Sunday, November 30, 2008

FRES and Systems Engineering

FRES (Future Rapid Effects System) is the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) procurement programme to deliver a fleet of medium-weight, armoured vehicles to the British Army, which is rapidly deployable, network-enabled, capable of operating across the spectrum of operations, and protected against the most likely threats. Initiated in 2001, the FRES programme has yet to deliver any vehicles, or any definitive vehicle designs.

In House of Commons written answers, November 20th 2008, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Quentin Davies, provides cost estimates for a number of defence procurement projects. In the case of FRES, Mr Davies states:

The estimated cost for the assessment phase as set out in the Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2007 is £618 million. The cost of this programme will not be fixed until the main investment decision is taken.

Just to be clear, that's £618 million spent upon thinking about what to do, rather than actually doing anything. It's not £618 million spent upon designing, constructing, testing, validating and developing machinery; it's £618,000,000 spent upon prevarication and procrastination.

Perhaps the most pernicious contribution to this type of economic waste is attributable to the Systems Engineering movement, which has infiltrated large sections of industry and government. Systems Engineering is a top-down approach to large engineering projects, which expends great time, effort and ritual in codifying and formalising the blindingly obvious. The fundamental fallacy of Systems Engineering is the tacit belief that complex engineering systems are best managed by defining, often in very abstract terms, top-level requirements, capabilities and stakeholders, and by then breaking those top-level entities down into sub-requirements, sub-capabilities and sub-stakeholders, all considered in abstraction from specific technologies. Systems Engineering often requires Systems Houses to expend large amounts of time and money before crucial procurement decisions are made, and therefore constitutes a form of institutionalised procrastination. Intellectually, Systems Engineering has never progressed beyond the facile observation that complex engineering systems are really 'systems of systems'.

The history of FRES reveals the ubiquity of such Systems Engineering thinking. The House of Commons Defence Committee report on the FRES programme, published in February 2007, pointed out that:

Between 2001 and 2003 the MoD commissioned Alvis Vickers to carry out 'concept work' on [FRES]. There appears to be little tangible output from this concept work which cost the MoD a combined total of £192 million.

In 2004 the MoD announced a two year Initial Assessment Phase (IAP) for the FRES programme—since extended to July 2007. Atkins has been appointed by the MoD as 'Systems House' to the FRES project, and nine Technology Demonstrator Programmes (TDPs) have been awarded. The TDPs will culminate in a 'trial of truth' in the summer of 2007.

Trials of three prospective Utility Vehicles took place in 2007, but whilst General Dynamics's Piranha V was provisionally announced as the winner in May 2008, no production order has followed.

In October 2007, the Ministry of Defence announced that "due to the complexity of the project", Thales UK and Boeing were chosen as the "preferred bidder for the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) Systems of Systems Integrator (SOSI) role...The SOSI will provide independent support to the MoD by bringing expert programme management and system of systems engineering skills to the FRES programme." Apparently without a trace of irony, Defence Minister Lord Drayson said: "This announcement, almost two months ahead of schedule, demonstrates the excellent progress now being made on FRES. The selection of the SOSI is a key part of our innovative acquisition strategy designed to ensure that we deliver the best solution for the Army as quickly as possible."

Here we see the self-sustaining aspect to Systems Engineering: when it is responsible for the failure of a project, it provides generalised diagnoses of why the project failed, and prescribes more Systems Engineering as the solution. And there's certainly no disputing that FRES is an "innovative acquisition strategy."

As the Defence Committee report states, "The MoD’s attempts to meet its medium-weight vehicle requirement have been a sorry story of indecision, changing requirements and delay. It is high time the MoD decided where its priorities lay." And at the root of this shambles, lies Systems Engineering.


Theo Farrell said...


Interesting post. I think the choice of a clearing house to act as the systems integrator makes sense, given the various platform and network technologies involved, and the number of variants on the main platform. It is also consistent with the approach taken by the US Army for its Future Combat Systems program.

The FT reports that the MOD has been unable to agree the contract w/ General Dynamics on the Utility Vehicle. Fortunately the UOR scheme has brought some time by basic utility vehicles that meet this requirement for the next few years.


Doug Hudson said...

UOR = Urgent Operational Requirement

Anonymous said...


it's true, Systems Engineering has a lot to answer for. It can easily destroy a project if allowed to get out of control. But a better way of managing the acquisition of large, complex programmes with multiple stakeholders has not yet been devised. Therefore, we must improve Systems Engineering.


Gordon McCabe said...

As I wrote some time ago, Systems Engineering has a pernicious self-perpetuating ethos:

"When [Systems Engineering] is responsible for the failure of a project, it provides generalised diagnoses of why the project failed, and prescribes more Systems Engineering as the solution."

Large and complex projects, with multiple stakeholders, were successfully executed well before the advent of Systems Engineering, and they were executed at lower cost. Systems Engineering has created the problem which it purports to provide the solution to. People are more than capable of executing large and complex projects without it.

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