Tag Archive for: Military

I’ve caused some controversy on LinkedIn by asking questions about how Russia seems to be able to afford so much more military equipment than the UK for about the same level of expenditure.  That generated some interesting comments and also some people feeling this isn’t the right time to ask such questions. 

But a foreign policy expert from the Atlantic Council (and an eastern European himself), Damir Mirusic, says this “ It’s time for Europeans to stop watching in sorrow and guilt, and start watching with furious anger. Stop eulogizing your dreams about a better world. Wake up”.

That comment has been playing in my head for a couple of days now. I’ve felt “furious anger” since Thursday, anger that we have allowed ourselves to be “played” by Putin. We’re almost all complicit in this – me included.

Russia is not an economic powerhouse. But we’ve run down our military capability, wasted money on military equipment that doesn’t work. We’ve offered succour to every Putin crony and Russian crook who wanted to launder their money through London and enjoy our lifestyle. Russian money has funded political parties and the Brexit campaign. (No, I wasn’t a Remainer, actually).  London lawyers get rich suing journalists when they get too close to the truth about the oligarchs.  Absolute di****ds like Arron Banks and Farage have spouted their nonsense in support of Putin (and don’t get me started on the equivalent in the US). And I haven’t been out on the streets or even out on Twitter making enough noise about these issues.

So it feels like a time to ask difficult questions, and not just in the UK, I should say. I heard a German commentator say that the entire German foreign policy approach of the last 20 years “lies in tatters”. Angela Merkel carries some responsibility here, as she does for Brexit.  Her reputation is slipping away. Many European countries have failed to spend enough on defence, relying on the US to protect us from our foes. Energy dependence was another mistake. That has to stop now, and the amazing response of many countries including Germany in the last couple of days suggests that we have entered a new era at incredible pace.   

Anyway, trying to be calm… there are going to be many more difficult questions for businesses over the coming and months. That will apply on the revenue side – if Russian assets are frozen in Europe and the US, what might happen to factories owned by “our” firms in Russia, or stakes in Russian firms e.g. BP now trying to offload its 20% of Russian oil giant Rosneft.  But of course there are also major supply chain and procurement implications. This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list, and things will change daily or hourly, but issues are going to include;

Materials / products sourced from Russia – sanctions will certainly restrict some trade and buyers will have to be aware not just of first tier issues but what happens down the supply chain. Some may not even be aware that a material or component is of Russian origin and is important for a supplier’s supplier or even a supplier’s supplier’s supplier… etc.  40% of the world’s supply of Palladium comes from Russia, for instance.

Suppliers in Ukraine – not just raw material or products are affected. Ukraine has a pretty large international services sector now. For instance, I have friends who have been working with very capable software development firms in that country. I have no idea what is going to happen to that sort of trade, or whether those young programmers are currently out in a trench somewhere with a rifle. It’s a terrifying thought. 

Shortages of some products and consequent inflation – we’ve already seen major price increases for a number of commodities (oil, grain etc).  Whatever happens it seems likely that some of these issues won’t be reversed quickly. There will no doubt also be shortages of some manufactured goods too, whether because of sanctions or reduced production levels.

A desire to improve supply chain resilience – I’ve been speaking about this via various webinars and articles for some time. The pandemic, alongside geo-political tension, has already led many organisations to look at reducing dependence on “global sourcing” and instead consider re-shoring, insourcing and local / regional sourcing.  That is only going to increase in pace, I suspect given what is going on now, meaning more work for procurement teams. 

Shipping – I’m far from being a deep logistics expert but just reading about the strategic importance of the Black Sea makes you realise that there may well be consequences of the conflict in terms of transportation costs, timings and availability of capacity.  Air space restrictions will have an impact too.

I’m sure there are major issues I’ve missed. But that’s enough for now and that list will I’m sure keep many of my professional colleagues busy for some time to come.  Finally, I have made a donation to the UNICEF Ukraine fund. It feels like the most useful and tangible thing I can do right now.

