MANUFACTURING is not generally speaking a matter of life and death. But it was in Iraq, where the non-delivery of ceramic plates for an army flak jacket was in at least one case the difference between the two.
A report earlier this month by the National Audit Office sets out a damning catalogue of logistics shortcomings that casts a deep shadow over the overall success of the military mission.
Some troops in Iraq lacked basics such as desert boots or clothing, were given body armour without the armour and had no protection against chemical and biological attack, says the report. Meanwhile, tanks and other machinery had to be cannibalised to provide spare parts for front-line equipment.
In some cases supplies existed but no one knew where - up to 200,000 sets of plates for flak jackets 'seemed to have disappeared', according to the NAO. In other cases the gamble of reducing operational stocks to cut costs backfired because 'the Department could not engage with industry early enough to allow the required items to be delivered in time'.
It was left to File on Four , a BBC radio programme, to spell out the sombre cost in human terms: some soldiers were crippled by boots that were the wrong size or fell to bits, while others preferred to buy their own equipment. Sergeant Steve Roberts, a tank commander who had ironically spent hundreds of pounds on his own kit, was killed after he gave up his body armour to more exposed infantry troops and his pistol jammed.
War, says Professor Mike Sweeney, a manufacturing specialist at Cranfield Management School, is the ultimate test of process and personnel management. In this perspective it emerges strikingly poorly from comparisons with another famous victory, England's triumph in the rugby World Cup. In his autobiography, captain Martin Johnson reflects on the remarkable change in attitude wrought by coach Clive Woodward's decision that the England players would no longer have to cart around their own luggage, stay in the cheapest hotels or travel cattle-class between fixtures.
It was the moment they began to be treated as world-beaters, Johnson says, that it dawned on the team that they could and should be. The new conditions weren't a reward they were the measure of ambition and a means to the end of allowing them to concentrate 100 per cent on the job in hand. By contrast: 'If you send me out in a hostile and dangerous environment with poor basic equipment and underprepared, what does that say about my value? What does that do for morale?' asks Professor Sweeney.
The parallel is apt, agrees defence analyst Paul Beaver. 'It's boots on the ground that win battles - individual soldiers, not people sitting pushing buttons in fancy machinery,' he says. 'It's utterly unacceptable that we are asking soldiers, sailors and airmen to put their lives at stake without giving every one of them the best possible equipment,' - for the cost, he calculates, of about two joint-strike aircraft.
The UK has been extremely lucky to emerge from the conflict so lightly, Beaver believes. In several cases, skimpy preparations meant the margin between success and disaster was wafer-thin. For instance, the assault brigade with the crucial task of preventing Iraqi troops from blowing up the Ramallah oilfields got new machine guns the day before and had no time to practise with them beforehand.
Another source describes a frantic hunt for combat identification tape when it was discovered that US battle troops couldn't recognise the profiles of British vehicles. It took an enterprising A rmy major to bypass Treasury rules and buy up the last remaining world stocks, and contractors and soldiers working through the night to get the job done, according to this report. Beaver says: 'Essential supplies should be in the right place at the right time - people running around with Amex cards isn't good enough. "Just-in-time" is too often just too late - as it was, inexcusably, for Steve Roberts.'
Daniel Jones, a consultant and author of Lean Thinking , notes that beginners often jump on just-in-time logistics because they mistakenly think it is easy to do and automatically involves the drastic reduction of inventory costs. 'It's about linking activities in an unbroken stream, not running down stocks,' he says. 'It would be crazy to run down stocks below the level at which they can be quickly replenished.'
Professor Sweeney, who has experience of army thinking, argues strongly that the current defence department approach to supply is at odds with battlefield reality. He points out that rapid response - as all recent conflicts involving UK forces have been - requires an 'agile' supply chain which can react equally quickly.
The corollary is that previous price-driven supply relationships won't work. Instead, says Sweeney, the department needs close partnership arrangements enabling strategic stockholding of items that take a long time to make, and steady building of supplier capacity, both human and mechanical, to turn on a sixpence when needed.
The other essential, observers agree, is the vastly improved tracking and control of supplies. At one stage 1,000 containers full of urgent supplies were reportedly floating around the Gulf but no one knew what was in them or their exact whereabouts. This led to massive over-ordering as commanders on the ground reordered goods already in transit, at higher priority. Just 8 per cent of top-priority orders were delivered on time, according to the NAO. This, too, is inexcusable. The 'beer game', which graphically illustrates the pitfalls of supply-chain mismanagement, is a first-year business-school exercise. Meanwhile, Jones observes, 'consignment tracking isn't rocket science any more - you can look up the location of a FedEx or UPS package on the web in real time'.
Supermarket groups routinely track delivery and inventory levels of 40,000 stock items with huge seasonal fluctuations - computer systems to do so have been around for years. What the multiples can do for trainers and toys, the department ought to be able to do for boots and body armour - in deadly earnest.
Missing in action: catalogue of failure
* Body armour plates, 200,000 of which 'seem to have disappeared' since the Kosovo war
* Desert boots and clothing - a quarter of the Desert Rats fought the campaign in Northern European kit
* Nerve agent detector units - 40 per cent shortfall
* Nuclear, biological and chemical kit 'misappropriated' from supplies by troops desperate to get hold of them
* Spares for tanks and howitzers - German equipment is being cannibalised instead
* pounds 14m worth of ammunition written off because of 'reduced life expectancy' in high temperatures also air-conditioning units
* 'A robust tri-service inventory system ... and an information system to support this technology' even though the need has been known 'since the Gulf Conflict in 1991' ('Operations in Iraq - Lessons for the Future', MoD)
The Observer, 21 December 2003