Page last updated at 15:03 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 16:03 UK

MoD withdraws 114m comms system

By Daniel Emery
Technology reporter

Cormorant comminications vehicle
Cormorant became operational in December 2004

A £114m communications system has been withdrawn by the Ministry of Defence from front-line service after failings.

Cormorant provides a digital communications backbone, but only parts were deployed to Afghanistan and they have now been superseded.

Replacing it is Radwin, a £300,000 system from Israel designed to work in "severe conditions".

However, the MoD denied Cormorant was "obsolete", saying it would "continue to be on standby for use when needed".

The MoD says it bought Radwin as a quick solution to the current communications problems in Afghanistan and also because it offered advances in technology.

The ministry says it is looking at options for network improvement in Afghanistan, including the proposed Falcon system, a new voice over internet protocol (VoIP) system, designed by BAE Systems.

The MoD said comparing Cormorant to Radwin was wrong.

"Cormorant is a tactical system providing a flexible communications network solution; Radwin is a point-to-point bearer for communications traffic," an MOD spokeswoman said.

Cormorant first came into service at the end of 2004 in an attempt to standardise the various communication systems that were in service.

However, it was not universally well received, with a number of posts on the unofficial armed forces website, Army Rumour Service, saying it has been "cursed with some of the worst procurement decisions, shoddy workmanship [and] non-existent quality control".

MoD mindset

Speaking to the BBC, James Arbuthnot, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons Defence Select Committee, said that the MoD needed to change its mindset when it came to defence procurement.

"We've been in Afghanistan for the past eight years and the procurement system is not geared up to accept that we are going to be in Afghanistan for a long time.

"That is one of the key points made in Bernard Gray's report," he added.

Bernard Gray, a former journalist, compiled a report into the MoD's procurement strategy which was due to have been published in July this year, but has now been kept secret until the MoD finishes consultations on a Green Paper on defence strategy that will not be ready until early next year.

"The report points out our failings in procurement and the report needs to be made public," said Mr Arbuthnot.

"We need to work on the basis that Afghanistan is a long-term commitment and that the MoD should be looking at procurement on that basis, rather than doing everything as an urgent operational requirement."

Radwin lorry
Radwin is now in active service in Afghanistan

Urgent operational requirements are short-term measures "funded by extra Treasury money to provide fast equipment solutions".

Tory MP Edward Leigh, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said he also had concerns.

"This sounds worrying. We've made recommendations in the past to avoid things like this happening.

"We may well ask the National Audit Office to look into it and if it is serious they may well make recommendations on how we can avoid something like this happening again," he said.

Frequency

Radwin, which is already in service in Afghanistan, is a radio communications network using microwave links in low frequencies.

Speaking to the BBC, Radwin's Adi Nativ said the system had been bought by the MoD a few months ago.

"The systems were fitted - and operators trained - on to vehicles in the UK which were then deployed to Afghanistan.

"Traditional microwave links only work on line-of-sight, meaning buildings and trees can get in the way.

"Our system works in near line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight, which is one of the advantages of the frequency and mechanisms we use," he said.

The Radwin sets can send data four times faster than the Cormorant devices.

In a statement, the MoD said: "Buying Radwin means the MoD is providing better communications for our troops on the front line.

"It will deliver a swift and complementary solution to communications requirements in a very challenging environment in a cost-effective way."

Part of Mr Gray's report was leaked in the Sunday Times last month.

According to the newspaper, the dossier concluded that the MoD's acquisition programme was £35bn over budget and five years behind schedule.

The MoD said it was working on the problems detailed in the draft report.



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