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New artillery fleet: lessons learned from the MIV and Boxer

*The MoD took an immense risk when it decided to purchase the Boxer Infantry vehicle, throwing budgetary caution over-board. Given that Britain has consistently reduced its military budgets over past decades, repeating this gamble would be reckless. But with several replacement programs up ahead, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is not out of options. *

The Boxer/MIV mistake

The Boxer affair was a bit of a shocker, in military affairs, in 2018. In an unprecedented move, the MoD announced its decision to purchase Artec’s Boxer infantry fighting vehicle, to the tune of nearly 3 billion GBP. The renewal of the fleet of Infantry Vehicles was nothing surprising, but the decision to invest such an amount without an RFP, a mandatory process when engaging large amounts of public money. RFPs are designed to ensure the best value for money is achieved, and that all options have been considered, to guarantee suitability of the chosen equipment. The Royal Army had been engaged in the Mechanized Infantry Vehicle to choose its next vehicle when it abruptly went with the off-the-rack and un-negotiated option of ordering 500 vehicles from Artec. This was all the most surprising since Defence minister Rishi Sunak is struggling to balance the strained State coffers with the UK’s international military obligations. Defence reporter Kumail Jaffer writes: “Rishi Sunak wants to divert billions from the foreign aid budget to pay for spies, drones and cyberweapons, it was reported last night. The Chancellor has told Cabinet that any increased spending on defence assets such as AI-enabled drones must come from aid funds. The UK has a legal obligation to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid – which this year comes to £15.8billion – but a review of foreign, defence and security policy could see defence prioritised.” In the end, the Royal Army will get the Boxer, and no one will ever know whether a better option was on the table.

What the Royal Army needs

One of the UK’s next large replacement program will presumably be artillery. defence specialist Andrew Chutner writes: “The program to replace the British Army’s aging AS90 self-propelled artillery has hit at least a two-year delay, with the forthcoming howitzer not expected to reach initial operating capability until the first quarter of 2029. The decision to defer the Mobile Fires Program was taken to allow the Ministry of Defence to address key technical risks and meet requirements in the government’s integrated defence, security and foreign policy review expected around the end of the year, according to sources with knowledge of the program.” Currently, the Royal Army uses the AS-90 self-propelled and armoured howitzer, and the lighter towed L118 light gun. With design dating back the 1980s or even 1970s, these two guns present two problematic characteristics beyond their age. The AS-90 is powerful and reinforced but also expensive to produce, and difficult to move and deploy. The L118, the older design, is easily deployed and less expensive but far less powerful and has no mobility of its own. The Royal Army very rarely intervenes in solo missions (the last stand-alone deployment is the Falklands War in 1982) and must therefore keep in mind interoperability standards with its allies (another point against the relatively unique L118). Now, the UK’s armed forces have been depleted over the past years, due to budget cuts, and are struggling to maintain their military capacities despite plummeting resources.

Minding the purse

Because of the aforementioned military budget cuts, the number of howitzers deployed has fallen from 900 to around 300, amidst the general military downsizing. And the British Army needs to make long-term adjustments in future acquisitions. Indeed, it is very unlikely that Britain’s military will receive comparable budgets to what they enjoyed in history, any time soon. So, how to maintain enough artillery units, without neglecting quality? If Britain acquires low-tech or basic howitzers as replacements to stay within the financial envelope, it will maintain enough tubes, but at the expense of power or capacity. On the other hand, if they choose the most expensive types of artillery cannons, they will have to dramatically reduce the number of acquisitions for fear of overshooting the budget. One glimmer of hope remains, though, with new-generation truck-mounted howitzers which the global market now has to offer. China, Japan and France all have produced these new types of howitzers, which offer identical firepower to track-and-armour counterparts, but with considerably superior mobility, and at a fraction of the cost. They are easily deployable by air and interoperable with NATO allies. The rationale behind the design is that these new howitzers can gain in safety by shedding armour and increasing mobility. With such an agile design, truck-mounted artillery can fire a salvo and relocate long before the enemy can strike back.

The future of Britain’s military leaves Rishi Sunak few options but to completely re-address the way the Royal Army does business. In the foreseeable future, British soldiers will operate in inter-ally operations. This means that, in the rare setting when artillery absolutely must be armoured, it can presumably rely on allied self-propelled howitzer (such as the US Paladin), which is a common design. In the meantime, converting to truck-mounted artillery will enable the MoD to maintain its operational capacity, if not increase it, within its new and reduced financial envelope.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Daniel Brooks .

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