PS the importance of good logistics management is being demonstarted very vividly by the Russian advance …

(This picture is not the Ajax vehicle we’re discussing here of course. It is my photograph of one of the earliest tanks ever made, now in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln, the city where the world’s very first tank was designed, in a meeting room at the White Hart hotel).

The story of the Ajax armoured fighting vehicles (small tanks, if you like), bought for the British Army from US defence firm General Dynamics, looks like it will be a lengthy case study if I do produce a follow up to my first Bad Buying book.

Wasting a fortune as in this case is by no means a unique occurrence for the military, and we have seen similar disasters in many countries, as equipment turns out to be far more expensive than planned or fails to provide the capability that was desired. Sometimes, both of those failings are present. 

In the case of Ajax, the General Dynamics solution was chosen in 2010 and the contract agreed in 2014. The first vehicles should have been delivered in 2017, and the first British Army squadron should have been using them by mid-2019. However, problems emerged during testing. For instance, the vehicles were so noisy that crews were required to wear noise cancelling headphones and be checked for hearing loss at the end of operations.

The Times reported expert opinion that problems with Ajax were so serious, the government should consider cancelling the £5.5 billion deal to buy 589 of the vehicles. So far, the vehicles have cost £3.2 billion despite only 14 being delivered — all without a turret and of odd sizes.  A leaked report by the Government’s own Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which reports to the Cabinet Office, says that the problems with the Ajax vehicle do not seem to be manageable or resolvable within the agreed costs and timescale.

Recently it was revealed that trials of the Ajax armoured vehicle were halted from November 2020 to March 2021. Then trials were paused again in mid-June on “health and safety grounds” amid concerns that mitigation measures put in place to protect soldiers — including ear defenders — were not sufficient.  Excessive vibration and noise meant crews suffered from nausea, swollen joints and tinnitus, and soldiers were only allowed 105 minutes inside the vehicle, with a maximum speed of 20 mph (32 km/h).

Not very good in a real-life conflict, really. “Could you stop shooting at us, we have to let our chaps out for a bit of a rest now, they’ve been in there almost 2 hours!”  Amazingly, suspension issues also mean that the turrets could not fire while the vehicle was moving, and vehicles were unable to reverse over obstacles more than 20 cm high. I think even my Kia could manage that – we’re getting into the territory of “you have to laugh really, or you would cry”.

Another element of the Ajax story which would be amusing if the whole programme weren’t such a huge waste of public money came last week when the public announcement of the latest problems was made during the England versus Germany football match! Talk about timing a bad news story to avoid public focus.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, said that the vehicle’s weight had ballooned to 42 tonnes after many redesigns. It was now “heavier than any tank during the Second World War”, he said.  Some observers have suggested senior officers in the army may have hidden the extent of the problem over recent months to prevent it being axed as part of the government’s Integrated Defence Review.

But there is some debate about the underlying causes of this fiasco. There are claims that there was a “anyone but BAE Systems” view in the military when the supplier was being chosen.  Private Eye and The Times also suggested that General Dynamics just said “yes” to everything the Army wanted, without really being able to provide it. “They went to General Dynamics and said ‘Can you do it?’ and they said yes”.

But others see the fault sitting with the military, with the specification being continually changed and made more complex over the years, leading to that issue with the weight of the vehicle, as Ellwood pointed out.

Bernard Gray, who was Chief of Defence Material from 2011-16, has published some interesting comments on Twitter recently.  He suggests that the initial contract was fine, which might be understandable as his team must have been very involved in that phase. But changes to the specification driven by the Army after contract signature, on what should have been a fixed price, fixed spec contract, are behind the problems, he suggests. Gray said this;  “I don’t think that’s true if the product was not fit for purpose. The problem was, how much had MoD deviated from the 2014 contract by 2019… that’s what we need to explore”.

