LONDON - Twenty years after the shortcomings of the gun carried by Warrior infantry fighting vehicles became apparent in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Britain's Ministry of Defence is about to decide whether to improve the machine's lethality and other key systems.
Final bids for a program, which at one time was worth up to 1 billion pounds ($1.58 billion) but is now likely to be considerably less, were submitted by BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin UK late last year.
A decision on a winning contractor for the Warrior Sustainment Capability Program (WSCP) is now winding its way through the final stages of the Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) arm of the MoD, with the internal assessment panel having already made its recommendation on the winner.
Under normal circumstances, the recommendations were planned to end up on the desk of the MoD Investment Approvals Board (IAB) in time for a March decision. But it's possible the business case from DE&S officials may never make it as far as the IAB.
The Warrior program, a top British Army priority, is at serious risk of being descoped, delayed or even shelved as budget cuts bite deeply into equipment plans. If the money is available - and that's a big if - the revamped Warrior could have an initial operating capability of 2015, defense sources here said.
The MoD continues to slash military programs to help meet deep public spending-cut targets, and to eradicate a huge projected overspend left by the Labour government.
The Daily Telegraph reported last week that after all the cuts announced last year as part of the strategic defense review, there remained a 1.6 billion-pound spending shortfall for 2011. The Army budget could account for about half of that, one industry executive said.
Depending on whom you listen to, the WSCP program is either dead, almost dead or facing big changes.
Analyst Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley of Ashbourne Consulting said, "Warrior has been a sacred cow of British armored fighting vehicle programs for some time, but in this financial climate, nothing is certain. Taking defense in the round, it is hard to see a comprehensive case for Warrior at this point in time."
WSCP's fate could be decided at a Defence Board meeting on equipment spending plans for the next financial year, part of a process known as the planning round 2011. That's set to take place in the second week in February.
Last month, senior Army officers admitted they had a tough fight to keep Warrior in the equipment program. More recently, industry and the MoD have suggested that the number of machines to be updated could be reduced to about 270 from an original 449, with other variants of the Warrior missing out.
One defense source said he had heard talk of a delay of up to four years. Descoping is also a possibility, he said.
"A delay of that kind of length would require a new competition and give an initial operating capability around 2021-22, by which time you might be better off thinking of buying new vehicles," the source said. "On the other hand, the update is pretty modular and the Army could, if it wants, pick and mix the upgrades it wants to match its spending profiles."
The MoD refuses to discuss the Warrior program.
At stake is a program to equip Warrior with systems and hardware allowing it to stay in service until 2035 - 10 years longer than planned. The core of the update is a new turret with a CTAI-supplied 40mm cannon, along with a new electronic architecture and state-of-the-art modular protection system. The same cannon is being used on a General Dynamics scout vehicle turret, with work led by Lockheed Martin.
The current Warrior 30mm Rarden gun requires hand-fed ammunition, and the vehicle must stop to fire. Even with such limitations, it may be adequate to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. But if the Army faces a better-equipped rival, stopping to fire would put Warrior crews in danger.
As one armaments expert said, the British are sending troops into combat with "gun technology their grandfathers would recognize."
BAE is offering a new turret, while Lockheed and its partners have substantially redesigned the existing Warrior turret to take the government-mandated cannon.
Warrior is not the only vehicle program under the budget spotlight. Media reports say changes to the Specialist Vehicle program, once known as the Future Rapid Effects System SV, being undertaken by General Dynamics UK, are also being weighed. These include a reduction in the number of scout vehicles to be bought and a cut in the number of variants to be introduced using the ASCOD SV as the common platform.
General Dynamics has a 500 million-pound contract to develop the scout vehicle and provide the common base platform for other variants, including direct fire and maneuver support versions.
One analyst said he thought it was unlikely the SV program "would go through in its original shape."
Another key consideration is which of the numerous types of machines acquired under the urgent operational requirements scheme for Iraq, and more recently Afghanistan, will be taken into the core equipment program.