Navy's pounds 1bn air-defence investment in jeopardy

MoD spending: Projects dogged by radar and computer problems
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Westminster Correspondent

Two Royal Navy projects totalling over pounds 1bn are in jeopardy because of computer error and problems with new technology.

The disclosure is made in evidence published yesterday to the Commons Public Accounts committee by Malcolm McIntosh, head of procurement at the Ministry of Defence.

Mr McIntosh told the committee in a supplementary memorandum that the Navy's new pounds 769m air defence Seawolf missile system relied on a radar system that was not working properly.

As a result, Mr McIntosh wrote, there is "the risk that genuine threats will be missed and not be engaged by [Seawolf]".

Developed by British Aerospace, the Seawolf relies on the Navy's "Type 996" radar built by GEC-Marconi. This radar, wrote Mr McIntosh, "is not always accurate enough for optimum [Seawolf] engagement against some targets".

In a nutshell, the 996 has an alarming habit of inventing flight tracks, producing an overload of the system and causing unnecessary missile firings. It also means that a genuine attack has a better chance of getting through.

Mr McIntosh told MPs that GEC-Marconi and the MoD, were examining a programme of improvements.

At the same time, the procurement chief has also admitted that the Navy is having severe problems with the computers on its new Type 23 frigates. Costing pounds 274m, the BAe-Sema-designed command system is proving so error- prone that the Navy has been unable to put the ships into high-risk situations.

After the Falklands war, when ships were vulnerable to Exocet missile attack, the Navy ordered a command system to co-ordinate defence against such weapons coming from four or five directions at once. So far, it has not worked.

In his evidence, Mr McIntosh described the Type 23 software as "one of my worst and most sensitive projects". He tried to deflect criticism by pointing out that computer difficulties were not confined to the military: "The Stock Exchange managed to crash its large computer investment ... We are not alone in this process but it is intrinsically difficult."

Mr McIntosh said there was nothing wrong with the ships' engines. They are "mechanically perfectly able, all of the principle systems and sensors are perfectly able".

The weakness comes, he said, when data is assimilated and communicated between ships in the same fleet. At that point, the system is liable to collapse.

"To not have that capability means that you can use the individual sensors, you can fire the individual weapons, but you cannot do it in the sort of co-ordinated fashion you could do with this new system working properly."

He told MPs: "As a result, while we have used the ships - the Royal Navy has had them at sea, it has been operating them - we cannot put them into circumstances of higher danger which would rely on that sort of data fusion to be that much safer in the area of multiple threats. There have been real limitations on what we can do."

It was one of the procurement executive's "highest priorities", Mr McIntosh said, to solve the Type 23 command system fault.