Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness(Questions 160-179)



  160. Yes.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) It is a concern and we have to ensure that we have protocols or procedures in place which do not allow what you might call long screw drivering and which is sensible. Your point about too much information is a very, very valid one. What we are seeking to achieve is knowledge superiority which is very important. What we can do without is knowledge overload and knowing how to sift data is a whole new science really because there is so much data that is available and it is in fact already a problem in working out how to use what you have and we are now having to teach our people to be far better pullers of information: you are sitting in front of your screen, we can be pushing out tons of information at all times which would completely overload the operator. He has to be taught how to know that, within his screen, there are tons of information and he must be very adept at knowing what to pull out of it which would be useful to him and that is a whole education process which we are currently engaged in.

Mr Hancock

  161. I take your point about knowledge overload, but how far up the chain of command does that knowledge have to go for someone to actually make a decision to fire? You said earlier that you wanted to shorten the time frame between seeking and striking and to cut out part of the equation. Knowledge overload or too much knowledge makes that a difficult decision to call and surely it now has to go too far up the line for a decision to be made.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I agree with you entirely and of course there is always a great propensity for the people at the top to want to know all the detail that is going on, which they do not need to know at all, because it is fun, apart from anything else. I think we are actually quite good at delegating in the UK in our Armed Forces and in giving local Commanders quite a lot of authority to go ahead and do things, and we must make sure that we continue to remain sophisticated in that sense and we are and, right down to the corporal level, we are pretty good at giving people responsibility and we will actually make sure in this new regime that we continue to exercise that type of discipline.

  162. Will the critical decisions about whether an aircraft drops a bomb or not be speeded up or will they be slowed down because you have so much knowledge available to tell you that there could be a potential problem and that there needs to be a political decision made, and are the structures in place in order that, once you have this knowledge very quickly, the procedure for actually making a decision is going to be speedy enough for it to be effective when it is actually delivered?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) We have such procedures in place now and, in the future, the better equipment that we have will allow us to be speedier. The process is there now and it passes decisions up the chain. There are levels of responsibility which are delegated and the chain process pushing things up is well-established which will ensure that in the future it will be operated far more quickly than it is at the moment.


  163. Maybe the MoD can practise information overload with the Defence Committee! They have not honed their skills on that yet. Maybe, Admiral, you are offering hope for the future!Æ
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am sure we can do better!

Syd Rapson

  164. In the supporting documents of the New Chapter, it did say that you were going to produce a new document, amongst all the other things you are doing, to wind down "... to capture the key elements of the UK military approach to counter-terrorism." Is that document being produced? What will it be called? When are we likely to see it?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) This is the work that I spoke of going on in the Doctrine Centre. I do not know what it is going to be called yet because it has not been produced and, as to when you will see it, I think it will need to be in place during the course of next year and I am sure there may well be some sort of chapter in the White Paper on this particular subject, but I do not know yet because we have not developed the final product and we have not come round to thinking about how it will actually be produced.


  165. Why the delay? We have been facing terrorism for some time, it is 13 months since 9/11 and the document on how the Military deal with terrorism seems to be a matter of urgency, not something you can handle slowly through the processes.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am looking for a final product here, that is not to say that nothing is actually going on at the moment in how we should conduct our business, it has been going on since 12 September. So we are working on, if you like ad hoc procedures which we are getting on with for the moment and those are being refined as the work is going on in the doctrine areas.

  Chairman: That is reassuring.

