The end of independence: The implications of the “Future Rapid Effects
System” for an independent UK defence policy
Dr Richard North
The centrepiece of secretary of state for defence Geoff Hoon's strategic
defence review, announced recently, was a new military system about which very
few people know anything. The system is the "Future Rapid Effects Systems"
(FRES) and, on the basis of its introduction, Hoon is confident that he can
dispense with 19 mainly Shire infantry regiments.
Before discussing FRES in detail, however, it is necessary to set a
political framework into which this system fits, and this is best illustrated
by recent comments from Javier Solana, the EU's "foreign minister, talking to
a meeting of Italian Ambassadors. He told that that "the US must treat the
European Union as a full partner in an effective and balanced partnership",
and "The European Union has to show the US that it is worthy of that
These comments were important because they illustrate a mindset in the EU
which, despite the inherent anti-Americanism, displays an intense jealousy of
the US. The outward manifestation is an almost child-like determination to
prove that "Europe" is at least as good as, if not better than, the US, in
every possible way.
It is that ethos, as much as anything, that has driven the EU to commit £3
billion or more to the Galileo satellite navigation and positioning system -
despite the provision by the US of their "free-to-all" GPS system. Much the
same thinking drives the determination of the EU to maintain its own space
programme, and to fund Airbus with such generous subsidies.
But this thinking is also driving the EU military procurement programme, to
the extent that anything the US has, the EU must have too. This is most
obvious in the pursuit of the A400M large military transport aircraft, despite
the availability of proven US designs, which are undoubtedly cheaper and in
many respects better.
However, this drive to match the US now seems to be pushing the EU - and
the UK in particular - into making another blunder in military procurement, of
Eurofighter proportions in expenditure terms, and drive UK defence up a
cul-de-sac from which it may never recover. That "blunder" is
Nevertheless, despite it having formed the centrepiece of defence minister
Geoff Hoon's recently announced Strategic Defence Review, very few people know
anything about FRES. All we know is that Hoon is relying on it as the
technological fix that will enable him to cut back on human resources - like
soldiers. By this means, he thinks he will have bundles of cash left to give
Gordon, to spend on the bureaucrats running schools 'n' hospitals, to say
nothing of the 3,500 office chairs in the Department of Defence, at a cool
That so few people are aware of what FRES actually is can hardly be
surprising. Two years ago, Gregory Fetter, a senior land-warfare analyst at
Forecast International/DMS, observed that it was "too early to try to figure
out what FRES will look like ...It's like trying to grab a cloud of
And, as late as March of this year, Nicholas Soames, shadow defence
secretary - in a debate in the Commons on defence policy - noted that defence
contractors had been "anxiously awaiting a decision from the Government on the
future rapid effects system battlefield vehicle that the Chief of the General
Staff requires to be in service by 2009, but for which there is not yet even a
Small wonder that, in the report of the defence select committee published
recently, the committee expressed concern that the proposed in-service date of
2009 "will not be met".
The quote from Soames actually give some clue. He calls it a "battlefield
vehicle", but it is more than that. It is a whole family of vehicles that are
intended for the Army of the 21st Century, equipping it for its role as a
rapid reaction force. It will enable it to deal quickly and effectively with
trouble spots around the world, with maximum efficiency and the minimum
expenditure of manpower. At least, that is how the propaganda goes.
For that, the government is preparing to sink around £6 billion into buying
900 vehicles, with an estimated budget for the total costs of ownership over
the expected 30-year service life of almost £50 billion. That is a staggering
£6.7 million average cost to buy each vehicle and an unbelievable life-time
cost per vehicle - yes, each vehicle - of £55.5 million. To say that it would
be cheaper to drive our troops into battle in a fleet of top-of-the-range
Rolls-Royces hardly begins to illustrate the extravagance.
Whatever the merits of the vehicles - and these will be discussed shortly -
the point is that FRES is not a British, or even European idea. It is copied
from a US military programme known as FCS, or "Future Combat System". This is
an armoured vehicle family designed as a "system of systems", operating in a
network, fully equipped with the latest in electronics, combat systems and
weapons, all inter-linked through satellite communications. And because the
Americans are having it, "Europe" must have it as well.
Furthermore, although Hoon is highlighting it in his own defence review,
FRES has very much become a "European" project. Such are the vast development
costs that no single European nation can afford them, so it has become another
of those joint programmes of which the Eurofighter project is the model.
Already, the European skills at designing just what is needed are coming to
the fore. A fore-runner of FRES was the tri-nation programme to develop what
was known as the MRAV - the " multi-role armoured vehicle", funded by the UK,
German and Dutch governments and managed by the European armaments agency,
OCCAR (Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation).
In a mirror image of the Eurofighter project, the French were also
originally involved, but they pulled out to produce their own vehicle called
the VBCI. Perhaps this was just as well for, after the expenditure of untold
millions, the tri-nation consortium produced a prototype which they named the
Boxer, only to find that at 33 tons, it was too heavy for airborne rapid
But the European involvement has not yet ended - not by any means. Despite
honeyed words from the DoD to UK manufacturers, the leading contender for
building FRES is a German firm, Rheinmetall DeTec. Should its designs be
accepted, the outcome will undoubtedly be the formation of another European
consortium to build it, as national sensibilities would not allow British
forces to be equipped with German-built machines. And, with costs already
escalating, we have another Eurofighter in the making.
