Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness(Questions 180-199)



Mr Jones

  180. Congratulations for that answer because it is a very good answer in terms of admitting that mistakes were made and also pointing out that the exercises are to look at weaknesses and to learn from last ones. I think that is a good response. What does not help this Committee and I do not think helps the press either is when you get people like Simon Webb coming before us a couple of weeks ago, trying to make excuses, coming up with the nonsense which he did, saying that the real test of the exercise was to take the tanks there, not actually to use them when they were there. Your approach, in terms of openness and saying that things went wrong and you learned from them, is a far better way of dealing with it than trying to come up with the Civil Service speak that we had last week. In terms of unjustified criticisms, your approach is better. Can you say to civil servants, "Do not come before this Committee to try to somehow hide and say that things are all right", because it leads to lack of confidence in us and also there is the idea that there is something to hide. On the desertisation of Challenger tanks, I take the point you make about the armour, but are there going to be any steps taken to desertise Challenger? I was at a company in my constituency last week who said that they had been asked to look at this issue. Are we going to learn from the problems which you quite rightly identified as part of the exercise?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) We have increased our stocks of filters, for a start. We have the armour which we can desertise the tanks with and we are looking at a programme of desertisation at the moment.

Syd Rapson

  181. We do not want to give the wrong impression because we do believe that exercises are good. They should be increased and they are a great thing. Saif Sareea was a good exercise but the planning for it at slow time because it was an exercise was not real and we had two years. A lot of it was logistics and getting stuff prepared, getting the right number of spares, stores and everything required over slow time. If we planned for two years for the exercise and there were significant failures which we are learning from, what will happen in short term, urgent operation planning, because it is the logistics in getting prepared and having the back-up in this country ready to go out that worries me. Can you bridge that gap? I know it is not real and that it is an exercise.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I think it is a very fair point. If we are going to spend a large amount of money on any exercise, relative to whatever size it is - Saif Sareea was a very expensive exercise but there are many smaller exercises - and if you are going to get the best benefit from the exercise to identify where you are going to be looking for lessons to learn and so on, you want to make sure that you get maximum value out of the exercise and out of the money you are about to spend. Your planning process is going to be artificially long because you are trying to make sure you think of all the angles. If we are going to do that, what can I get out of that particular activity? Where can I look for lessons to be learned? Is our doctrine going to be right? Are the soldiers going to put up with it? Are they properly fit to do it? Is the kit going to work? You think up all the angles you possibly can. Additionally, if you are going to involve a third party in the exercise - in this case, for example, the Omanis - they must be brought along as well. Their pace may not be the same as ours in terms of getting ready for it. Yes, any exercise is probably going to show what your speed of response can be in a real situation. I would therefore ask you to look at what happened in December last year when the Bonn conference, I think on the 12th, decided that there would be something called an International Security Assistance Force based in Kabul, completely alien territory as far as we were concerned. No one had even heard of Afghanistan other than back in the 1800s. On 12 December, we were told to take charge of this International Security Assistance Force. In the space of three or four weeks, we had assembled a force of 5,000 from 19 countries. We had people on the streets of Kabul by the beginning of January bringing calm, comfort and security to that city. It was a brilliant operation done in absolutely unprecedented speed and when the chips were down we delivered because we had practised that sort of thing in exercise in the past and we had learned our lessons.

Mr Jones

  182. Can we go to Afghanistan? What principal lessons have you learned from Afghanistan? The difficulty is, as you have already indicated, about a peace keeping operation and also to have a fighting situation, a combat situation, side by side. Did that pose certain difficulties and challenges?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) We certainly thought very hard about it because we could see that potentially it could present difficulties, particularly if you are trying to do a peace keeping operation in one part of the country and you are doing some direct, aggressive action in another part of the country. The countrymen might take a dim view of the peace keepers who might be perceived as being rather aggressive in that area. We put quite a lot of effort into deconflicting the activity that was going on in Kabul with what was going on with the activities outside the International Security Assistance Force. We made it very clear to the Afghanistan people themselves that we were there operating under a United Nations mandate, that we were very much a security assistance force. We made it clear to Mr Karzai, who was the person in charge of the administration there, that we were there to help him very much with security in the town of Kabul. All I can say is it seems to have worked. No one has levelled charges at us for having double standards. The effort we put into getting that right is a lesson we learned. The effort was worth it and the fact that there has not been a negative response shows we probably got it right.

  183. What were the principal lessons you learned from that?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) You have a lot of talking to do with all the various players, particularly with the incumbents of the country, in this case, Mr Karzai, and indeed talking as far as possible to local warlords as well.

