Britain has ordered a French-built anti-sniper system to help protect troops in Afghanistan, even as spending on military equipment to defeat the Taliban is in decline as the drawdown of combat troops gathers pace.
The U.K. Defence Ministry revealed in late December that it was spending around 5 million pounds ($8 million) on an urgent operational requirement (UOR) to provide troops with equipment that uses a laser to detect the glass lenses used by the Taliban on sniper rifle sights.
The purchase coincided with the MoD’s first public breakdown of how it had spent billions of pounds over the past four years equipping the military in Afghanistan and Iraq with UOR kits.
French company Cilas is due to begin deliveries of its SLD 500 system this week, having beat three other contenders for a deal signed Nov. 26, a company executive said.
The system is designed to spot snipers using optical sights by shining a laser in the direction of potential opponents. The system detects refraction when the laser hits the glass surface of a scope or binoculars.
The past year has seen a number of British troops killed or wounded by Taliban small arms fire.
The award to Cilas follows the MoD’s cancellation last year of another UOR small-arms detection program using lightweight acoustic systems carried by individual soldiers capable of pinpointing the location of rifle fire.
The program was axed midyear before a contractor was selected.
France’s Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office funded much of the development of the SLD 500 but did not order it for the French Army. Several other countries have bought the system, the Cilas executive said. The U.S. Marine Corps purchased systems for evaluation but, as far as is known, did not buy the equipment for fielding.
News of the Cilas success follows an announcement by government officials during a trip to Afghanistan by British Prime Minister David Cameron just before Christmas that a further 230 million pounds would be spent on military equipment ahead of the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.
The funding includes 29 million pounds for counter-IED equipment; a 10 million pound upgrade of vehicles; and a 5 million pound improvement to ISR capabilities at Camp Bastion, the main British base in Afghanistan.
UOR spending also is continuing outside Afghanistan. For example, the Royal Navy is holding a competition to buy a maritime unmanned aerial system for use initially on a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship and then on a Type 23 frigate.
Analysts say the vehicles will likely be used to boost surveillance capabilities of British ships operating in the Arabian Gulf region.
A decision on a service provider is expected next month, with Boeing, EADS, Lockheed Martin UK and QinetiQ on the short list of bidders.
UORs are almost exclusively funded from Treasury reserves rather than the defense budget to provide mostly off-the-shelf equipment quickly.
After it’s used, the equipment must be disposed of, with the funds returned to the Treasury, or the kit is taken into the MoD’s core equipment program.
The MoD has been wrestling for months over the budget and requirement consequences of taking potentially billions of pounds of armored vehicles, UAVs and other equipment into its core program.
More than 7.5 billion pounds has been spent by the British government since 2001. Some of that spending was generated by the conflict in Iraq, but in recent years, requirements to equip troops in Afghanistan with theater-standard equipment have dominated spending.
More than 5.6 billion pounds has been spent on Afghanistan UORs.
Government figures provided to Parliament just before Christmas showed that more than 2.8 billion pounds of that was spent in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011.
Spending levels, though, went down by almost half from the 2010 figure of 794 million pounds to the following year’s figure of 415 million pounds — even though the Treasury and the MoD had estimated UOR spending of up to 882 million pounds in 2011.
The MoD didn’t provide a breakdown of money spent before 2008.
A spokeswoman for the ministry said that at this stage, it couldn’t provide any idea of the likely 2012 spending level.
The government also, for the first time, gave Parliament a breakdown of how it had spent the UOR money over the four-year period starting in 2008.
Protected mobility vehicles were the big winner, with 1.1 billion pounds spent to provide troops with machines better able to withstand IED blasts.
Helicopter spending amounted to 369 million pounds over the period, followed by counter-IED — everything from electronic countermeasures to sniffer dogs — which accounted for 336 million pounds.
Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance came in at 200 million pounds; information management and exploitation at 169 million pounds; and unmanned air systems at 81 million pounds. Much of the spending has gone abroad to companies such as Force Protection and General Atomics, but the UOR process has been a huge boost for British companies, such as NP Aerospace, Thales UK, BAE and QinetiQ.
John Louth, the director for industry and society at the Royal United Services Institute think tank here, said that while the UOR spending had provided short-term gain for industry during an increasingly tough budget environment, it may come with long-term pain.
UOR Spending Comes at a Cost
“Some people take the view that UOR spending has been quite problematic, inasmuch as there is only so much within government spending levels that can be committed to defense and spending on quick-and-dirty, operationally driven equipment … at the expense of potentially more considered long-term programs,” he said.
“So there is a school of thought that says the more UOR spending grows, the more [the] conventional long-term defense acquisition program tends to be limited, and there is some numerical evidence for that, although it shouldn’t be overstated. My suspicion, though, is it is more nuanced than simply choosing A or B,” he said.
“But where it becomes influential is in mindset. A lot of one-star officers and senior officials who have experience of developing capability through UOR spending are very much on the page of buying whatever is available off the shelf to the detriment of programs requiring long lead times, etc.,” Louth said.
Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.