Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)



  380. So the truth is we are not going to have an air defence capability, as Sir Jock accepted last week, and there will be a reduced capability when the Type-45 comes in. Why not keep the Sea Harriers, some of which air frames are relatively new, being only three years old? Why not keep the existing Sea Harrier, even with its reduced capability in hot weather conditions in force in order to provide that defence capability to enable us to mount independent offensive operations?
  (Lord Bach) Because we have had to make a decision as to how best to use our limited resources.

  381. So it all boils down to money in the end.
  (Lord Bach) Let me answer your question before you interrupt. I understand the Select Committee is not a partisan session in the sense that across the floor of the House of Commons might be a partisan session, Mr Chairman, where frontbenchers on either side of course can bandy words of this kind in a way that I do not think is normal in a Select Committee.

  Mr Howarth: But we do have robust questioning, Minister, I can assure you.


  382. We are offensive to everybody, Minister!
  (Lord Bach) It is mainly because I come from the other place, Mr Chairman.

Mr Howarth

  383. But if you had heard Kevan Jones last week, Minister, I look positively wimpish by comparison.
  (Lord Bach) I think Mr Jones, Mr Chairman, unless he has been promoted very recently, is a backbencher, and I think that is a distinction that I am trying to bring to your attention here.

  Chairman: Yes, we are aware of that.

Mr Howarth

  384. Can I just tell you that the arrangements which we apply in this House are a matter for this House and not for yourself and your House, Minister.
  (Lord Bach) That is precisely right and that is why I addressed my remark via the Chair.


  385. Well, we have made our political points, so let's get back to the seriousness at hand and let the Minister respond to Mr Howarth.
  (Lord Bach) Well, let me make it quite clear, and this is what Sir Jock was saying last week, and forgive me if I am repeating to some extent what he said, that the role of the Royal Navy carriers is not primarily now to defend the fleet, but it is in line with the expeditionary doctrine that underpins our defence policy, much more about the ability to project power a distance, precisely the point Sir Jock made. The Sea Harrier makes little contribution to this frankly. The GR7 makes a much more substantial one and will make an even greater one when it is upgraded to GR9. That is the first point. Secondly, and again at the risk of repetition, air defence is based on a layered system. Of course Sea Harrier has traditionally provided the outer layer, but there are inner layers, which seem to be forgotten in this argument, provided by the Sea Dart, for example, equipped Type-42 Destroyer and point defence systems on frigates Types 22 and 23 as well as more passive defence systems. The nature of the threat to the fleet has evolved over time and I have to say that reference to the Falklands War is about as misleading as any reference could be, and I say so, I hope, in the gentle spirit of Members of the House of Lords who speak to each other. The position today could not be much more different than that of 1982 when there was a small attachment of Royal Marines stationed in the Falkland Islands, no military airfield. Today, as I think the Committee will know, we maintain a modern and capable garrison on the islands which can be reinforced rapidly by air from the UK should the need arise, so can we put the Falklands please on one side if we are debating this issue seriously. Now, the nature of the threat to the fleet has evolved over time. Clearly Sea Harrier provided a useful defence against attacking aircraft, but in general terms it offers no protection against sea-skimming missiles launched from ships, from submarines, from land or from aircraft standing off from distance and that is something that those who attack this decision have never tried to answer. The real issue here is that Sea Harrier does not help against sea-skimming missiles from wherever they are launched. Now, that sea-skimming missile is now assessed to be the primary threat to maritime assets. That is what the upgraded Sea Dart and existing Sea Wolf, Goalkeeper and Vulcan Phalanx systems are designed to address. It is also of course what the PAAMS system, the Type-45, will be designed to tackle when that platform comes into service. I want to emphasise that the Chiefs of Staff have signed up to this proposal, and they would not have signed up to it if there was any prospect of it substantially undermining the defence of the fleet, and will allow resources, as I began this answer, to be concentrated on enhancing our ability to project power. I end, if I may, Chairman, by saying this: that upgrading Sea Harrier would be very expensive and technically very risky. It would also take a great deal of time and if we were to upgrade Sea Harrier it would mean that those Sea Harriers that were being upgraded would be out of service at the time they were being upgraded and certainly would reduce the value for money to be derived from the investment. We have had to make choice, we think we have made the right choice and I have tried to explain, perhaps taking rather too much of the Committee's time, why we have made that decision.