Jim Knight

  166. I want to go back to an area that Mike Hancock was questioning you about earlier on in terms of personnel. The New Chapter has, as you have said, come with new resources. Some would argue that rather than there being a shopping list for nice new bits of kit, we should be spending more of that money on our personnel in dealing with some of the issues which Mike Hancock raised and, in response to that, you talked about quality of life and the problems of the pace of activity in the Armed Forces at the moment and, certainly in my Dorset constituency when I talk to the families of service personnel, it is a real problem. I want to hear more from you about what the New Chapter can do for retention and should we be looking more at using some of those new resources to deal with personnel issues?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Perhaps I muddled the Committee on the new money and the New Chapter. The new money was not just tied to the New Chapter; it came out in Spending Round 2002 that was a hike in Defence spending. Some of the money we expect to spend on developing our new thinking within the New Chapter. Other parts of the money will be spent on other parts of the Defence programme. In that context, you are absolutely right to mention people. We can have the best kit in the world but if we do not have the people to man it or the right sort of people to man it, then we are in deep trouble. We are already spending a certain amount of money on our people and we probably need to do more certainly in areas such as accommodation, looking after families properly and making sure that people's welfare is being properly supported when they are on these long tours of duty. It is something into which we are putting a huge amount of effort. We have a whole framework which has been developed over the last couple of years which will be called the Armed Forces' Personnel Strategy, which has an action matrix in it and is being constantly scrubbed over, if you like, by the Defence Management Board and by the Chiefs of Staff Committee to make sure that we remain constantly focused on where we can make improvements for our people.

  167. Does that include a conclusion to the Armed Forces' Pensions Review, which you may have quite an interest in shortly?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am afraid that whatever Armed Forces pensions come out, it will not affect myself or most people currently serving unless they choose to change it. Yes, we are hoping to produce a report on the Armed Forces' Pension Review in the coming months and I very much hope that that will be welcomed by people in the Armed Forces and particularly seen as attractive by people who want to join the Armed Forces.

  168. When you are addressing these personnel issues, are there particular services and specialisms within services that you think you need to address?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes. I think the Chairman mentioned the fact that we were heavily overstretched in the Armed Forces. I would qualify that slightly. I am a great believer in stretching the Armed Forces because that is what people join the Armed Forces to do. They do not join to be sitting on their backsides in some barracks or some dockyard, they actually join to be doing something. So, on the whole, I do not believe that our people are overstretched although we are going through a peak at the moment and I mentioned that we are probably going through a blimp at the moment because of standing by for the fast track, but there are categories of people who are definitely stretched and we are focusing on those areas very hard indeed and we need to work out ways of trying to persuade such people that what they are doing is being properly valued. Whether that is done through some sort of financial retention incentive or whether it is done through a non-financial retention incentive, we balance those things and we try to do something about it and indeed we are in close consultation of course with the Armed Force Pay Review Body who look at these matters very closely indeed and will no doubt give us the wisdom of their advice in their report next February.

  169. I am very happy to accept the intentions to address these issues but, at the same time, the New Chapter includes proposals that clearly envisage greater demands on certain key sectors of enablers, high readiness light troops, ISTAR and so on. How do you and you successors deal with those conflicting aims?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I think it comes back to the rebalancing process, that we see it as being a necessary activity which we are going through at the moment and which will be revealed later on. We are very much in the process of seeing how we actually put more emphasis into something, and I think you mentioned enablers in particular, and where there are areas in the programme which are not so important nowadays, but that is something that we are actually still undergoing at the moment. It is about the thinking process that is under way at the moment.

Patrick Mercer

  170. One of the constant feedbacks that I get from former service colleagues is that not only is there a tremendous problem in terms of keeping up the manning levels as a function of both poor recruiting and poor retention, but one of the bedevilments at commanding officer level is the level of unfitness, soldiers who are unfit to serve, ranging from crazy details like dental problems through to, particularly in the infantry, lower leg problems. Do you have any comments or thoughts about that?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) If I may just pick up one point first of all. You say that recruiting and retention are bad news at the moment, but actually we are having quite a good year in recruiting terms at the moment and we are very close to our targets across all three services. So recruitment at the moment is reasonably healthy. On the subject of fitness, we certainly find that fitness can provide us with a problem in what we call "gains to training strength", in other words getting people through the initial training establishments. A lot of effort now is being put into making sure that we do not challenge people too rigorously on the first day they arrive, that there is a paced increase in activity levels throughout the training course and that people are tested when they are fit rather than when they are actually unfit. A huge effort goes into making sure that people are brought along as far as possible. I do not think that the sort of problems we had, say, three or four years ago where people were being failed for fitness reasons is quite as big now as it was then because of this new regime that has been put in place which actually brings people along rather than banging them within two days of arrival, finding that they are unfit and then firing them. They are actually now encouraged to come along at a sensible pace, so that they are fit when they actually leave their training establishments and pass the necessary fitness tests.

