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Straight talking from the top, at MoD Abbey Wood.

Dave Harvey | 10:03 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

Typhoons over the Nevada desert

Why do military jets cost billions more than planned? Well, "it's a bit like buying a conservatory."

How many jobs are at risk at the MoD's centre at Abbey Wood, near Bristol?
"It could be as many as 2,000 jobs, yes. That is entirely within the realms of possibility."

Civil servants are normally cautious, tight-lipped people. Engineers, in my experience, rarely like sweeping statements. And military people are almost congenitally discreet.

So when I arrived to interview Britain's senior military engineering civil servant, I didn't expect much.

But Dr Andrew Tyler is renowned for his plain speaking approach. The man who leads 21,000 people who buy all the kit for the armed forces had clearly had enough of softly softly. He was fed up of reading stories about dodgy radios and unprotected land rovers; 'our brave soldiers let down by the pen-pushers', as the papers put it.

"It is one of my biggest frustrations that we are a bunch of bureaucratic pen-pushers," he told me. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

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We walked around the calm landscaped grounds of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) headquarters near Bristol, and he pointed to an office block. "Every office here is in constant contact with the front line," he insisted. "The teams are just a phone call away from Libya, an email from Afghanistan."

Dr Andrew Tyler, Chief Operating Officer, MoD Abbey Wood

Inside Abbey Wood with the boss

Buying hi-tech equipment for the armed forces is not easy. Dr Tyler wants us all to understand how enormously complex it is. Having spent a day inside the nuclear submarine factory his team run, I can well believe it.

But does that excuse multi-billion pound cost over-runs?

The RAF's new fast jet, the Typhoon, is £3.5 bn over budget. It's worth spelling that out: £3,500,000,000 more than was originally estimated. How does that happen?

The standard tactic for disarming this dangerous question is to bore you to death. Defence officials bombard you with details of multiple tenders, of specification shifts, of sophisticated technology prototypes.

Andrew Tyler talks about conservatories. "You sit down with your wife," he tells me, as if we were leaning on the bar, "You budget for eight or nine thousand pounds, and as sure as eggs is eggs, when the builder leaves the premises you've got a bill for fifteen."

It's refreshing. The problem is in the initial estimates, he explains. 'Natural human optimism' produces low figures when the aircraft carrier or submarine is being planned. And then, just like the builder in your back garden, everything goes up.

MoD Abbey Wood, near Bristol

8,000 people work at MoD Abbey Wood

He was just as frank on jobs. When the defence secretary announced, back in October, that a quarter of all MoD jobs would go by 2015, we all did the maths. 8,000 people work at Abbey Wood, so that sounded like 2,000 job losses. But for months, the MoD has been silent on the detail.

Not Dr Tyler. 2,000 job losses is "entirely within the realms of possibility". Abbey Wood is on a quest for even greater efficiency, he explains, and "that is definitely going to require doing the same thing with less people. It could be as many as 2,000 people, yes."

Now this isn't a bolt from the blue. He is essentially confirming what we already knew. People won't be leaving overnight, the process will take three years. A voluntary redundancy scheme is already proving popular.

But what is really remarkable here is the candour. We have grown used to Whitehall code, where everything is carefully couched and you have to read between the lines. Andrew Tyler clearly thinks that culture has brought us billion pound overspends and nervous staff. It is now time, he is saying, to be honest about what submarines and fast jets will actually cost, and tell staff how many jobs will actually go.

There is a footnote to this story. One of those jobs that will go is the Chief Operating Officer. Yes, Dr Tyler himself has been restructured out of the MoD. By the end of the year, his post will be no more, and he will be back in the private commercial world. Inside the world of defence contracting, people will remember him for lots of technical and substantial changes.

Outside, we will remember a military engineer who decided it was time to rename 'personal operational excavation devices', and call a spade a spade.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    By using an awful conservatory analogy Andrew Tyler has devalued the work done by project staff at Abbeywood. Poor decision making by MP's and the deferring of projects for years on end causes cost over runs, shame he didn't have the guts to say so. How can he hold his head high amongst the hard working staff supporting our lads on the front line after his comments today?

  • Comment number 2.

    I have to agree with the conservatory analogy. Having worked in the defence industry for four years, it was clear that the main priority for many staff was never to deliver, as this would mean change - which is a bad thing. Once one was safely posted somewhere else, the project could be delivered - late and over budget but with mistakes thankfully blamed on the previous incumbent.

  • Comment number 3.

    Chris - I am not sure you understand what an analogy is. His comparison is relevant as they are discussing the cost over-runs. He is not saying that what the staff at Abbeywood do is of equivalent importance to building a conservatory!! I fear you are taking offence where there is none.

    This interview strikes a chord with me. I have worked in and around IT for many years as well as building kit cars and undertaking several house extensions. All in all, dozens of projects - some managed by me, some managed by others. What do ALL the projects have in common? They ran over budget (and usually over time). If this happens on projects with a fraction of the complexity of an aircraft carrier or typhoon, why is it a surprise when they over-run?

    Despite best planning efforts from professionals, my recent house extension ran over budget by approx 25%. Fortunately with experience, I had a 25% contingency in place.....

    Defence projects have always run over, no matter who is in charge. The sooner we stop making a song and dance about it the better.

  • Comment number 4.

    Project overuns may be common, but I read somewhere this equated to 75% more per plane- not that Typhoon is cheap in the first place even compared with the F22. £3.5billion is just the overspent- so it's right we need to make a song and dance about it. How many proper armoured vehicles against the IEDs this excess alone would have funded instead, and actual jobs created building them rather than spent on the premiums paid to contractors on every new requirements for them to research on? Yes over-run issue on MOD projects has been going on for years- but so should the 'professionals' the likes of Dr Tyler employed at great costs to the tax payer, have learnt and developed a regime to manage and control these costs. We all know how it happens- adding new requests after the contract has been awarded. The experience and professional part is to know how to CONTAIN it- i.e.both on the wish lists and costs claims. To hear Dr Tyler make light of it with his 'home truths' he makes it sounds as though we have a bunch of well meaning volunteers working at Abbey Wood. 2000 jobs will probably go and that includes him by end of the year. What chance he'll put anything in place (and change the culture?) with the remaining staff to avoid this scale of cost over-runs.

 

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