Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 60-79)



Mr Hancock

  60. Is there a development to put UAVs on a seaborne platform because, if you read the concept of where we are going to be deployed in the future, it is heavily dependent on being with a seaborne element. Is there a capability to be able to allow these vehicles to take off from ships at sea, aircraft carriers, or from a vertical take-off from a conventional warship? Secondly, related to Gerald Howarth's point, if there are platforms and systems available, are you looking at a system and a platform which can be put together in time for our troops to have a proven system and vehicle by 2004? Are we talking about a platform with your system to be fitted into it, a new system, which will have to go through a long process of evaluation? There must be the two products on the shelf available today, and why are not we going for that option?
  (Major General Fulton) We are and that is what the four contractors are offering. They are the integrator of the system and the platform and what they are offering us is a complete package—

  61. A proven system?
  (Major General Fulton) A proven system. They are responsible for integrating that and giving us the finished article and they have chosen the various components of the system themselves and the competition has, as is normal, assessed the various components of that. If I could just pick up the point, I said that clearly we would start to see elements of the system in 2004 for trials but it is 2005 that we are working towards as the in-service stage.

  62. And the seaborne element?
  (Major General Fulton) There is not currently within the Watchkeeper requirement a requirement for it to take off and land from a maritime platform but the Navy will be involved in the joint UAV experimentation unit—it will be tri service—and clearly they will be very interested in looking at the experimentation and the possibilities for naval purposes thereafter.


  63. Is the specification including bombing missions?
  (Major General Fulton) For Watchkeeper?

  64. Yes.
  (Major General Fulton) No, because even the Americans had not done it at the time we wrote the Watchkeeper requirement, and clearly it is not very smart of us to keep changing our requirement halfway through. What we want is the best Watchkeeper system and the purpose then of using the joint UAV experimentation unit is to understand what the other possibilities are and to explore bombing, maritime use and the whole range of other possibilities.
  (Mr Webb) I want to add on top of that that it is very important that we keep an eye on what we are really trying to achieve here which is the ability to inflict military effects in this particular case against international terrorism, to disrupt and destroy terrorist groups, so I am afraid we are having to have a cultural adjustment to the idea that what you see, the bits that fly around or the bits that drop the bombs, is very important but it is the network between them which is the difficult bit to get right and which we must take time to achieve. Otherwise you are just putting money into something which does not get you to the effect. So I think Air Marshal Stirrup got a right balance here between those two objectives of obviously getting capability quickly but getting it so it is an effective capability to create a military effect.

Rachel Squire

  65. It has certainly been encouraging to listen to some of the progress that is being made on UAVs and also the way the Watchkeeper programme timetable for that has been accelerated. What we have not really yet focused on is what Major General Fulton mentioned about the Land Component and the commander's role in the Land Component and the information coming from UAVs and so on. One of the key capability lessons from operations in Afghanistan has led to a speeding up on the UAVs, but can I ask you about why it appears that the Future Rapid Effect System armoured vehicle programme has not also been speeded up in order to ensure that we do have the equipment there for more capable light forces, and that when the commander has the information about the detection of threat and is taking the decisions about how to respond to that, we have the system to move our forces across the land far more rapidly than perhaps we are able to do at the moment.
  (Mr Webb) I think there is a question of the different types of role that UAVs and Future Rapid Effect Systems might play and also there are issues to do with the maturity of technology. Future Rapid Effect System is really quite a step-changing concept because what it is saying is that in between our light forces, very effective parachute regiment-type forces, and the heavy armour which is very slow to deploy, is there a place for a medium weight system which would be able to be more rapidly deployed by air and would provide a degree of protection but not necessarily the same amount of protection obviously as heavy armour? You need to be sure before you invest a lot of money in it that that is a good balance because you need to be sure that you are not, as it were, producing something which only gives you a protection against certain small arms but is not effective against other things, and there is a question to be worked through there which we are getting to a positive answer on. The other point about it is that, although there are various forays into this field of medium weight vehicles and surveillance systems, I would judge that the technology is not as mature yet—certainly the optimisation of it, the complicated thing you are going to deploy in an aircraft—and it needs to be got right, and with a vehicle it is something which has to be bought in large numbers. UAVs are relatively small quantities but with vehicles you have to be sure you get it right because you are going to buy a lot of them to make up a force and you have a sustainability issue because we are not talking about a vehicle just running around in Europe but something which goes to an austere environment and has to be sustained out there, so the logistics all need to be got right. So it is a much bigger job than UAVs. The technology has to be mature and we have to get the right investment there. I think we should now try and do this as soon as we can but it is not an area I would skip the risk reduction phase on.
  (Major General Fulton) I think the distinction I would draw with the question Mr Howarth asked me is that in the case of FRES it does not exist. You cannot go anywhere in the world and buy FRES today. FRES is in the concept phase; clearly we wish to stay very closely in touch with the American Future Combat System programme which is the process which they are going to go through as part of their transformation, and clearly one of the key issues is going to be interoperability with the United States, so there are real disadvantages in accelerating the programme too much anyway. There is clearly a wish to have it as soon as possible, and we are trying to bring it forward from 2009 to 2007, but I would simply reiterate Mr Webb's point that the technology does not exist, the vehicle does not exist, and we are still trying to define exactly what it is and whether it can do all the things that are hoped for it.