  171. Is there a suggestion of a confidence problem? If we are going to go to war in Iraq, there is going to be some sort of difficulty in the context of the International Criminal Court and how much cover or not our troops and servicemen are going to get in a putative campaign in the Gulf. What are your comments about this?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) In any conflict that we might be called upon to become engaged in the future in the context of the International Criminal Court, I have been reassured that there is no likelihood of any British soldier, sailor or airman being dealt with other than through the British system. They will not go in front of the Criminal Court; the British Courts will be dealing with them.

  172. You have been comprehensively reassured on that point?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes.

Mr Hancock

  173. May I just come back to your answer to Patrick Mercer's question which I think you addressed in part but not entirely. The question was about the ongoing fitness levels within the Army, not about the troops being stressed very early on in their training. I can accept entirely the change in philosophy there. The problem that we face is that in answer to Parliamentary questions month after month after month, the ongoing fitness levels, the number of troops and other service personnel who are not fit to serve has increased and there is a significant problem: 10 per cent of the Armed Forces at any one time are not fit for duty.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am sorry, perhaps I did misunderstand. All members of the Armed Forces are required to conduct a fitness test, which is a physical fitness test, and I am not aware of there being any particular problem about that. However, on any one day of the week, you are absolutely right in saying that there are large numbers of people who are unfit for medical reasons of one sort or another and that is something which is undesirable and which we need to better in driving down, but it is not a function of people being unfit in the context of not having made themselves fit, it is a case of medically unfit for whatever reason.

  174. It is the length of time. Surely the real problem you are facing is that many of those service personnel would have been normally treated in service hospitals and would have been treated and discharged in the course of this, but the problem at the moment is that many of them are having to be dealt with on long waiting lists at their local hospitals during which time they are not actively in service and they are not doing any service duties whatsoever. Some of it is for very long periods of time when a reasonably easy operation would have put the soldier or sailor right very quickly. What are you doing or what is the MoD doing to bring about an improvement in that situation?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Firstly, I think that, as a percentage, the number of people who are unfit is probably not vastly different to the days when we had dedicated service hospitals. In those days, however, we had more fat in the system in people terms and people being absent or downgraded for medical reasons were not felt as keenly as they are today where we are very, very tautly manned and one person missing is a serious deficit, whereas in the past he might have been absorbed because we were more generous in the way we actually manned our ships, air squadrons or army regiments. A lot of the people who are unfit do not necessarily require operations, they require such things as remedial care, physiotherapy and that sort of thing, and we are putting money or putting effort into coalface remedial capability which would reduce the manpower build of people who are unfit quite significantly. We are also looking at fast tracking some of the people who require to have some sort of medical treatment. We are spending money on it and looking at how to improve it but it is not a situation which I find satisfactory because there are lots of people there who are not being employed in the way they should be.

  Chairman: If we had had satisfactory answers from the MoD witnesses who came a few weeks ago, maybe we would not have to ask almost the same questions to you, Admiral, but we visited Saif Sareea and we observed what was going on. We have read the National Audit Office report; we have read the documents that the Ministry of Defence sent to us, but we have a few additional questions.

Mr Roy

  175. Last year's exercise was designed to test the Joint Rapid Reaction Force. Your appraisal report on the exercise concluded that "the ability to sustain a medium skill war fighting force on an operation of extended range is questionable and the exercise did not test this rigorously." Why did not the exercise test the war fighting capability more rigorously?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) You will have to remind me what report you are talking about. The exercise tested our people extremely rigorously. We need to remember why we do these exercises. This was an exercise conducted to give our people the opportunity to take part in something which was at a reasonably enlarged scale level. I do not mean that in the context of the totality of numbers but large scale in the sense of what they had been exposed to in the past. The purpose of this exercise was to give our soldiers, sailors and airmen a chance to see what a battlefield is like or what a brigade is like or a squadron and so on, and also to do it on an away from home basis to see how we manage. Indeed, we achieved that and I think the NAO report made it perfectly clear that this was a highly successful exercise, which I subscribe to. The 25,000 or so people who took part in it gained immeasurably. We do not do these exercises very often because they are very large and also we do not have the capacity to do them on a regular basis. It was an exercise which probably no other country could do, possibly with the exception of the United States, on that scale and I am very pleased about the way it went. I recognise that a lot of lessons were learned but that is why we do exercises, to find out how well we are fitted out in terms of our training, in terms of our kit, to be able to deal with an operation. There are certain components that we will not put into an exercise because we want to make sure we do not use up all our kit allotment pending a real operation but I think the exercise was a success.

