30 January 2003
Have Britain’s armed forces really been sent to fight Iraq and not given the right equipment? David Arminas explains how the true state of military purchasing is rather more complicated
The decision has been made. Marching orders have been given. Soldiers, pilots and sailors are on their way. Scenes of Britain’s armed forces steaming off to the Middle East to await orders to invade Iraq have been filling the newspapers, TV and radio this month.
But something is wrong, according to the popular media. Shortages of kit could mean these soldiers are literally ill-equipped for the job if they are finally called on to land on Iraqi shores and drive towards Baghdad in searing desert conditions.
It is a fact that soldiers are sailing without much of the essential equipment needed for invading Iraq. But as our news story shows, clothing procurement specialists at the Defence Logistics Organisation (DLO) have taken things in hand to ensure soldiers have the kit when needed.
Military procurement, especially for helicopters, radios, planes, tanks, and most recently aircraft carriers, has come under intense scrutiny and criticism over the years, both from within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and without. Now the spotlight has turned from procurement of heavy equipment to the DLO’s clothing organisation: less sexy perhaps, but involving the same issues of life and death.
The key question for all in the MoD is whether the supply chain holds under the intense pressure of battle. Will tank air-intake filters avoid being clogged up with sand? Are rifles suitably protected against the harsh, dry desert climate? For the DLO in particular, will the troops get their battledress in time and to specification?
Colonel Silas Suchanek, defence clothing integration project leader at the DLO, told SM that the organisation’s supplier base optimisation programme only began 18 months ago. The DLO is moving towards having suppliers take on more of the risk so that they can get to grips with many of the main issues surrounding successful supply chain performance.
The issue of punctual delivery is a major facet of the programme. It is one thing for a soldier to not have had the right boots as they boarded the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in Portsmouth last month. It is another thing if they still don’t have them when disembarking on Iraqi shores.Melting boots
Other issues, such as product quality, are immensely important. The case of the melting boots that were described in the desert exercises in Oman has gone down in public mythology. The DLO has requested to see the offending boots but, says Suchanek, the MoD has not been able to show it a damaged pair.
Suchanek, along with other military analysts with clothing knowledge to whom SM has spoken, believes that rather than hot sand doing the damage, the owner is likely to have stood on a tank exhaust running at more than 500°C.
Innovation in design, as well as performance, is just as much a major issue for military clothing as it is for the Eurofighter aircraft project. The DLO took the results of a survey in the MoD’s Soldier magazine, which found that more than half of those interviewed had bought their own equipment, and did its own interviews with soldiers to see what was preferred.
The results of the DLO’s investigations include working with suppliers to develop a more waterproof cold and wet-weather boot with a removable breathable fabric lining, and also to improve assault vests to incorporate SAS functions, such as more pouches.
The DLO has plumped for a dynamic approach to clothing procurement and its approach to giving the customer what they want is not only commendable but in line with best practice in the private sector. Indeed, it is often private-sector companies that closely follow Soldier surveys and make products - not always as good as their military counterparts - for sale to soldiers.
Purchasers should conclude that the DLO has bought into a private-sector approach to customer satisfaction. But proof that the DLO supply chain delivers the goods will also be during the ultimate test of the British fighting forces - frontline action.
Over the coming months, the military’s supply chain performance will come under the microscope of the DLO, consultants and critics. If British armed forces land in Iraq, then the whole nation will be watching. Supply chain failure at that time is too ghastly to contemplate.