  Chairman: We will move on to Saif Sareea for about forty minutes and then cost of the New Chapter. The reason Saif Sareea in our view forms part of the New Chapter inquiry is that the original Strategic Defence Review emphasised throughout virtually every page the importance of expeditionary warfare. We were grateful that we were able to observe the latter stages of Saif Sareea, and we were sent and were very pleased to receive this document from the Directorate of Operational Capability, "Appraisal of Exercise Saif Sareea", and we had a summary of another document that we were not permitted to see which I am informed is called CJO's "Final Exercise Report". Maybe ministers will relent, and perhaps you could pass the word up to the ministers, Mr Webb, but it would be quite helpful if we could have a look at some or all of that document. I was one of the few around who went to the earlier Saif Sareea so I have a particularly great interest. We understand the MoD are appearing before the Public Accounts Committee and will be discussing this document that they produced, "Exercise Saif Sareea II", a report by the Comptroller & Auditor General, so we have eight or nine questions and will take about 35 minutes on this, so we have to be fairly concise. Mr Rapson?

Syd Rapson

  66. Can I welcome you all, especially Rob Fulton who tried to train me to be a Royal Marine and failed miserably, but it was good fun at the time! I want to concentrate on the Joint Rapid Reaction Force element of Saif Sareea and the experience under the New Chapter. The New Chapter consultation document posed some questions at the beginning, one of which was do we need to be able to deploy more of our forces more rapidly to counter terrorism worldwide, and that was a very specific question, partly answered in the document. But in Saif Sareea the ability to test this failed disappointingly due to financial constraints and other commitments elsewhere, and we did not really demonstrate or prove the need for a rapid reaction force to change it: more the concept of one. That worries me—that we have had an extra charge and we have had the ability and for other reasons we have not been able to test it to the extent we should. To what extent does the New Chapter affect the rationale of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force concept and the sort of forces equipment that the Joint Rapid Reaction Force needs to deploy rapidly?
  (Mr Webb) The objective of the exercise, which I remember debating very well in the crisis management organisation, was to demonstrate key elements of the rapid reaction concept and I think there was a great misunderstanding about this—"demonstrate key elements of the JRRF concept, Objective 1". The point we were trying to get out of it, certainly from when I was involved from authorising it in the crisis management organisation, was to prove the concept of joint rapid reaction—not every piece of kit, not to do a traditional type exercise of collective training that you can do in Germany if you feel like it, but we were trying to prove the jointness, the reaction and the rapidity and, as the audit says, that was outstandingly well achieved because we knew about other dimensions of the issue, about individual formation and so on, but what we did not know was whether we could get together all the force elements, under a commander, get them out to a distant part in an austere environment and mount military operations. Now, the fact that some individual elements of that were on a smaller scale than originally intended, for example, on the air side because they had to go off and do something else of a higher operation did not in my view detract from what we achieved overall. Now, you learn a mass of lessons from this. The point is to learn things that we get into our future equipment, personnel and other programmes and there were many, many lessons learned from it but, in terms of what we were trying to do, that was it and I resisted people who said, "Oh, well, we must go and test out this bit of kit or that bit of kit", because that would have taken one's mind off the real game which was the overall joint rapid deployment.

