Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness(Questions 132-139)




  132. Sir Michael, I apologise for the slight delay in your appearing. I suppose it did give the fire authorities a chance to exercise any action that might have taken them out of reality and not fantasy! Thank you for coming. Our questions will largely centre around the New Chapter of the SDR. It has now been two years since I and Mr Hancock saw you last because the last time you came was in front of the old Committee as opposed to the present Committee. Is there anything that you would like to say by way of introduction?

  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) No, thank you, Chairman.

  133. What was your personal and your staff involvement in the work of the New Chapter?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) The Ministry of Defence work in teams which work on the New Chapter and make sure that the Chiefs of Staff and the committee which I chair were being apprised of the work as it progressed. Of course, many of the team working in New Chapter are uniformed officers as well as civil servants and of course there is my membership and co-chairmanship with the Defence Management Board which also finally approved the work for the Secretary of State. Clearly, that particular Committee was totally involved. So, Chairman, I think the answer really is that I am involved in the root and branch of the whole process.

  134. Personally, did you sit in on any meetings or did you have to approve the framework and then approve the final document?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes, we approved the framework and then the teams would come back as the work was being developed and it would be iterated as it went through the Department and, at an appropriate level, we would take it when it came to the Chiefs or before the Defence Management Board.

  135. The New Chapter identifies a number of new and additional things that the Armed Forces might be called upon to do and it considered what changes in force structure and equipment they would need. When you appeared before our predecessor committee 18 months ago, you said that you very much saw your job as being to keep an eye on the pressure—budgetary, quality of life, operational and legislative—which our Armed Forces have to live with. Do you believe that these pressures have increased on your watch?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes, they have. It has been an extraordinarily busy 18 months. We have had a variety of operations to undertake both outside this country such as in Macedonia and the Balkans and Afghanistan obviously, all the events on from 11 September, and Sierra Leone, as well as domestic pressures, if you like, in the Armed Forces such as foot and mouth disease which we contributed towards and currently, for example, standing by to help on the Fire Brigade side of life should we be required. So, it has been a very busy time for our people and certainly all the things you mentioned there are what I keep my eye on. The reason I keep my eye on those is to fulfil what I believe is my aim which is to make sure that my people remain fit to fight or, if not actually fighting, discharging whatever duties they are undertaking in a highly efficient, competent and grownup sort of way.

  136. Have the budgetary pressures been eased, slightly eased or increased? I know we have had a small increase but has that made things any better or has it made any difference because, with the increased budget, you have additional functions to undertake anyway?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes. I think the very fact that we have the best defence budget for some 20 years in the Summer of this year as part of Spending Round 02 was an enormous fillip to the morale of the Armed Forces. It was a recognition of the hard work that they are doing and they felt because of it, but you are quite right, it has not taken away all the pressures that are on us budgetary-wise particularly in the light of the way we need to address the new challenges that we have been looking at since 11 September of last year and how we are going to conduct what we call sometimes the global war against terrorism which requires us to focus on attributes which we had not previously been giving the sort of attention they deserve.

Mr Hancock

  137. When you came last time, you talked about the pressures on the Armed Forces and the need for us to realistically assess the commitments and what-have-you that we were facing and, since 11 September of course, there has been more pressure and the New Chapter suggests that we are going to be doing more of that, that there are going to be more frequent operations. Are you confident that we are actually doing the right sort of training to ensure that we can actually deliver on that commitment?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes. We need to watch the balance of commitments against the resources, in other words the manpower and kit we have, and that is why we try very hard when we get involved in operations to complete them in an expeditious way and pull out as soon as we sensibly can, and I think the brilliant operation that was conducted in Macedonia last August was a very good example of that and likewise in our operation in Kabul when we actually ran the first of the ISAF operations, the international security system operations, which again was an outstandingly well conducted operation. We try to draw down when we can and that is why, in working in the Balkans at the moment, trying to treat the Balkans as a region rather than as separate provinces, we have been able to reduce one battle group there in the last few weeks and have pulled another 1,000 people out. So, we are looking the whole time to cut our cloth, if you like. Also, yes, we will have to be learning new techniques to deal with this new threat because the nature of the terrorist threat is that you have no build-up in the way you have with the conventional operation. You will have a very fleeting opportunity given to you through intelligence or whatever and you must react very, very quickly when that fleeting opportunity occurs to take the action required to dowse it, snuff it or whatever the case may be. So, we need to be a little more agile and we have to have the right equipment to allow us to be more agile.

  138. There has been a widespread reduction of the number of exercises right across all three services and that must be having a serious effect on the ability of people to actually train for this new style and commitment that you want. What plans do you have to ensure that the competence level of these young men and women who are taking on these operations for us are getting the training that they really need?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) You have put your finger on one of the dichotomies I have in saying that I want to be "fit to fight". One of the challenges which I find are there to stop me realising my aim actually are operations themselves because, if you are very busy doing something such as Sierra Leone, what you are doing there is an excellent job in training, for example, the Sierra Leone army, but what you are not doing is your battle group training with your infantry battle group or your brigade above that or, if you are on a ship on counter-narcotics operations in the Carribean, you are doing a cracking job, as we saw a couple of weeks ago pulling in £100 million worth of cocaine or whatever it was, but what you are not doing is any anti-submarine warfare. So, it sounds a dichotomy, it sounds counter-intuitive, but operations can be very much against my requirement to make sure we are fit to fight on all fronts. We have had to draw down on our exercise because of the pressures in going to Afghanistan, for example. We must try to make sure that we measure very carefully where our people are falling behind in their training schedules and try and make room in the programme without further wrecking their quality of life. You must actually manage the pace.

  139. Who is exercising the right control over that? Five years ago, we had more service personnel and less deployments. We have now less personnel and more deployments. We have ships on sea on active deployments undermanned, dramatically undermanned. We all know that we are pilots short on many squadrons in the RAF, but we now have a serious undermanning on our ships at sea, ships that are about to be or that could be involved in action, if they were required to be, fairly quickly.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) The management of this is done by myself through my single service Chiefs of Staff and in turn from them through their Commanders in Chief. They have to watch on the one side the balance of quality of lives so that people are not working their socks off 24 hours a day and, on the other hand, to recognise that they must be doing a certain amount to make sure that their skills are being maintained. So we look at the exercise programme, we judge it against the operational programme and try to do the best we possibly can.

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