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Defence Acquisition Reform

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 7 March 2024


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 28 February.

“With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on our plans for reform of the Ministry of Defence’s acquisition system.

Nimrod, Snatch Land Rovers, Ajax, Crowsnest and Morpheus—the narrative of our acquisition system has long been dogged by major programmes that were variously over-complex, over-budget and over-time. Of course, military procurement is inherently complex, and external factors—supply chain disruption in particular—have caused delays across the board that are likely to continue hitting programmes for the time being.

It is also true that our system has excelled at procuring vast quantities of ordnance into Ukraine. We have not stood still. We have been identifying and addressing systemic issues that impact on delivery, we have been driving pace and agility through streamlined processes and increasing the capability and capacity of our senior responsible owners, and, over the last six years, Defence Equipment and Support has come a long way in its internal reform efforts.

None the less, the long-standing weaknesses of defence acquisition are well known. They include a tendency for exquisite procurement—potentially too bespoke to export, leaving industrial capacity vulnerable—and, as Sheldon’s Ajax report assessed, personnel wary of speaking up as problems emerge. In my view, the most significant issue is a model of delegated authority implemented after Lord Levene’s 2011 report, which was supposed to drive financial responsibility but instead makes prioritisation hard to achieve in practice. With budgets under strain from inflation, the result is inevitable—what we call “overprogramming” where, in the absence of effective prioritisation, too many projects are chasing a finite amount of funding. Inadvertently, that drives competition between the three single services, each vying to get their programme on contract, knowing that funding is oversubscribed. Such overprogramming can only be dealt with in one way: delay, shifting programmes to the right to make the books balance.

None of those problems compares with the most compelling reason for reform. In a world where our adversaries are threatening to out-compete us in capability terms, we have no choice but to reform acquisition, or we will see our military competitiveness diminished. Ukraine has shown that today’s battlespace is highly contested, and integrated operations are essential. In 2021 we announced the integrated operating concept, recognising the military need for an integrated concept of operations but maintaining a delegated procurement system. Today, I announce our new integrated procurement model, in a world where multidomain communications are critical and data integration is paramount. At the same time, our kit must be secure, with key elements made in the UK, and we must prioritise procuring enablers alongside the shiny new platform that cannot work without them.

What does that mean in practice? There will be five key features of our new approach. First, it will be joined up, with procurement anchored in pan-defence affordability rather than ad hoc silos that are vulnerable to overprogramming. A key example will be our pending munitions strategy—a top priority given our need to replenish weapons stocks to war-fighting levels. Pan-defence prioritisation of munitions procurement will be driven not only by the hard reality of the greatest threats we face but by the scale of demand signal required for always-on production—the optimal outcome for both military and industry.

Secondly, we will have new checks and balances to challenge assumptions at the outset of programmes. Specifically, our new integration design authority, based within Strategic Command, will be empowered to ensure that our new approach is adopted in practice. If requirements lack a plan for data integration or accompanying enablers, the proposal will be sent back. The authority will also be able to monitor programmes where opportunities may arise, such as to better harness AI or novel technologies.

Meanwhile, in the MoD’s largely civilian sphere, a defence-wide portfolio approach will bring together all the expertise at our disposal to enable properly informed choices and decisions on priorities. The aim will be to provide a credible second opinion for Ministers to weigh alongside the military’s proposed requirements. In particular, there will be a far stronger role for our brilliant scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to focus on technological viability. Experts will be tasked with market analysis and prioritising advice on industrial options, ensuring that we make the best-informed decision on whether to go for off the shelf, sovereign manufacture or somewhere in between. To avoid new oversight leading simply to more red tape, the reform takes place hand in hand with defence design, aimed at streamlining our internal processes.

The third key feature is prioritising exportability, which will now be considered in depth from the very outset of programmes, to maximise the potential market for a given capability and, therefore, drive British industrial resilience. That is why one of the key expert voices will be our export specialists. At the moment, their primary focus is on export campaigns, largely for mature products. However, I want that expertise to be embedded within the MoD’s acquisition process from the beginning, giving us robust data to quantify the risk that bespoke requirements might create a delta between our needs and international demand. Above all, that means that our international export campaigns can commence at a far earlier point in the product life cycle.

