Defence Acquisition Reform and the British Condition: Promises, Betrayal, and Resignation

Defence Acquisition Reform and the British Condition: Promises, Betrayal, and Resignation

John Louth (Royal United Services Institute, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0599-0.ch003


This chapter considers the defence acquisition change agenda in the United Kingdom from 1997 onwards. The work considers the organisations, practices and values of smart acquisition and discusses those forces that championed its implementation. Taking a critical stance, it positions the change discourse as a broader case study of the wider western narrative of defence. The chapter considers smart acquisition as a vehcle of this change which, ultimately, presents as a circular and ineffective activity.
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Smart Acquision: The Post-1997 Reform

Of course, the policies and processes governing the procurement of military equipment have to address a number of imponderables and unknowns such as future political and military alliances, the pace, effectiveness and impact of emerging technologies, the nature of future threats, and political will. In addition to all of this, the military procurement process must successfully project manage, design, construct and deliver programme lines that are acknowledged to be amongst the most complex in the world in an environment that is far from conducive to the deployment of oft-perceived best practice acquisition competencies and processes.

Perhaps driven by the complexities of military procurement, as early as 1958 it was found that the actual costs of equipment programmes for UK defence were almost three times the forecast projected values of these programmes at their inception (HCDC, 1998). Indeed, as early as 1961, the British government attempted to improve a failing defence procurement process by requiring every major programme to state the capability required of the equipment being purchased, the main technical risks to delivery, and the key performance parameters (Office for the Minister of Science, 1961). The Gibb-Zuckerman reforms, as the changes arising from the 1961 report came to be known, were reviewed in 1968 revealing the following insights. Costs and delays had continued to rise during the 1960s, and the defence procurement process was far from under control. Indeed, complex systems that had consumed vast resources, such as the Seabug missile, were pronounced obsolete in the mid-1960s, the programme scrapped and the investment lost (Page, 2006).

Government’s response to a defence procurement process which was overspending was to establish a committee. Chaired by William Downey, a civil servant, this standing board was known as ‘The Steering Group on Development Cost Estimating.’ This committee established the Downey reforms, as they became known, which:

… governed all significant projects for the next 30 years…Downey recommended that each phase must be fully completed before the next phase began…so that full development could be launched with confidence that projects would meet performance, cost and timescale targets. (Kincaid, 1999, p. 21)

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