  386. No, I think we should be looking carefully at what your colleague said earlier this morning in the House and looking carefully at what you have said, but I think the Government still has a lot of selling to do, not of assets because enough of those have been sold, but some of the arguments and if there is anything, Minister, when you look at what your colleagues have said, what you have said to us and what Sir Jock said, I think it would be quite helpful, and sorry to impose more work on your staff, but I think it would be best for the best and the fullest picture to be painted, otherwise people will retain a degree of scepticism. The comments on Sea Dart, I am not sure how effective Sea Dart is or necessarily the Type-42, and I think the argument which you gave about the Falklands, I do not think the arguments made are about the Falklands campaign, but about the vulnerabilities that were exposed during the Falklands in terms of defending ships. That was the argument of not going back out to the Falklands and fighting against the Argentinians who at this stage are not in any shape to take on anybody, but it is the concept of ship defence.
  (Lord Bach) Chairman, on Sea Dart I wonder if Sir Jock could just say a word because of course this was mentioned in the article in the Daily Telegraph which was referred to this morning and we think there may have been an inaccuracy about that.
  (Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup) Chairman, yes, this morning I spent an hour with somebody who had just come from commanding a Type-42 Destroyer, having seen this article, because quite clearly I wanted to make sure that we had got our capabilities right, as I described to you last week. His view, his very clear view is that the article is over-alarmist and in many areas extremely misleading. The Sea Dart is a capable missile and will continue to be a capable missile. Like all weapon systems, it has weaknesses particularly against the most modern systems and particularly when faced with a high-density threat environment where a great many threats are coming in at the same time, but certainly against the most prevalent threats it is likely to face, it is still extremely capable and of course we are upgrading it with an improved infra-red fuse to improve its ability at low level.

Mr Hancock

  387. You mentioned, Minister, about the Type-45 coming in. I would be interested to know what missile system you think will be on the Type-42, and we know what will be on the Type-45, to deal with the close-range, sea-skimming missiles.
  (Lord Bach) As I understand it, the PAAMS system.

  388. That is already used.
  (Lord Bach) Sorry, that was not your question. You said when it does come in, what will it be.

  389. There is a gap, as we established last week, between the Sea Harrier going out of service to defend ships at sea and the Type-45 with a fully operational system, and we were told—what were the words you used, Sir Jock, last week about it—progressive?
  (Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup) The incremental capability.

  390. Of the system.
  (Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup) But it will come into service in 2007 with an operational PAAMS missile system.

  391. Which is capable of knocking down a sea-skimming, short-range missile?
  (Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup) It is important again to stress that air defence is about layers and that the PAAMS can take on such missiles at certain ranges. As it gets closer, there are short-range missiles and there are short-range guns as well as passive defence systems, so we rely on all of them together, not just one.

Mr Howarth

  392. These are extremely important issues. Sir Jock has told us that he would prefer to keep the Sea Harrier in operation. The Minister, your colleague, has admitted there is a risk in the policy that the Government has adopted. You, Minister, if I may say, have sought today to belittle the role of the Sea Harrier and say, "Well, actually it does not really do that much of a good job anyway and, therefore, we are not losing very much". You have repeated the argument that Sir Jock put forward last week which is a good argument about the projection of offensive air power, but what the Sea Harrier does is to provide airborne maritime defence. Are you telling us that in the intervening period before the Type-45 comes in with its PAAMS missile system mature or otherwise, are you telling us there is no longer any need or there will not be a need for that period of time for an airborne, early warning for maritime expeditionary forces? In other words, you will deploy your GR7s and GR9s with their ground-attack capability, but should there be incoming attack aircraft, there will be no airborne air defence capability beyond the Sea Dart?
  (Lord Bach) First of all, to reply to your question, Sir Jock and Mr Ingram may have said what they did about the issue being one of in an ideal world it would be better if these choices did not have to be made. I have not said anything that is against that, but we do not live in an ideal world and if your Party, when your Party are in government again, you will once again understand that.