The fourth feature of our new approach is to empower industrial innovation. We have already started our radical new venture of engaging industry at secret, to give the strongest possible understanding of our future requirements. My aim is to embed this approach throughout procurement, driving the deepest possible relationship with industry, to enable entrepreneurial innovation to flourish and our supply chains to become more resilient. A more holistic supplier management approach will complement that by enabling the department to speak with a clearer voice regarding priorities once on contract.

Fifthly, we will pursue spiral development by default—seeking 60% to 80% of the possible, rather than striving for perfection. For such spiral programmes we will abolish initial operating capability and full operating capability. Instead of IOC or FOC, there will be MDC—the minimum deployable capability. There will have to be exceptions, but we have set new default time targets for programmes: three years for digital and five for platforms. This is all about pace, but to achieve pace we need the right people: capable senior responsible owners, operating in an environment of psychological safety. As such, and given the emphasis on our people and psychological safety, I am pleased to report that we believe we have now implemented all 24 recommendations of the Sheldon review.

Finally, how will this systematic change be implemented? I said to the Defence Committee that our plan was to launch our new model in the next financial year. From the second week of April, the integration design authority will formally deliver its new oversight function in support of the integrated procurement model. For major new programmes starting after that date, newly formed expert advice will be made available to Ministers, ensuring that we thrash out all the hard issues at the beginning of a major procurement, locking down the key policy decisions so that our SROs and commercial functions can deliver at pace from then. For contractual reasons, existing programmes will continue under their current procurement mode, but on 8 April we will publish our new spiral development playbook so that existing programmes that can adopt spiral features will be empowered to do so.

On exportability, yesterday I published the next stage of our new medium helicopter competition, which includes a strong weighting for exports to ensure that the high-quality rotary work that it will support in the UK is sustainable in the long term. Such an approach to weighting exportability, where appropriate, will become the default from 8 April. From that date, our three and five-year targets will apply to new programmes, including top priority pending procurements, such as the Mobile Fires Platform. Ukraine has shown how close combat artillery remains critical to war-fighting. We will now accelerate that crucial acquisition, exemplifying our new approach whereby we will order critical enablers in parallel to the platform itself, particularly ammunition. Ukraine has also shown the importance of drones. Uncrewed systems will form the first overall category of pipe cleaner for the integrated procurement model from end to end.

Alongside this Statement, I am today publishing a short guidance note explaining the nuts and bolts of our new acquisition approach. Copies will be placed in the Library, and will be available in the Vote Office after I have sat down. The current environment in which we find ourselves—war in Europe—has made it impossible to ignore the urgent need for change. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for coming to the House to respond to these questions and the necessary scrutiny, on a repeat of the Statement from another place. It is welcome that the Government are finally beginning to acknowledge what we on these Benches and many others, including the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Defence Committee, have been saying for a long time—that defence procurement is not working.

The Statement referred to the narrative of the acquisition system being dogged by major programmes and, while certain programmes have indeed been over budget and over time, the issues go much wider. Some 46 of 52 major projects have been either late or over budget under this Government. It is a systemic problem. In the past 14 years, £15 billion of taxpayers’ money has gone to waste, £5 billion in this Parliament. Report after report from the NAO and the committees that I have mentioned have been critical.

This is not just about the wasted money, as important as that is. Continuous failure in MoD procurement sends a message to the world, to both our allies and our adversaries. Good defence procurement can strengthen our sovereignty; make our country more secure; provide economic growth by creating and supporting jobs; and ensure that our troops can fulfil their roles and fight, while allowing us to fulfil the obligations that we have to our NATO allies. As we would all agree, it is therefore a top priority.

The changes are right and welcome and we agree with the reasons for the reforms set out by the Minister. Indeed, there is not too much in the Statement that you can disagree with, but the real concerns with the Government’s approach stem from the lack of action to tackle the bigger issues, which is a disappointment and a missed opportunity.

The Government’s policy for acquisition reform, as set out in the Command Paper refresh and the Statement, do not address the waste and poor value for money that have plagued the Government’s mismanagement. Without addressing the waste of taxpayer money at the scale that I have set out, it is difficult to see how the reform as set out by the Government will fix the problem. How will the Government ensure that these reforms offer value for money and stop the waste that we have seen? What steps are they taking to address the underlying systemic issues that have contributed to the delays and mismanagement that the Minister has acknowledged in the Statement, which have led to these projects being late and over budget? It certainly does not appear that they would have prevented the issues with some of the major programmes mentioned in the Statement, such as Ajax or Morpheus, or others that were not mentioned, such as the E-7 Wedgetails. Is that analysis wrong and, if so, why?

We are under no illusions that the problems can always be eliminated entirely—as the Statement says, these are incredibly complex programmes and procurements—but they should not be on the scale that we have seen. Does that not mean that there is real scope to improve in this situation? How will these reforms ensure proper accountability to prevent further delays and mismanagement of these vital defence contracts, those that we have now and those we will have in future? A fundamental question that the Government need to answer is how the report will make the difference that we all want, and why it will be successful when so many other reports have failed.

We believe that we should create a new strategic leadership in procurement. If we form the next Government, we will establish a fully fledged national armaments director, responsible to the strategic centre for ensuring that we have the capabilities needed to execute the defence plans and operations demanded by the new era. We envisage core delivery tasks that currently do not seem to be vested properly anywhere in the system; they should have sufficient authority or accountability to carry these out effectively. This leadership includes alignment of defence procurement across all five domains to cut waste and duplication, securing NATO standardisation, collaboration with allies, driving export campaigns and delivering a new industrial strategy. What is the Government’s view of a new director such as this to drive the change that we all want? Which of the things that I have said does the noble Earl disagree with? They are a sensible plan for driving forward change.

We have to do better. Report after report promises action on the problems in defence procurement and promises that there will be improvement as we move forward. Yet our procurement process is dogged with failure and delay, which means that our troops and Armed Forces do not have the equipment that they rightly should. The fundamental question that the noble Earl needs to answer is this: why will this report be different from the reports that have gone before it?

My Lords, “over-complex, over-budget and over-time” is how major programmes of defence procurement have been characterised not just by the opposition, our enemies or even our allies but by the Minister for Defence Procurement in giving this Statement in the other place. Defence procurement has, over years, been riddled with problems, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, pointed out. While this Statement is very welcome, there is a question about whether it goes far enough or thinks about the wider pattern of defence procurement.

I read the Statement as it was produced and put into the Printed Paper Office last week. It said, “Check against delivery”. I read it, and there were various points where I thought, “Surely no Minister actually said this”. I went back and looked at Hansard to see what the Minister for Defence Procurement said in the other place and, indeed, some of the slightly strange comments were made in the House of Commons. I will therefore ask a few very specific questions.

What we have as the fifth aspect of the new approach to procurement is:

“Fifthly, we will pursue spiral development by default”.

Other noble Lords might know what spiral development is, but I am afraid that I do not. The Statement did not give me much clarity on it, nor does the document that was produced to go alongside it, so I hope the Minister can explain a little more what spiral development means.

Even more, however, I would like to know what is meant by the next line:

“seeking 60% to 80% of the possible, rather than striving for perfection”.

I realise that there have been concerns about the fact that we have looked for exquisite solutions and platforms that are so highly specified that they become ever more complicated, with the timeline for procurement shifting ever further to the right. However, “60% of the possible” raises a lot of questions. Does it mean that only 60% of our ammunition is going to work, or that only 60% of our trials of Trident will work? Given that we seem to have had a couple of problems with Trident recently, I very much hope that the Minister can explain what this means. There is nothing in the Statement or the document that explains clearly that we do not want to spend so long over-specifying things that we never deliver the platforms or equipment that our Armed Forces need. Do we think that we need to specify less? What do the Government mean?

The Statement talks about learning the lessons of experience, which is clearly very welcome. We do not want another Ajax. Learning from that experience is highly welcome and I am sure the Minister would be very grateful not to have to face the situation that his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, did, of repeatedly coming to your Lordships’ House and having to answer questions about Ajax for which, frankly, there were not any good answers.

Do the Government think that just learning the lessons of the recent past is enough? Will that deliver, at pace, as we say we need, the defence equipment that the United Kingdom needs in an era of unprecedented challenges? Will the noble Earl, in his response, tell the House how far this procurement model will really help us deliver beyond what we have been seeing and help ensure that, if we are sticking at 2% of GDP on defence expenditure, which seems to be the case from the Budget, that we are actually going to be equipped at the level we need to be to face the challenges that we and our allies are facing, and send the messages that we need to be sending to Russia, China, Iran and other countries, some of which we certainly would not think of even as collaborators in international relations?