  67. So has the New Chapter, when it concentrates on this particular aspect, increased the need to have an increased capacity for a rapid reaction force or decreased it? When you have looked at it carefully you might consider some small losses but they are rather large for me, but has the New Chapter given a fresh view as to whether we should pursue more rapidly the rapid reaction force, or do we not need to do that?
  (Mr Webb) What the New Chapter says is we probably need to do that kind of thing but on a smaller scale but more frequently and potentially concurrently—in other words, to do the two at once. The Saif Sareea was basically a medium scale deployment as defined in Strategic Defence Review in 1998 and there was more logistics and communications as the exercise report explained to you than for medium but there were some fewer force elements in some areas. But it was basically a medium. What the New Chapter says you need to be able to do is smaller scale operations into just as austere environments, probably just as rapidly, so to that extent the JRRF and Saif Sareea has been hugely useful because it has shown the concept of doing it at medium scale. If you can do it at medium scale you can do it at small scale. The question for us though is to make sure we can do enough of them in some sense concurrently and of course with the particular force elements concerned. You may have to do a sequence of them so you do not over stress particular elements of the force structure. So I think the answer to your question is yes, we absolutely need joint rapid reaction for some of these find and strike operations but probably on a smaller scale than Saif Sareea.

  68. So how has the experience of Saif Sareea been fed into the Strategic Defence Review? How has it changed the extra Chapter?
  (Mr Webb) The people who wrote this report, the Directorate of Operational Audit within the Directorate of Operational Capability, are a very independent-minded bunch of people, and they come along and tell you without fear or favour what they think are the lessons of it and we pick them up and absorb them, but we have a very systematic process for this and I think we are proud of that fact—that we do learn lessons and if things are not quite right you pick up for the future. You will see quite a lot of references to areas where we can improve for the future, but it came back into the New Chapter at a conceptual level in the way I have just described—this is the sort of thing you need to be able to do but smaller and perhaps more frequently. At a more detailed level it finds its way into all the work Rob and others have been doing about individual bits of capability. Sometimes you need to be careful. Sometimes the lessons were applicable only to one environment and are not worth spending money on to deal with in general, but it is a good quarry of material.

Mr Howarth

  69. Can I say at the outset, Mr Webb, that I was extremely grateful, and I am sure I speak for my colleagues too, that the MoD did provide us with facilities to see the exercise. We recognise it took people away from what they were otherwise planning to do but it was very useful to us. I was hugely impressed, particularly that the logistics people were doing it for real—others perhaps not so but the logistics boys were doing it absolutely for real—and it is an exercise which, thank God, was not cancelled. I heard what you said about future exercises and I certainly hope that the MoD will not regard it as being a waste of money to continue to mount such exercises in the future. You said that it was trying to prove rapidity—well, setting aside the fact that it took two years to plan this exercise and it was an exercise which was trying to simulate a 30 days' notice deployment, nevertheless there were deficiencies, some of which will be addressed by my colleagues in a moment, but it was concluded that even if we had had the six ro-ros which are currently on order they would have been insufficient to carry kit and we would have needed to charter in additional capacity, and that the defence medical services really were only there to cater for the exercise rather than to simulate what would have happened in real life, and I think your comments on what lessons you have learned from the fact that we had to deploy 35 Dutch nurses to supplement our depleted defence medical services would be helpful. You say it was designed to test rapidity but the report itself concluded that ". . . the . . . ability to sustain a medium-scale war-fighting force and operation at extended range" is questionable, and the exercise did not test this seriously, so what are you doing to get some assurance that you will be able to learn from those lessons and make practical such rapid deployment?
  (Mr Webb) I think you were referring to sustainment there which is a slightly different point.

