The withdrawal from HERRICK is going to be a real challenge, and will in time be worthy of accolades for the successful withdrawal of 10,000 troops, much of their equipment and kit, and recovering it from a landlocked country thousands of miles away, to return them safely home. It may not be high profile or sexy in the eyes of some people, but it once again demonstrates some excellent British success stories.