My Lords I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for their questions and their very well-made points. The whole point of this paper is to look forward, not to the past. I think there is a full acceptance on all sides of the House that we can agree on the need to reform our acquisition processes, because they are rooted in the past, not in the current; and of course they ought to be rooted in the future.

As mentioned by my honourable friend the Minister for Defence Procurement in the other place,

“the long-standing weaknesses … are well known”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/2/24; col. 354.]

They include highly exquisite requirements—“exquisite” is his word—constrained export opportunities, vulnerable supply chains, personnel wary of speaking up when problems emerge, not to mention the overprogramming and unintended competitiveness between different parts of the organisation for finite funding. All these have to be addressed if we are going to move forwards.

I draw all noble Lords’ attention, if they have not already been made aware of it, to the publication placed in the Libraries of both Houses last week, Integrated Procurement Model: Driving Pace in the Delivery of Military Capability. Within that document, noble Lords will find the five core principles through which we will deliver acquisition reform. For the benefit of the House, these are as follows—some have already been mentioned.

A coherent, joined-up approach across the defence portfolio to break down the silo nature of procurement.

New checks and balances to challenge assumptions. Taking expert advice from the outset of projects, not half way through, when it is either too late or no longer appropriate.

Prioritising exportability. Far too much of what we have done has been tailor-made. We work in a global market now, where there are skills and abilities outside our shores, sitting with our allies, where we should not only take advantage of their industrial capability but also the sales opportunity that it presents to us.

Empowering industrial innovation through greater transparency and common endeavour. Transparency is so important in this ability to be honest about the situation as things progress. We need to be able to have the honesty to challenge each other the whole way through the process, to make certain that we do not disappear down blind alleys and that things are produced to time and to budget, when they ought to be, and that everybody feels open enough and relaxed enough to be able to challenge some of these issues.

Then there is the whole question of continuous improvement, or spiral development. Spiral development is a new term for me as well. I come from the private sector, where it is called “test and refine”. The principle is very simple. There is a point when you know that what you are doing is capable of achieving the aim. It is not perfect, but you test it, you use it, you learn and you refine it. You can also refine it for other customers as well: you have the base model, it works well, you can test it and then start to develop it in various different directions, to do various different things that you might want, but also what any potential customer might want. It does make perfect sense, I must admit.

Before turning to the questions quite rightly raised, and some of the challenges, I will look at the way procurement has been taking place. Let us be in no doubt, these are extremely complex pieces of technology and equipment, and they do take a long time to bring to fruition—particularly some of the larger ships and aircraft, as I am sure noble Lords are fully aware. It is a long gestation process, where checks and balances need to be inserted at the right place. But it appears to me, looking from the outside, that the process is well overdue an update, and that it needs to be much nimbler, quicker, more open, more collaborative, more informed, more technologically advanced, more digitally enhanced—you name it. There is such opportunity here.

Will it work? Well, it has certainly made a good start. I will mention just a few things about where we have got to. We already have some initiatives under way, and they are starting to improve things. We are starting to drive pace; risk and complexity are being looked at; senior responsible owners and their teams are much more focused; the strategic alignment is getting better; and the capacity and capability of the professionals involved and the SROs is improving. Psychological safety—this idea of being open and honest with each other and having a non-blame culture, which I do not think we have had in the past—pan-defence category management and financial savings: all these things come down to capability having to be holistic. To have an effective operation and delivery across organisational boundaries, you have to have a holistic view.

I will now address some of the questions. The question of value for money, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, which I am sure everybody is aware of, is a question of budgeting and taking a sensible approach, being up front about the budget and making certain that the opportunities and contingencies within the budget are transparent. That is very much the case.

On the question of underlying mismanagement, there are various plans in place within the organisations to ensure greater accountability, less project management and more specific accountability for specific parts of work, which makes the whole ownership that much easier and more driven on a private sector opportunity basis.

I think I have addressed the questions of analysis and accountability in speaking on the empowering of individuals. Will this work? Like everything, it is never going to work from day one, but it is a real move in the right direction. It is the current way that large industrial organisations work now, and the ability to insert SMEs in the process the whole way along is absolutely critical. If one thinks about technology and digital in particular, it is often SMEs that come up with the good ideas. They need to be inserted within the business and supported right the way through so that—I hardly dare say this—the primes do not gobble them up and sometimes destroy their nimbleness. So, this is the right thing to do. The question of co-operation with NATO and other allies is, equally, extremely well made.