  70. Sustained medium-scale warfare?
  (Mr Webb) Yes. "Sustained" means to keep it going after the initial deployment in that context. But we do indeed need to go back in and look at what quantities of lift you need. Can I make two points? You do have to ask yourself hard questions about how much you own and how much you plan to lease. There is a lot of large lift capacity around so I do not think you need to automatically assume you have to own everything, particularly shipping. You need some to get you started which you can absolutely lay your hands on with complete confidence but beyond that you know that, if you have a certain degree of notice, you can get it in the market place and you will find what you need. So I do not think you necessarily deduce that you need to own everything; you may need to have a look at your arrangements for contracting.

  71. But the whole ro-ro concept is based on a PFI where the assets will be available to be leased out to earn what I am told is 3PR, third party revenue, and presumably you could increase the number of ro-ros and make more available for third party revenue earning?
  (Mr Webb) Well, you still have to pay, if you like. Hidden in there is a cost of the degree of call that you have on it, but all I am saying on sustainment is that you do need the ro-ros to get deployed initially but for their follow-on sustainment and logistic support, to sustain afterwards you may well be able to use commercial shipping. On the medical question—well, again, you do not want to draw too many instant deductions because, of course, you always prioritise your medical forces for operations, so it would not be a surprise when the armed forces were busy that the medical element was reduced. Can I just say that I am nervous about thinking that it is a disadvantage to have other countries with you. We have a very long and deep relationship with the Netherlands armed forces and the world we operate in is almost certainly to be the world of coalition operations. There are some national scenarios and we provide for them, but the force drivers are almost invariably the coalition operations—either as a partner to the United States in certain types of operation or maybe leading United Nations or leading European Union or playing leading roles in those sorts of organisations. So I think we need, while being confident that we can back up our own armed forces properly, to think about coalition warfare as being the way of life rather than as something you fall back on because you cannot do everything yourself.

  72. That sounds to me dangerously like saying to our servicemen, "Do not expect us to supply the medical back-up because it might well be supplied by somebody else". If you talk to the soldiers, the importance to morale of knowing that if they get injured there will be the medical services—and their own medical services—to back them up, people they know and understand from the QAs and elsewhere, and I am sure you have talked to Rick Jolly about this in the Falklands campaign, is very important.
  (Mr Webb) The first line I said was that we prioritise medical forces for operations for exactly the reason you mention so it is not particularly surprising that, if you are going to have other coalition partners, you find them on the exercises and the national capacity on operations and you have to get your friends to help you with running some of your exercises. What you say is absolutely right but it is also the case that the world has moved on a bit here. In the Balkans, for example, there are two multi national hospitals. I cannot remember when the Committee was last in the Balkans but sustaining those kinds of operations is important too. Both in Bosnia and in Kosovo there are multi national hospitals, and I have never heard anybody say they did not get absolutely cracking treatment from them.

  73. So if we turn to the overall lessons to be learned, do you think that the lessons you have now learned enable you to put into practice the ability to sustain a large scale operation like you carried out in the Gulf War as a result of the Saif Sareea experience?
  (Mr Webb) I think we learned a lot which was relevant to sustaining a large scale deployment. As you yourself mentioned, the particularly interesting part about Saif Sareea in a way was the logistics, and that was on a somewhat larger scale than a classic medium scale so there are lots of relevant lessons in there. I think it has put us in good shape and there are things in your report that you will have seen about learning how to make use of contractors, for example, when you should and when you should not and that kind of thing, which is all very valuable I think for large scale deployments, and the whole management of large scale deployment logistics with the new logistics brigades on the army side and some of the very sophisticated new methods the Royal Air Force have developed—there is lots of good stuff there for the future.

  Chairman: Following on from my colleague, in my area if we only agreed to be treated by English born doctors we would all be dead at this point. We were due to visit a field hospital because it was located very close to where a DROPS exercise was taking place but there was a road accident and a fatality, as it transpired, and we could not go, but you know, Mr Webb, our long interest in the defence medical services which will continue.

