Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
Wednesday, 5 January, 2000, 18:28 GMT
Communication failure for the army

Communications technology leaves British paratroopers behind

Following on from the BBC report on Monday - in which senior Army officers revealed serious failings in their troops' weapons and equipment in Kosovo - the BBC's Andrew Gilligan investigates why British soldiers are still equipped with antiquated personal radios.

It is an age when even schoolchildren have mobile phones. Yet British troops who might depend on efficient communication for their very lives are still using radios designed in the 1960s.

As the Army has long known - and the rest of the country has just learned - their sets can be listened to, can be jammed, or may not even work at all.

The Bowman project

The BBC's Today Programme got access to classified army documents
The answer to all those communication problems was supposed to be something called Bowman, the new tactical radio for the army. But the Bowman project shows that the military's problems are as much about management as about money.

For the generals, it has become an urgent priority. But they shouldn't hold their breath. Nineteen years after starting to consider the project, and seven years after inviting tenders, the ministry of defence still hasn't even signed a contract.

The Armed Forces Minister John Spellar says Labour is trying hard - they have introduced major management reforms called "smart procurement," and they've brought in a special troubleshooter for the Bowman project.

"We inherited a horrendous problem... Bowman was running something like six years late. We are getting to grips with it and starting to redress the situation, " he said.

Delivery date: 2004

But 'getting to grips' may not be quite the right words. Since the new government arrived, the delay has risen from six years to eight.

It is still negotiating on the price - the latest figure being demanded is in fact 3.9bn. The MoD has said it can't afford that, so there'll probably be a compromise. By the end of this year, it's hoped, the contract will finally be signed. And by 2004, the army might start getting its new radio.

Angus Taverner, a former signals officer and defence consultant says: "The main problem is they've gone about procuring a very complicated system in a big bang way. They are trying to deliver the whole system in one large package and as the programme has expanded, that has become increasingly challenging to the consortium that is trying to deliver this defence capability to the army."

Incompatible with other radios

We inherited a horrendous problem... We are getting to grips with it and starting to redress the situation
Armed Forces Minister John Spellar
Yet even when the radios are ready, there will still be problems. Because of the delays, separate equipment is now being bought for the very short-range personal soldier communications. So when Bowman finally arrives, many soldiers will find themselves carrying two radio sets around. And Bowman is likely to be completely incompatible with all the radios now being bought by the Royal Marines, Navy and Air Force, not to mention our Nato allies.

As Rupert Pengelly, technical editor of Jane's Information Group, explains, that means applying what communications experts call the "swivel chair principle."

"Someone sits in a swivel chair with two computer screens in front of him, takes all the data and communications off one screen, then swivels his chair and types it in at the other screen."

The MoD's not wholly to blame for the mess. With communications technology changing so much and so fast, trying to meet the requirement for the radio is like trying to hit a moving target. The greatest risk - though no more than a risk - is that after all the pain, Bowman will be obsolete before it is even introduced.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

See also:
03 Jan 00 |  UK
Damning report into Kosovo campaign
04 Jan 00 |  Talking Point
Should we spend more on the army?

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Links to other UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories