Page last updated at 12:46 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 13:46 UK

Do UK troops get the best kit?

By Gerry Northam
File on 4

When Ian went to a car parts shop to buy a can of paint it was not to cover a scratch on his vehicle but to help his soldier son Terry camouflage a rifle.

British soldier in Afghnistan
An ex-commander says there is a longstanding procurement problem

"Would you believe I was in Halfords looking for sand-coloured spray paint for his rifle," said Ian, who had received the request from his son, a sniper on his first tour of duty of Afghanistan.

The family have received several other worrying complaints from their son about kit failings.

In early July he was distraught at the loss of three men killed in the next compound but his mother soon realised this was not the only thing troubling him.

"He told me something he'd never said before, they hadn't got the correct body armour, helmets or the correct sights [for their rifles]," she told BBC File on 4.

"The problem was when they lay flat on the ground, his helmet hit his body armour and went in front of his eyes so he couldn't see properly and, in the few seconds it took to put it right, somebody might have shot at them."

Kit 'flaws'

Defence minister Quentin Davies, who is responsible for procurement, disputes this family's story.

"What we do in defence procurement is to make sure that you provide the best equipment that is available at the time," he said.

"Nobody goes and buys paint in Afghanistan in order to spray their own rifle.

"All the weapons we issue are of the best possible specification and we wouldn't allow people to use weapons or any other personal kit that wasn't specified."

Now, almost at the end of his tour, sniper Terry says he has received the helmet, sights and armour he needs.

But his family's anxiety over his earlier safety reflects a widely reported claim that soldiers at the frontline are being let down by a combination of ministers and civil servants whose job it is to buy and supply equipment on time.

Pinzgauer 'Vector'
The Vector is being withdrawn from Afghanistan

Former commander of British forces in Afghanistan Col Richard Kemp suggests that these problems are part of a long-standing failure of the procurement system.

"There have been problems since I joined the Army 30 years ago," he said.

"They were supposed to be corrected in 1998 with 'smart procurement' but that hasn't achieved anything much."

Col Kemp said there were delays in getting the kit to soldiers and that equipment was moved more quickly during World War II.

Benign environment

Paul Beaver, defence analyst, cites the example of the Vector armoured truck which is now being withdrawn from frontline use in Afghanistan.

He said by the time the vehicle got into service the threat had changed.

"There were improvised explosive devices, there were mines, there were rocket propelled grenades and the vehicle just wasn't up to that," said Mr Beaver.

However the Vector's replacement is scant consolation to Lisa McIntosh, who is mourning the loss of her partner Sergeant Lee Johnson, killed when his Vector truck was blown up by a mine in Afghanistan.

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Lisa had received several e-mails from Lee, from Stockton, voicing his fears that his unit did not have the right equipment. In particular he was concerned about the Vector.

"The passenger seat did not have a metal plating so if there was a blast he would take it all," she said.

"A friend said he [Lee] spent the whole morning before he died trying to put a metal plate on his seat but he couldn't get into the vehicle with his helmet on so he had to take it out.

"I think if he had left it in he would be here today or better still if he had been in a different vehicle."

Mr Davies maintains that the Vector was the best vehicle available at the time, but added: "We are replacing it with other vehicles that are far better."

Mr Davies did not accept that the Vector was a predictable problem which put soldiers' lives at risk.

"Tragically in wars people always die. This is a horrible thought but I am afraid it is a fact."

Soaring costs

He said the MoD had a "continuous pipeline of improvement" for all of the equipment British troops used on the front line.

But according to an official MoD report written by former senior MoD adviser Bernard Gray, which should have been published in July, the military procurement system is under serious strain.

James Arbuthnot
That is four different areas where there is a serious problem with defence procurement
James Arbuthnot, chair Commons Defence Select Committee

The report was leaked to the Sunday Times and has now been seen by File on 4.

Studying 40 procurement projects, it has found that projects ran hugely over schedule leaving kit arriving years late on the front line and causing costs to rocket.

"On average we found these programmes cost 40% more than they were originally expected to and are delivered 80% later than first estimates predicted," says the report.

"In sum this could be expected to add up to a cost overrun of approximately £35bn and an average overrun of five years."

The Commons defence select committee has drawn a similar conclusion over the MoD's systematic failings.

Chairman James Arbuthnot said: "They are items of equipment which are largely late, they are more expensive, a lot more expensive than originally envisaged... they are bought in smaller numbers and they end up with less capability.

"So that is four different areas where there is a serious problem with defence procurement."

Referring to the £35bn overspend claim, Mr Davies said: "There is no catastrophic or disastrous funding gap of this sensational kind at the present time and we are continuing not only to support current ops but we are also investing in core long-term capabilities".

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