Rachel Squire

  74. Talking about logistics support and when we visited Saif Sareea my question at the time we were there and my question to you now is that obviously the exercise was conducted in what is described as a benign environment. One of my thoughts is, if you are in a hostile environment, what kind of preparation is there for losing something that is vital, like your tanks of water? I am just interested in how that has been looked at and prepared for if it has not been part of even a medium-scale exercise like Saif Sareea?
  (Mr Webb) Thank you for that. If I may say so, there are probably not many countries in the world in which one would be pressed about "Are you serious about war fighting?", which is what you are asking about, and the answer is that we are and I will ask General Fulton to talk about that, but you are absolutely right to say, "Are you ready to fight in a hostile environment?", because that is the sort of job which we ask our armed forces to take on. The answer is I think there is a degree of redundancy in the sense that you have more than you need of each item in order to account for battle losses, and there is a lot of operation analysis and modelling that goes on to try and spot how to avoid that. It is one of the reasons why some people say, "Well, you seem to take out a lot more kit than you use". Well, that is partly the answer to that issue but being able to do this in a hostile environment is indeed a skill which we need to keep up.
  (Major General Fulton) Picking up that last point, one of the things that certainly came out and has come out on a number of other exercises and operations that we are not very good at is asset tracking within the logistic chain, and we recognise that weakness and seek to do something about it. It is not necessarily simple and straightforward to do but it is something that commercial companies do and there is clearly, therefore, technology from which we can learn. I think what we will have to do is take that lesson and apply it with some care. There is clearly a balance to be struck between having your logistics chain so finely tuned you know where everything is and you pare it down to the bare minimum, and having sufficient fat within the chain to do what you have just described. Clearly the more fat you have in the chain the less efficient it is, the more airlift you need, the more space, the bigger the area you have to protect and so your circle goes, so there is a fine balance, but the area that we clearly could improve on is logistic asset tracking.

  Chairman: We have a series of questions now on equipment reliability and I will take questions until twenty to one. That will leave us twenty minutes to talk about the financial implications, so we will kick off with Frank Roy followed by Patrick Mercer.

Mr Roy

  75. Saif Sareea flagged up problems regarding some equipment, and I am thinking especially of Challenger tank, communications, uniform, boots, etc. I know that my colleague, Mr Mercer, would like to delve deeper after this but to the layman, it seems to me that 1991, with the desert and the heat and the sand was exactly the same as it is now, and it worries me greatly that it seems we have not learned any lessons from the desert environment from the Gulf War. Is that the case, and why is it the case?
  (Mr Webb) I think, Chairman, we are not the team which is absolutely tuned up on all the detail of this but let us have a go and no doubt colleagues who give evidence to the PAC next week will improve on what we say. We took a decision—


  76. Excuse me, are you assuming that the A team on equipment only talks to the Public Accounts Committee, because this is equally as important as the Public Accounts Committee? We visited Oman.
  (Mr Webb) Can I just say that the Public Accounts Committee I think are devoting themselves to a whole session on Saif Sareea and when I selected the team to come and do my best for you today I had to bring a more general purpose team able to deal with a range of other issues, but I am still going to give some answers, so here we go. Going back, the objective of Saif Sareea was to demonstrate key elements of the JRRF concept and I think I said right at the start that it was the getting there, the deploying, the joint, which was the key element that we were after, and for right or wrong I remember the question coming up of "Should we spend X million"—I think it was quite a lot of millions actually—"to do `desertification'"—General Fulton will get me right on precise terms—"of the Challenger tank fleet for this exercise?", and we decided that we would not because we were not trying to prove something about the desert performance of tanks; what we were trying to do was improve the rapid reaction concept. You have to make choices in a budget and so we decided that we would rather spend our money on something else than to test our Challenger tanks. That was not the point of the exercise. To that extent, although we learned a number of things very specifically, and I suspect uniforms is an area where you probably under all circumstances want to make sure people are in good shape, it was not an equipment trial; it was a rapid reaction deployment concept. We specifically decided not to spend some money on tanks, as I recall. Am I right?
  (Major General Fulton) Yes, that is right. You will well know that the Challenger tank was designed for north west Europe and over the years various considerations have been given to either globalising it, ie making it able to cope with the widest range of climatic conditions, desertising it to cope with the extremely hot temperatures, or to go through a process of what I understand is called dust mitigation and, as Mr Webb has said, the decision was taken that that should not happen and, as I think the report reflects, the dust concentrations, certainly around the Challenger tank air intakes, were higher than predicted with the effect on air filters that you know. We are looking currently at a programme that would provide limited desertisation and dust mitigation which would go through the process of not entirely globalising it but fitting extended skirts, improved air filters, oil filters and re-designing the engine lubers and so on, and that is a programme that we are looking at at the moment but it was not done before Saif Sareea.