  176. Was the exercise not meant to test people or machinery to their limits? That did not happen with, for example, tanks where there were problems. We were told that what they wanted to do was to make sure they got them there rather than tested them to the limit. What is the point in doing that particular exercise if you do not test to the limit?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) If you spoke to the people working in the desert at temperatures of 50 degrees, they would probably consider they were being tested pretty much to their limits. You cannot make it tougher than that.


  177. The document, "A Directorate of Operational Capabilities Appraisal of Exercise Saif Sareea", was presented to the Defence Committee. This was the document.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) If I can refer to that particular document and other documents of that genre which we produce, we are probably light years ahead of any other armed force that I know of at being self-searching in the way we are, actually going out and doing these exercises in order to examine exactly where we have any difficulties, faults or whatever. I have been involved in my 42 years in the armed forces continuously in a process of reassessment, exposing where we find we have difficulties and getting on and trying to improve on that basis; rather than not to expose them and hide behind some chimera or some imagination that we are better than we really are. No one else puts themselves through this self-flagellation in the way that we do and we are very proud of it. I would not do exercises if I did not think we were going to get honest lessons learned. I certainly would not want to be in the position where every time we do something in order to find out where our weaknesses are we get beaten up by everybody for having exposed those weaknesses in a way which no other country does, and probably no other government department, as far as I am aware.

  178. The only thing that concerned us was that if we spent £97 million to show how we could get there, we have noticed there is a lot of sand in Oman and we know that Challenger 1's record in dealing with sand was less than perfect. What bemused us was the answer. Frankly, we could not believe that the MoD would be so negligent as not to have an appraisal of the equipment performance. It seems to me, spending all that money in proving you can get there, it would be fairly logical that you test the case whilst you are out there. How much does it cost to see if tanks operate successfully in sand or not?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) The whole of that money was not spent just on the tanks. As far as the people were concerned, they all gained immeasurable experience from the exercise, of operating first of all in large formations which they would not normally do for many years. The young people who did that will carry that forward throughout their careers up to becoming NCOs or senior officers and they will look back on that as a most rewarding experience, to understand what large formation operations are like, whether they may be Army or Air Force. You have had technical advice from other people who have sat before the Committee about—

  179. That is a very sensitive point because they did not send people who were technically competent. They sent two policy people, essentially.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) The problem about the workability of the Challenger 2 tank is not something which gives me particular concern at all. We found out that we had made a mistake in assessing the number of filters that we required to run in the particular type of dust levels that were encountered out there. We did not place on the tanks the type of armour that we would normally have for an operation because we only had a limited number of sets and we did not want to use them on an exercise. Had we put that armour on, it would have significantly mitigated the amount of dust congestion that happened. I am absolutely certain that we under-estimated the requirement for filter use but such activity as we got out of our tanks, when we started to preserve our filters in order to get training benefit as opposed to just a logistic exercise, was significant. All tank crews got some training benefit out of working in very unpleasant, very hot, sandy conditions. All those people who were in those tank regiments will have learned a huge amount about what they should do in the future in any desert type campaign. The logistics organisation has learned an awful lot about what it should require in terms of recognising what type of sand it is and how many filters you will need. I believe that this was a hugely rewarding process. Yes, we made mistakes but that process makes us all the more confident, if we are engaged in an operation in those circumstances in the future, that we will be able to deal with the situation very well.

  Chairman: We are not criticising the tank, which is a fabulous tank. We wish more countries wished to buy it. Our criticism was not even of the armed forces. Our criticism was against the people who were telling us what did or did not happen on the exercise that we were able to observe and draw our own, not professional, but common sense judgments.

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