The noble Baroness mentioned spiral development. It is a strange concept to be described like that, but I completely understand that it is “test and refine”. You get to a certain level, which is 60% to 80% of where you want to end up; you feel confident enough that you can actually put it out into the live environment, in the clear knowledge that you are going to get it back to make it better once it has been used and other people have seen its breadth of opportunity.

On the question of overcomplication, it is a difficult matter. We are dealing with very complicated machinery and skills, and everything we have learned in the past couple of years suggests that things do not need to be overcomplicated; they just need to work, and we need to be able to produce them at pace and in volume.

On Ajax, the Sheldon review has addressed this, I hope. Without making silly jokes about it being back on the road, the lessons really have been learned on Ajax—luckily, it is a thing from the past. We do learn from the lessons of the past, and procurement, if it is properly addressed, is about learning from experience, or enhancing and living with the concept of change. I hope that the challenges that we have seen have been addressed by what I think is a an extremely sensible and practical way forward for the very complicated and broad-ranging challenge of military procurement for a nation state. We could not take it more seriously; I certainly undertake to keep noble Lords fully up to date with all progress as we start to introduce some of the main milestones that will come up within the next two to three years.

My Lords, war is raging in Europe, the Levant, the southern Red Sea and Sudan. We are in the most dangerous and hostile world we have been in for many years and, amazingly, the Government have not increased or provided any extra spending for defence in yesterday’s Budget. State-on-state warfare is back. Does the Minister agree that, in terms of procurement, we must look much longer-term? For example, the carriers had £1.5 billion added to their cost because, to get the funding line straight in MoD, they stopped work on them for two years—a ridiculous thing to do. Equally, we are now desperately trying to get enough frigates into our Navy because we took too long ordering them. The SMEs have a real problem. We need to have a drumbeat of orders looking to the future, which we should commit to, because we now know that we are in a world where there is state-on-state warfare. More importantly, does the noble Earl agree that that will provide some resilience, so that, for example, when we start giving ammunition stocks or whatever to people, the firms involved have built into their whole organisation a structure that enables them to be replaced?

I agree with almost everything that the noble Lord said. Certainly, the immediacy of the situation has already introduced into the procurement cycle within the Ministry of Defence a much more nimble way of acquiring the needed munitions, both for gifting and for our own stockpiles. We have started to invest substantial sums of money in the industrial base. If you think about this way of proceeding, it is very much a joint relationship with the industrial manufacturers that will deliver exactly what we want here, as far as both the primes and the SMEs are concerned. It is being driven by the current situation and the rate of technological advance.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. It is nearly 30 years since I became the Minister for Defence Procurement, so ably succeeded by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who I see in his place—and the questions do not change. New threats arise as old threats remain, and sometimes get worse. Our dependence on technology is greater now than it ever has been; therefore, our vulnerability is greater now than it ever has been. I welcome what my noble friend says about a more joined-up approach across the defence sector, but does he not agree that it has to be married with a more joined-up approach across the infrastructure sector as a whole, because of that very vulnerability?

My Lords, I agree. The Americans have a very good expression: “soup to nuts”. It is a very simple way of describing any project from one end right to the other. I believe that is precisely what my friend in the other place is trying to achieve here, in coming up with a considerably more flexible and nimble approach to the threats that we currently face.

Could my noble friend go back to number two of his five principles? It seems to me that in the private sector, we have a very large number of these problems as far as procurement is concerned. There are many places where great strides have been made. It has always been thought that the forces are not always willing to accept, with a degree of openness, advice from the private sector—not just in the single programme, but overall. Can my noble friend reassure the House that this is really going to change, and that people understand that there are aspects of procurement which are not just about how you do this very difficult technical kind of procurement, but which really can be learned from other people?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. There is no doubt that the private sector and the Ministry of Defence need to work much more closely together to ensure that the absolutely current technology is not only available but able to be developed, and that the working practices and checks and balances on some of the assumptions that have been made are tested properly within the wider concept, not just within the forces network. This is incredibly important. If there is to be a joined-up approach and a proper pan-defence affordability exercise at the outset, it almost demands engagement across a much wider base than previously.