Mr Roy

  77. I understand that but you said that the problems were higher than predicted and my point is why, when we are in exactly the same climatic conditions as we were 10 years ago? I have a real fear that in ten years' time this Defence Committee is going to be asking people sitting in your seats, "What did we learn ten years ago when we put people into Afghanistan?" It seems to me it is a false economy to say that this is all about rapid reaction and getting there, and when we do get there it is about loss of money because we did not learn the lessons ten years ago.
  (Major General Fulton) I think my point about it being higher than predicted is that the predictions would clearly have been based on previous experience. I cannot speak for whether those predictions were either justified or valid but certainly a prediction was made and that is the basis on which the decision was taken.
  (Mr Webb) I think it is important to get this into context: that in terms of the exercise objectives which were listed at Annexe A in the document you have seen, one of the objectives was to "practise combined joint land warfighting operations centred on an armoured brigade and train that armoured brigade to CP5", and the conclusion was achieved so in terms of what we are trying to do on the exercise we achieved it. What we were not trying to do was to do a trial on Challenger tanks.


  78. I know civil servants are usually smarter than Members but I really cannot understand how you have a prime goal to prove if you can deploy our forces quickly and fight with the Omanis if there is not going to be a corollary, an imperative, that surely the equipment that you spend so much money getting out there actually works? Challenger 1 was the world's worst tank; Challenger 2 is one of the very best tanks. I hasten to add, and I have said it so often people think I am on the payroll of Vickers, that it is a wonderful, wonderful tank but it is pretty obvious that as the Omanis spent a lot of money in desertising Challenger 2, and as it was pretty obvious to the MoD that we were not going to fight a war stopping the Germans coming through the Falaise Gap, and as it was very likely if not inevitable that we would be fighting a war in some desert environment, I cannot understand your explanation that we were not testing equipment and therefore it perhaps came as a little bit of a surprise that our tanks broke down. We were there, we were surrounded by twenty guys looking like Lawrence of Arabia in a tent, and they were telling us that the tank did not work. It did not require a great deal to put them right again but you spent £100 million improving our brilliant military defences and then you blow it all because the press are only interested in disintegrating army boots and tanks that fail because—surprise, surprise—dust or—surprise, surprise—sand gets into the mechanism and they break down. Whoever chose not to exercise equipment should now be in army pensions or something like that because it was obvious equipment performance was going to be central to the way in which we were validating the exercise.
  (Mr Webb) No it was not, Sir. We were not engaged in simulating large scale armoured warfare. There was not an opposing force to do that. You have to make choices about what you are going to spend your money on to test and the conclusion was made that was one area which we should not spend the money. We have to make these choices. If you spend all the money on desert improvements for tanks for that exercise then it is money that is not going to be spent on improving accommodation somewhere else. There are choices to be made. The commanders and the Ministry of Defence are extremely hard minded about this. They go and prove the things they need to prove. Sure it could be nice to have an add-on to an exercise but you cannot always afford an add-on.

  79. My parting shot is you all must be bonkers. If you have an exercise of the significance of Saif Sareea where there is quite a lot of sand in Oman which people should have worked out well in advance you should have known that filters would have to be replaced very quickly. They would not have to have an emergency supply sent out. Frankly if that is the level of planning within the Ministry of Defence Saddam Hussein can be celebrating not only his 100 per cent turn out and 100 per cent vote but the fact that British tanks are going to have some difficulty unless some substantial decisions are made in operating at length. Please reassure us that any lessons learnt in Saif Sareea in relation to tank mobility and the ability of tanks to withstand sand have been learnt and in fact that the lessons will be deployed pretty damn quickly in case the worst happens and our forces are deployed.
  (Mr Webb) We have absorbed, obviously, the technical lessons in the way that General Fulton has described. The point of exercise is to learn very specific lessons and I think we have achieved that.

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