If that diagnosis is correct, it may prove hard to recover money from General Dynamics. If the firm has simply done what it was asked or required to do by the customer, we can hardly blame it if the end product doesn’t work.

Another thread on Twitter related to the decision by the Australian army not to select the Ajax product. Apparently, that was because when they took up references from the British army in 2019, they were told to avoid it.

It is all a huge mess anyway, not just financially but also operationally, as this is a pretty essential and fundamental piece of kit for our soldiers. As usual, the taxpayer takes the hit, and as usual we will never find out exactly who should carry the can for this in the military, civilian MOD or political worlds, or indeed on the supply side. Will anybody get fired? You must be joking. Strangely enough, it always seems impossible to place the responsibility for Bad Buying in the public sector on anyone in particular.  

It is now just two days to publication of Bad Buying. So today, let’s focus again on the second section of the book, all about fraud and corruption. Whilst I really enjoyed writing and researching this section, it was also somewhat annoying and frustrating. That’s because so many of the cases featured could have been stopped, avoided or at least made a lot more difficult if certain basic processes and policies had been in place.

How was Fat Leonard allowed to corrupt so much of the US Navy, to the point where hundreds of officers (up to Admiral level) have ended up in court? Even when his firm did not legitimately win contracts for servicing ships in south-east Asia, the ship commanders used his firm anyway.

So why was no-one checking up on contract compliance  when the firms who should have got the business didn’t? Why did no-one look at spend analysis and ask questions about just how much money and share of business was going to Fat Lenard’s firm?  And how do you end up with a situation where several whistle-blowers raised the issue, but so many people were corrupt (including some recipients of whistleblowing information) that it still carried on for years?

Or for something a little less exotic, consider the legendary Sainsbury’s potato fraud. The UK supermarket group was defrauded for years by collusion between the buyer and a key vegetable supplier. The buyer agreed to pay over the odds for all the potatoes bought from that firm and in turn took kickbacks and had expensive meals and trips with the sales director. But why did no-one spot that Sainsburys were paying more than the should? Why was there no regular open and competitive process to source potatoes? Why was the decision making resting apparently in one man’s hands?

So I’ve laid out seven key anti-fraud principles in the book, and I’d seriously recommended that everyone should consider how their own organisation scores on these. Some seem obvious until you actually look at how many organisations really adhere to the principle.  For example, it is vital that all entities to which money is paid must be verified and authorised.

We need to make sure the order and the payment isn’t going to a fake or dummy company, perhaps even one controlled by the order placer (the internal fraudster) or their associates (when there is internal / external collusion).  That “supplier” may still supply the goods and services required, or something approximating to them, with the fraud being the quality or quantity of what is provided. Or they may supply nothing, relying on no-one other than the fraudster realising that nothing has actually been received. Or perhaps the time-lag before the discrepancy is noticed is enough for the fraudster to safely disappear, before anyone asks where those 5000 laptops that have been paid for have got to.  

So we must check that the entity we’re paying money to is genuine. Is it a registered company with a trading history? Does it have a track record? Who are the Directors? You really need to understand who your suppliers are, and identify any that aren’t genuine.  

That’s enough on fraud for now, and tomorrow I’ll look at the final chapter in the book where I lay out some thoughts on how you can drive “good buying”.  The book isn’t all case studies of failure – there is advice too, because the aim is to educate and inform, as well as to entertain and to shock people a little!    

So you might still get delivery of the book on publication day (Thursday) if you order now – check out the links here. (In fact, one friend tells me his book arrived yesterday). There is also a podcast now (“Peter Smith’s Bad Buying podcast”) and the first two episodes, around 15-20 minutes each, are available on most podcast platforms.

There is even a Bad Buying playlist on Spotify (all my section titles in the book are also song titles …) It is a “diverse” playlist, as my daughter described it, but I’ll take that as a compliment!  You can make your own judgment on that.