What's the point of the Ministry of Defence? You'd think it has one job: to keep Britain safe. But, if procurement is anything to go by, that isn't how the MoD sees it. Ministers and officials seem to be more interested in protecting defence contractors than protecting the country.
Take our Type 45 destroyers. Yes, they're among the world's most sophisticated ships. But they cost £6.5 billion – 30% over budget. They were delivered two years late. Plus, only six were built – half the number planned.
And they don't work properly. Propulsion system failures mean they all have to be refitted with new engines, less than a decade after they entered service. Taxpayers will be saddled with another multi-million pound bill.
This isn't a stand-out case. Overspends, delays, and technical flaws are the norm. See the Nimrod MRA4. Or the SA80. Or the Joint Strike Fighter.
Procurement failures aren't just a waste of money. They make our armed forces – and our country – less safe. So why do ministers put up with it?
Because procurement policy is protectionist. Instead of choosing equipment based on quality, the government favours a small group of major British contractors.
So, naturally, the contractors have the upper hand. If you know you have a guaranteed customer no matter how expensive, late, or inefficient your products are, why deliver quality?
Defence contracts are really just a subsidy for a corporate cartel.
It doesn't have to be this way. Yesterday, I asked the Minister for Defence Procurement if she would take a different approach for the new Type 31 Frigate.
I inquired whether the government would boost its bargaining power by seeking to purchase jointly with NATO allies – which was the original procurement plan for the Type 45s.
I asked if she would cut costs by ditching protectionism.
Her response? "Complex ships can only be built in the UK."
Theresa May said that, under her leadership, Britain would be a global leader in free trade. Procurement would be a good place to start.
"A revolutionary text ... right up there with the Communist manifesto" - Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times
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