Watchdog Warns Major British Defence Projects Are 'Undeliverable'

Nearly one-in-three major Ministry of Defence (MOD) procurement projects are behind schedule, a spending watchdog has warned.

The National Audit Office (NAO) says 10 out of the 32 most significant programmes need "urgent action" or are are "undeliverable" within the approved timescale, undermining the MOD's ability to carry out key tasks.

The 32 projects highlighted by the NAO include patrol vessels, fighter aircraft, drones and battlefield communications systems, with a total cost of £196.2 billion, according to the watchdog.

On average, the projects are expected to be more than two years late by the time they are declared fully operational.

The findings come as military procurement is expected to form a major part of the Government’s Integrated Review of UK security, defence and foreign policy - branded the biggest of its kind since the end of the Cold War by Boris Johnson.

Of the 32 most significant programmes on the MOD's books, the department has forecast that successful delivery is "probable" or "highly likely" for only five of the projects.

Under-skilled and under-resources, late and faulty equipment deliveries and innacurate milestones shouldered much of the blame.

A non-joined up planning process reportedly led to programmes being declared "fully operational" when testing was incomplete.

The F-35 fighter jet, the Watchkeeper unmanned aerial drone and HMS Forth projects have all been affected by technical issues

The MOD insists that an investigation into current programmes could lead to accelerated timelines, referencing the 2019 success of Black Hornet nano UAV procurement, with the delivery of the 30 unmanned aerial vehicles taking 16 days.

"As the NAO acknowledges, managing and delivering defence programmes can be incredibly complex," an MOD spokesperson said.

"This report confirms we are focusing on the right areas for improvement, and have seen some successes in recent years by amending our operating model and streamlining our procurement process.

F-35 jet sits on the runway on board HMS Queen Elizabeth (Picture: MOD).
F-35 jet sits on the runway on board HMS Queen Elizabeth. The delivery of the fighter has been a point of concern in the latest report (Picture: MOD).

"For instance this year, we have already delivered the second of nine P-8A Poseidon aircraft on time as part of a £3bn programme to enhance our submarine-hunting capabilities.

“We are grateful to the NAO for their report and acknowledge there is further to go. “We will continue to improve through the Integrated Review and remain committed to ensuring new capabilities present the best value for money.”

The head of the NAO, Gareth Davies said: "It is essential that the MOD improves the way it introduces important new defence capabilities into service.

"This includes ensuring that pressure to be seen to deliver quickly does not lead to it accepting incomplete projects, and making decisions on the basis of incomplete reporting."

Meg Hillier, the chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, told Forces News there has been a "long-standing issue" with how the MOD deals with suppliers.

"They just don’t have the right skills in the MOD," she said.

"We have been saying this on the Public Accounts Committee for many years, and yet we still get the same problems.

"It’s not looking good at the moment.

"If you don’t get it working well together, and if there’s a delay in one part, that can cause a huge knock-on effect for the rest, but clearly, in the end, you just don’t have the capability on the ground in theatre when you need it, and that’s critical."

Ms Hillier added that the speed technology grows at could be having an effect.

"If something’s two years late, it may well be that there’s better technology out there, so the longer things are delayed, the more you can be behind the curve in that respect as well," she said.

The MOD says it will move forward by allowing Strategic Command an enhanced role in supporting Head Office, following a separate review on how it delivers capabilities.

Cover image: PA.