British army’s £3.2bn battlefield radio ‘next procurement disaster’, Tory MP warns

Receive free UK defence spending updates

The British army’s £3.2bn delayed battlefield communications system threatens to become the Ministry of Defence’s “next procurement disaster”, critics have warned.

The next-generation tactical communications system, known as Morpheus, is due to replace, technology first introduced almost 20 years ago.

Sometimes described as the “brain” of the army’s future armoured vehicles, it is pitched as a network that will connect sensors, commanders and weapons. The project involves both software and hardware, including battlefield radios.

Morpheus was due to enter service in the middle of this decade, but some MPs and defence analysts have warned it was unlikely to be ready for use before 2030.

James Cartlidge, the defence procurement minister, said in a written statement last month that the system was delayed and would not enter service in 2025 as planned, adding that a “revised [date] was yet to be defined pending ongoing contractual discussions” with US-based General Dynamics, which is the lead contractor on the first phase of the project.

Responding to parliamentary questions tabled by Mark Francois, a Conservative MP and former armed forces minister, Cartlidge also disclosed that about £690mn has been spent on the system so far.

The Ministry of Defence had previously warned of setbacks with the contract, declaring in December that an initial phase of the Morpheus project had “fallen considerably short of what was anticipated”.

Francois, a member of the House of Commons defence select committee, told the FT that Morpheus that Morpheus was “rapidly evolving into the army’s next procurement disaster” and likened it to the situation regarding Ajax, the British army’s long-delayed armoured vehicle programme, for which General Dynamics is the main contractor.

An independent inquiry into the £5.5bn Ajax programme, published in June, issued a damning verdict into the procurement, which has been by beset by problems, although ministers insist it has “turned a corner”.

Francois said the MoD had “little more to show” for its £690mn expenditure on Morpheus to date other “than a bunch of consultant reports and PowerPoint slides”. Morpheus was “unlikely to enter service until the next decade and the people who have been involved with it should hang their heads in shame”, he added.

Earlier this year Francois raised concerns about extending the life of the army’s current tactical communications system, known as Bowman, warning that “within a few years the crypto may no longer be secure”.

Francis Tusa, editor of the Defence Analysis newsletter, said continuing to use Bowman would leave the British army the “weakest link” among allies, adding: “New weapons are increasingly reliant on communications data speed rates. Delays to Morpheus threaten to curb the effectiveness of weapons systems.”

Chris Evans, Labour’s shadow defence procurement minister, echoed his worries, warning that delays to Morpheus would force the MoD to “extend outdated equipment”. 

He said a Labour government would ask the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, to conduct a comprehensive audit of MoD “waste” to improve the UK’s procurement system.

Last month, the defence select committee published a 60-page report that pilloried the UK’s handling of military procurement, branding it a “well and truly broken” system that puts soldiers in “harm’s way”.

General Dynamics’ UK subsidiary said it was “working collaboratively with the MoD on the continued support and modernisation of Bowman, the British armed forces’ main tactical communications system, which the MoD intends to replace or evolve into Morpheus in the future”.

The MoD said it remained committed to Morpheus, but was “reviewing next steps on the progress” of the project and “how to best achieve our objectives”. The MoD said the armed forces continued “to meet all operational requirements”.