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Sir Colin Chandler, managing director of Vickers PLC.

Sir Colin Chandler, Managing Director of Vickers plc

As Head of the country's Defence Export Services Organisation, Sir Colin Chandler led the UK's Ministry of Defence and industry team which negotiated not only the major Al Yamamah arms contrct with Saudi Arabia, but also a series of other highly successful deals. Now, as Managing Director of Vickers plc, he is at the centre of a tough battle to win a contract to supply the British Army with its next series of Main Battle Tanks. In the evaluation, Vickers' Challenger 2 faces competition from the latest US-built M1A2 Abrams, an improved version of West Germany's Leopard 2, and the developmental French Leclerc, at a time when talk at the international level is of reduced tank fleets within NATO. Armada international's correspondent John Reed talked to Sir Colin about the prospects for heavy defence engineering in a time of change.

Armada: Sir Colin, can you tell me how you see the future of the Main Battle Tank in the light of the recent easing in East-West tensions and the reduced likelihood of a conflict in North-West Europe?

Chandler: Of course we are still awaiting an outcome to the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) talks in Vienna. Nearer home the British government is conducting an examination of the options that may be open to it as a result of the changed situation to which you refer. Other NATO countries are going through the same process.

In that context we often hear the phrase "the only certain thing is uncertainty". I think that is true. Irrespective of the outcome of CFE there is going to be a period without parity, if only because the Soviets will start the reduction of force levels with much stronger tank fleets than NATO. In such circumstances there is no point in having an outdated tank.

Armada: And elsewhere?

Chandler: Well of course the changes we are talking about are those on what had always been called Europe's Central Front. There are plenty of other parts of the world where the threat is unchanged and strong fleets of modern tanks will retain their importance.

Armada: How do you foresee the recent changes in Europe influencing the type of tank that will be required for the future?

Chandler: Much will depend on the outcome of the Vienna talks and the tactical doctrines that it inspires. However, everything that we have heard so far suggests that the eventual requirement will be for smaller fleets of more efficient, more mobile and highly reliable vehicles with increased survivability.

At this stage, I believe that it would be unwise to become slaves to any one concept. In recent months we have seen the US Army move away from its Heavy Forces Modernisation concept into Armoured Systems Modernisation, and already finding that this might be inadequate for the Air-Land Battle-Future doctrine. The changing situation might eventually lead to requirements for lighter tanks, capable of satisfying the requirement I have mentioned for employment on NATO's flanks or for Out-of-Area operations. It may be some time before the doctrine is clear and the appropriate technologies are in place.

Armada: In the meantime the traditional MBT like Vickers' Challenger will have to hold the line?

Chandler: Insofar as an advanced tank like Challenger 2 can be called traditional, yes. Tanks with that level of capability can do much more than "hold the line."

Continuity is going to be important. Trying to superimpose major equipment changes on an army that faces budgetary constraints and a revised role could be counterproductive. The costs of additional logistic support, training ammunition and fuel, for example, would tend to create pressures that may outweigh any perceived procurement cost advantage.

Armada: You mentioned reliability. It is no secret that the Challenger 1 tank has had reliability problems. Do you believe that the Challenger 2 will provide its critics with an adequate answer?

Chandler: More than adequate. Vickers inherited Challenger 1 together with its already well-known problems when it acquired the former Royal Ordnance tank business. Those problems have their origin in the environment in which Challenger 1 was developed rather than in fundamental design weaknesses. Challenger 2 is not an upgrade. It is in effect the result of a critical re-examination of the entire vehicle and its sub-systems in an environment in which quality, productivity and commitment are part of the corporate culture.

Vickers is not just a defence contractor. It is a diversified engineering business that is well accustomed to meeting tough targets. The quality culture, the whole business of organising a company to achieve the quality and reliability that go with the reputation of the Rolls-Royce motor car which is one of our flagship products, have been adapted to other parts of the organisation. At Vickers Defence Systems we have set the problems out for the Challenger subsystem suppliers to see for themselves, and told them that they had to raise their sights to hit our targets. It is a question of adopting a systematic approach to reliability.

By the way, an interesting point for the MoD and the British Army is that many of the achievements that we are making in R&M (Reliability and Maintainability) also apply to the Challenger 1s that are already in service.

Vickers Marine, where we produce bearings, steering gear, propellors and shaft bearings for many of the leading merchant and naval shipbuilders, is one of the success stories in British heavy engineering. There was a time when that sort of company measured its success in terms of the number of ships that carried its products. Nowadays, the things that they like to point to at Vickers Marine are returns on capital investment, and the way in which they have achieved fivefold and even sevenfold increases in output per man over the past ten years. That is the kind of commitment that I believe we are building into the new Challenger tank.

Armada: How important is the Challenger contract to Vickers? Do you believe that the British Government has a responsibility to support strategically important industries like yours?

Chandler: Of course it is a very important contract - all the more so because for the first time since 1945 there is no guarantee that the British Army would go to war in a British-developed tank. We believe that we can win fairly und squarely on price and performance, and certainly we do not think that anybody owes us a living.

We have been surprised by the way in which the Government has supported our competitors in their efforts to explain their plans to British industry, but we believe that most of our subcontractors recognise the importance of retaining a national capability to design and build armoured vehicles. We think that they recognise too that if they can do the right job for us, and we can get the tank right, we are going to win the contract. Since we have passed the first two of the Defence Ministry's development "milestones" on time, they are being given the proof that we are getting it right.

Armada: But do you think that the Government should support the tank builders as a "strategic industry"?

Chandler: I am sensitive to the fact that, too often, the phrases "national interest" and "industrial strategy" have been used by industry to hide the fact that it has been holding out a begging bowl for government aid. I don't think that the Treasury is concerned with "national interest" as such, but I believe that properly managed strategic industries have a great deal to offer to the national economy. That is worth preserving.

There seems to me to be a case for using the procurement process to secure widespread advantages. By all means keep it contractually taut, but focus on the need for a better customer as well as on that for more disciplined suppliers. Why not, for example, arrange things so that there are more opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas between the defence contractors and the research establishments?

Armada: We have talked about Challenger as the most important of your company's defence programmes. What else can you tell me about the latter's future?

Chandler: There is no doubt that we are at the right stage to grow. I believe that Challenger has real prospects in export markets, which would admittedly be greatly enhanced by our winning the UK contract. Elsewhere we have programmes for the continuing development of our bridge-layer and recovery vehicles. We have expertise in armour fabrication that positions us well for other contracts like that which we have obtained to supply turrets for the MCV80 Warrior, and we believe that our light tank and the Valkyr APC still have good prospects in world markets. All reflect Vickers Defence Systems' commitment to good, cost-effective engineering.
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Author:Reed, John (American senator)
Publication:Armada International
Article Type:interview
Date:Jun 1, 1990
Words:1461
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