Here a political element comes in. Effectively, we are committing ourselves
to enormous expenditure to buy "state of the art" but wholly unproven
equipment, primarily to allow British armed forces to take part in what will
almost certainly be an EU "rapid reaction force". The bulk of our new spending
on procurement for the Army is being designated to that end. Effectively, to
play a leading role in this force, we must have FRES. That is solely because
FRES is what the US "rapid reaction force" will have and if the Americans have
it, we (the Europeans) must have it too.
However, no one seems to be addressing the question as to whether FRES is
actually a good idea - or necessary. Certainly, it may be suitable for the US,
which is wealthier and can afford both new technology and maintain its
existing force levels. Here, if we have to cut back out forces, in order to
buy the technology - as Hoon is doing - we may have the worst end of the
But even in the US, there are serious voices being raised, warning against
the over-reliance on military technology in battle zones, noting that doctrine
and tactics are equally important, if not more so, and that the human element
is the vital factor.
On the UK front, we are getting into an even more serious situation where
the costs of military "assets" is now so huge that we cannot afford to use
them in combat zones where their loss might be threatened. Where an Iraqi
insurgent can buy an RPG7 in a Baghdad bazaar for $20, it is a brave military
commander that will risk a machine worth nearly £8 million, when it can be
taken out with one round loosed off by a teenager.
Not for nothing, it should be noted, are US forces now patrolling the
streets of Baghdad in Vietnam-era M113 armoured personnel carriers. They might
not afford as good protection as the proposed FRES - or its US-equivalent -
(although neither will protect from an RPG7) but at least they are affordable,
Whether the Europeans will learn this lesson is debatable, and unlikely.
Certainly, it looks like Hoon has bought into the European dream - that
anything the US has, we must have too. Furthermore, he seems willing to
bankrupt our forces to pay for it. There seems nothing now that can stop us
lurching into another blunder of Eurofighter proportions.
What makes FRES particularly worrisome, however, it not so much the risk
that we are going to end up with another expensive white elephant - although
that is bad enough - but that it is forcing us down the road of European
Basically, as preciously indicated, because the system is so hugely
expensive and is beyond the capability of the UK to fully find and develop it
on its own, it had the choice of tapping into an existing programme - and the
only other game in town is the US "Future Combat System" - or collaborate with
Therein lies the crunch. Seemingly, without there having been any open
debate on the issue - and certainly none that we can see in Parliament - a
decision seems to have been made that we will throw our lot in with the
Europeans, which means that the US and EU member states will be developing
Several issues devolve from this. The first is one of inter-operability -
whether the two rival systems can work alongside each other, and whether even
they can communicate with each other. Again, there seems to have been no open
debate on this issue either but, if the systems cannot be integrated on the
battlefield, it means that British forces can no longer operate alongside US
forces in any meaningful way. Multilateral operations will be only be possible
alongside forces with similar - i.e., compatible - equipment, which would mean
that we are locked into working only with our EU partners.
Secondly, although our forces will be almost reliant on highly
sophisticated equipment, we will not have total control over its manufacture,
or even critical sub-systems - such as the satellite navigation and
positioning systems - on which the operational system depends. Nor indeed will
we necessarily have control of critical components of the system itself, such
as the software codes that makes it work.
As an indication of the sophistication of these types of system, the US FCS
is estimated to require 34 million lines of software code, five times more
than the Joint Strike Fighter, which so far is the largest defence undertaking
in terms of software to be developed.
An analogy is buying a desktop computer - which has an operating system
like Windows - but having no access to the operating system and being unable
to repair it if it goes wrong. That is fine if you can get a "man" in to fix
it, but not so good if it drives combat-critical systems which are under the
control of other national political systems, which may or may not allow the
release of vital data - or hardware - when it is most needed.
One must no forget, in this context, that the Belgians refused to supply
ammunition to British forces during the first Gulf War and, while we were able
to circumvent that bit of unpleasantness, it is wholly a different matter when
we are relying on unique source codes of huge complexity that can only be
obtained from one source.
In short, reliance on our European partners for this technology - albeit on
a collaborative basis - could mean not only that we can only operate with
their forces, but also that we lose our ability to operate independently, if
our partners disapprove.
All of this - without a single debate on the implications - seems to be
bringing Mr Monnet's dream of European integration to fruition in a manner
that he could not even have imagined. When, in 1950, he persuaded French
foreign minister Maurice Schuman, to launch the European Coal and Steel
Community, his idea was that by integrating the two industries (then)
essential to making war, he would deprive individual member states of the
independent means of making war.
Over fifty years later, his dream seems to be coming true, as the equipment
different armies of the EU member states is becoming so integrated, and
nations so dependent on each other for that equipment, that no single member
state will have the ability to conduct military operations without the
permission of the others.
That may be all very well and good, but should not we have had at least a
debate about it before Hoon committed us to yet another massive round of
Fortunately, it is not yet too late. No procurement contracts for the
system have yet been awarded so, before we are finally committed to spending
huge amounts of money and going down a road from which there is no return, we
should have that debate. If we are going to surrender the independence of our
armed forces - and our nation - we owe ourselves that.