Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lest We Forget

Still scary

Earlier this week Tyler spent a day viewing the folly of man. He fulfilled a long-standing promise to take Tyler Snr to the RAF Museum at Hendon, and Tyler's sister and eight year old niece came along too.

We'll draw a veil over the catastrophic North Circular traffic, and the fact that the Sat Nav guided us to a point on the M1's hard shoulder, and the fact that the museum's sign-posting is absolute pants, and the fact that it took us 2 hours to travel 10 miles. Suffice it to say, we pressed on through hardship to the stars.

The stars are of course the planes. But standing with a button-bright 8 year old beneath the intimidating black bulk of a Lancaster bomber, it's impossible not to think of death. Not only did the bombs that fell from that gaping bomb bay kill hundreds of thousands of German civilians (half a million are reckoned to have died in the allied stategic bombing campaign during WW2), but the brave young men - often incredibly young men - who sat in that cramped cockpit and lay in that horribly exposed bomb-aiming window, died in their tens of thousands too (Bomber Command lost 55,573 killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew - an horrific 44.4% death rate). A ghastly grinding war of industrial attrition: no wonder our Prog Con later tried to blame it all on a madman.

The Battle of Britain exhibition is much more upbeat. Much more Churchill's famous evocation of knightly chivalry:

"The Knights of the Round Table and Crusaders have fallen back into distant days, not only distant but prosaic; but these young men are going forth every morning, going forth holding in their hands an instrument of colossal shattering power, of whom it may be said that every morn brought forth a noble chance and every chance brought forth a noble deed."

(God, he was good, wasn't he - compare and contrast with Gordo's dire speech to the bruvvers last week).

But it isn't all "our finest hour". There are many more recent exhibits, including a prototype of that old BOM favourite, the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Ah yes, the Typhoon. As you will recall, MOD is now very cagey about what these things are going to cost us, citing "commercial sensitivity", but when last sighted it was c £20bn for 232 - over £80m apiece, making it by far the most expensive fighter the RAF has ever flown (the refurb'd Nimrod will hold the overall record for the most expensive plane ever flown - if it ever flies, that is).

The sight of the Typhoon naturally set Tyler thinking about the issue of costs generally. We know all about MOD's current procurement cock-ups, and the billions they cost us (see previous blogs gathered here). But what about the past?

Why for example has the RAF Museum got three types of long-range nuclear bombers from the 1950s- the Vulcan, the Victor, and the Valiant? Well yes, the Museum has three because the RAF flew three. But why? Given our extreme shortage of cash coming out of WW2, wouldn't you have thought our politicos would want to have just one? Why did they burden the taxpayer with the development and build costs of three?

Yes, that's right - nobody wanted to make a decision, and taxpayer interests were sacrificed to those of the three independent manufacturers and, ahem, "national prestige" (and see Peter Hennessey's excellent Having It So Good for how our rulers somehow convinced themselves we needed those vastly expensive "independent" nukes in the first place).

And even when they got it right, it was often more through luck than judgement. That famous Lancaster was a mainstay of the War, but it was a derivative of an earlier bungled bomber spec (the Manchester) which had already cost a fortune. And many of the other WW2 bombers ordered by the Air Ministry were complete duds.

So totting it all up, what did we think the Museum's contents cost British taxpayers? And how much could we have saved if taxpayer value had been the driver of procurement decisions rather than national prestige and industrial subsidy?

The short answer is we just don't know. Most of the data is not available. But the RAF Museum is a sobering monument to the folly and incompetence of our defence bureaucrats and their vainglorious political "masters".

PS We've always been fascinated by what things from the past would cost in today's money. To get even a halfway fair comparison you need to uprate historic prices in line with per capita incomes rather than just RPI, and even that is rough and ready. But on that basis, a Lancaster - which cost about £50,000 apiece during WW2 - would cost c £6m apiece now. A veritable bargain against the £80m Eurofighter. And the entire WW2 production run of some 7,000 aircraft would cost us just £42bn. A snip.

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