  184. In terms of the combat side in Afghanistan, there was a great emphasis in terms of special forces. I do not expect you to talk about the operational side of it but has that skewed your thinking in terms of the balance between the peace keeping role and also concentrations in terms of special forces for future missions that possibly could face us next year in Iraq?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) The New Chapter made clear and we recognise that in the future strategic context the role of the special forces and the activities the special forces are engaged in are going to be even more important than ever. That is why there has been emphasis on that. So far as commenting on what, if any, special force activity is going on, that would not be appropriate.

Patrick Mercer

  185. Whilst endorsing the speed and the efficacy of the initial operation of getting into Afghanistan and the reaction times that we achieved, is it not a bit surprising and disappointing, the length of time it took 45 Commando Troop to put together the combat operations?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) That was not a thing which particularly concerned me from this end of the telescope. One of the reasons it did take a long time was to get the infrastructure right in Bagram which is where was where they flew out to. It was important also that we dove tailed in with the American commander, under whom they were operating, to get his times right so that we appeared on the scene when his troops were ready for us and not before that. Although it did take about four weeks or so to get the whole Commando troop out there, I was not particularly dismayed that they could not get out there earlier. It was a function of what was going on in the theatre rather than a function of our ability to get them out there earlier.

  186. Was the criticism of the American military press unfair?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) What criticism was that?

  187. There was extensive criticism in the US Marine Corps paper about the length of time the Royal Marines took.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Perhaps the Americans should have spoken to the American commander who was the guy who was driving the—

Jim Knight

  188. In the context of Afghanistan, it draws me back to an exchange that went on a bit earlier about rules of engagement. You said that the Americans were way ahead of us in terms of network centric capability and the rules of engagement that follow from that. In Afghanistan, we saw one or two incidents, most memorably the wedding incident, where things went wrong. I am interested in how rules of engagement to junior ranks would work if we had Predator type UAVs in Afghanistan style operations. Are they predelegated to carry out targeted attacks on individuals?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I did not say the Americans were ahead of us on the rules of engagement. I said they were ahead of us in terms of their technical network centric capability. We do not normally comment in detail about what our rules of engagement are but in broad terms the answer is that there are differing levels of authority given as one cascades down the command chain. At the very bottom level, literally the private, he has a particular set of rules which he applies, his intrinsic right to self-defence being the most fundamental. There are different levels of authority given to different ranks as to what they might or might not be allowed to engage with, given certain criteria. The reason I cannot go into too much detail about it is that it depends on the different rules drawn up for different circumstances. They are very carefully articulated and passed down the command chain. They are briefed on a twice, if not three times, daily basis to all the relevant commanders all the way down the command chain. If a local commander feels that he has been constrained in what he is able to do by his rules of engagement, he is absolutely entitled to send in what is called a rule of engagement request saying can he have more authority to do such and such. That will then go up the command chain and that authority will be given to him, if appropriate.

  189. Have you thought through the sort of level for unmanned vehicles?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) An unmanned vehicle is in a sense no different from a manned one, in so far as pictures are passing back and one has to make decisions. The driver will be operating under some rule of engagement which may be similar to that of a person in a manned aircraft, as to whether he is allowed to press his button to release his bomb. I do not think there is much difference between unmanned vehicles and manned vehicles in terms of the application of our rules.


  190. We had a briefing a few weeks ago when we asked questions on whether the UAVs that we are going to procure eventually will be able to do more than take photographs and we were told that they were not.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I was replying to Mr Knight's question in the context of where we know UAVs have been known to drop weapons. Were we to have such UAVs that dropped weapons that currently exist, the RoE would not be given.

  191. I know you are not as totally involved in the procurement process as Sir Robert Walmsley would be but if we are going to spend a lot of money on UAVs to have a wide range of capability at this stage, when perhaps it is still possible to build into the specification the ability to do nasty things other than take photographs, it would be prudent that one should explore this more fully. Have you had any opportunity for looking at what is being planned? It might be a useful process for you.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am afraid I have not had the benefit of reading the evidence.

  192. We will send you a transcript.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) As far as my mind is concerned, on the subject of UAVs, it is entirely right to exploit the use of UAVs to the utmost extent and if that includes carrying weapons I would not close up that opportunity at all. I would see that as being very attractive to explore.

  193. Returning once again to Challenger 2, Kevin Tebbit has appeared before the public accounts committee and he said, "We have a number of options available to us, which we will adopt if necessary, which will ensure that our tanks have full protection against dust should they be required for questions." We have mentioned tanks. Could you give us some further reassurance that, should the Chancellor allow ground forces to be used - and I was not aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer played a major role in developing strategy or tactics - can you offer us your personal guarantee that they will work and, despite what the MoD witnesses said to us, you do have that capability of making all the adaptations, be they large or small, necessary to make the tanks operational and effective?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes, absolutely. We do have that capability. We have the special skirts which are put on and special extra armour to put on. That is available. The extra filters are being bought and I would be confident that, if we had to operate in a desert environment for whatever reasons, our tanks would give us the type of performance we would wish.

  194. Have you given the Jordanians any guarantees that, should they use their Challenger 1 tanks, they will be able to operate? Do we give a six month guarantee to them?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I have not spoken to the Jordanians.

  195. Very wisely side-stepped, Admiral. With the other equipment that was used in the Gulf, less dramatic but important, the desert clothing, boots, uniforms, tented accommodation, communications—big surprise that Clansman did not work very well - helicopter rotor blades, forklift trucks, AS90 artillery: when you visited Saif Sareea you probably saw some of these things not working as one would have hoped. You have read all the reports. Are you as the senior military person satisfied that we do have the capability within the Ministry of Defence genuinely to say, "Right, we must put it right"? Are there any principles involved? Every time our Committee looks at a war and lessons of a war, by the time we get on to the lessons of the next war, we find that some of the things that did not work previously still do not work. Are you satisfied with the process by which you can appraise success and failure? Do you have the mechanisms, the resources, to develop the technical competence and political will to derive the lessons from that exercise or conflict?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) We have the processes and certainly I have the will. It is a factor of human nature that, for example, if you were to look at the lessons learned from the Falklands War and bounce those off the lessons learned from 1945, there is a depressing amount of similarity between the two. I would not guarantee that, were we to engage in some future conflict, we would not find that we were relearning whole lessons each time because that is the way it happens, largely because of the nature of turnover of people within the armed forces, memories are short and so forth. In pursuing the things which we think are very important in following up lessons and where we have asked the Director of Operational Capability, DOC, who wrote that report, you will see in that report that there will be a list of recommendations. The chiefs of staff are under my chairmanship. I demand that DOC returns to my committee every six months and takes us through the recommendations of any report he has written to show us what progress he is making.

  196. Can you make it every three months?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) You have to give sensible time. I am just talking generically at the moment about how things operate. Were something to crop up which would want us to move ahead faster or to ensure that progress was fast enough on certain things which were relevant, clearly there would be more pressure to bear but, to answer your question about process, yes, we do follow up these lessons learned. I send for the DOC to explain what is going on and if we are not happy then we chase it up.

  197. If the troops are deployed and the same lessons are drawn six months from now, people like us will say, "Why was not proper action taken after Saif Sareea?" and it will be very embarrassing for those people to come in and tell us who delayed what might be fairly simple. I presume the question of army boots which has been bedevilling the Army for about 400 years, certainly as long as I have been on the Committee, is resolvable?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) You would be fully justified in being angrily cross if we went into an operation and found we were living with some deficit or something which diminished our operational capability as a result of lessons learned as recently as 2001.

Mr Jones

  198. I find it reassuring that there is a process to follow up these deficiencies. Would it be possible, publicly or even to this Committee, to let us know where you are up to because the response we got last week was defensive, trying to say there was nothing wrong with a lot of these things. I think that is part of the problem in terms of public perception and the media perception of the MoD. They do an exercise. One of the key things that happens is to learn a lesson in an exercise rather than in a combat situation. Would there be a mechanism whereby we could look at where we are at with some of these things because they have had a lot of publicity in the last six months or so. I think it would be reassuring to the Committee and certainly to me that some action is being taken.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I would need to take advice on that.


  199. One of the great things to console my colleagues who have not been around for 400 years is that, in the event of a crisis, the ability of the defence industry and the military to improvise is quite startling. Things that should have taken five years in the normal cycle tend to be done in a few days or a few hours. We hope, as we have perhaps had some notice of what is going to happen, that we do not have to rush once the command is given.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) As soon as we are kicking into a new operation, one of the first things I will send for is the lessons learned from the last type of operation of that nature that we have done. As part of our planning process, I will be asking my team, "What have you learned about X, Y and Z from the last time?" We have to make certain that, should we be engaged in any future desert campaign, we will be turning back to those lessons to make sure we have dealt with all the criticisms that have been levelled at us.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 20 January 2003