  393. This is not a partisan issue.
  (Lord Bach) I am sorry, it seems to me, Mr Chairman, that it is and that is why I have to take it on head-on. I do not want to be aggressive and I hope I am not being. It is a fair question and I have got to answer it, but it is essential that we make choices and those choices, if they are real choices, always involve taking difficult decisions. This is one of those difficult decisions, but we think we have it right. To suggest that there is no defence merely because the Sea Harrier goes out of service by 2006—and remember, it is not going out of service until 2004 and right through to 2006—is to just fail to accept that this is just one part of the layered defence system of which there are many, many others. It is also worth pointing out, I think, and perhaps just reminding the Committee that of course we might be on our own, it is possible, but it is much more likely, is it not, given where things stand now, that we are going to be part of a coalition force and that there will be allies who will be able to assist us if we need assisting and it may well be that we would not. So I think the danger in this argument is that the argument pro-Sea Harrier, which, please, don't get me wrong, is and has been a fine aircraft, it has done sterling service, but its time frankly, given that we have to make choices, may be up over the course of the next few years and to suggest that somehow we are going to leave British ships unprotected in any real way is actually a travesty of what is going to happen.


  394. Thank you, and I just have a question, before Mr Rapson, to put to Sir Robert. Can you guarantee, Sir Robert, that Type-45 plus PAAMS is going to be available for January 1st 2007? I think that was the first date mentioned.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) It was, but unfortunately it is November 2007 and I cannot of course guarantee the future. There are a few technical points I would just like to add which are worth mentioning. Type-45 is currently scheduled to have two different sorts of missiles installed in the 48 missile silo, being the ASTER-30s, which are longer range than ASTER-15s, which are shorter range, and both part of the PAAMS systems giving a choice. You do not need to fire a long-range missile at close-range targets. The second point is that Sea Dart was designed and is optimised, but currently being modified to make it more capable, designed and optimised for attacking aircraft and of course if you have got an aircraft carrier at sea, even I can remember that when I was in the Navy, a Destroyer holds a position maybe 100 miles up-threat from the carrier. The Sea Dart radar, the radar in the Type-42 Destroyer, can see aircraft up to 200 miles away, unless they are sea-skimming, so this is an immense distance we are covering by a proper positioning of the ships. A Sea Dart missile system is really capable of keeping out aircraft, but it has much more difficulty against sea-skimming missiles and that is what the infra-red fuse coming in from this July will improve its performance against. I just want to give the impression that when you are defending a carrier, you do not do it by putting all the assets around the carrier like six-year-old schoolboys playing football, but you spread ships out across the ocean so that actually the Destroyer can provide, with the Sea Dart missile system, real defence.

Syd Rapson

  395. Can I thank the Minister as well because the thought of us going to war at this stage frightens me to death, so I welcome you putting that into context. Can I speak as a professional who has spent a lifetime upgrading aircraft to fit new equipment and can I press the question again. Sir Jock said last week when we asked him that it would be massive to try and upgrade the GR7s and GR9s to have the Blue Vixen Radar and AMRAAM, that it would be costly, it would be lengthy and by the time we have finished the modifications, the new Joint Strike Fighter would be available. Now, I take it that is a totally honest answer to the questions, but, being a sceptic as I am, I do not believe it, in the nicest possible sense. The Sea Harrier airframe is slightly smaller than the GR7s and Royal Air Force aircraft and the larger aircraft, and we are going to operate them with the new Pegasus engines, but is it really a mammoth task to put Blue Vixen Radar and AMRAAM on the upgraded GR aircraft? You say it is, but I would like to press it, even if you cannot tell me today, whether we can be sure of the costs of that upgrade. If it is impossible, we accept that, and if it is going to take too long, we can accept that, but I just want to press to see whether these are real stories you are going to give as the Minister which are true and we cannot upgrade because if we have the GR aircraft with its ground-attack capability, with Blue Vixen Radar and AMRAAM as well, it makes them much more effective in the long run for deployment and will be useful for our forces when we have got Joint Strike Fighter as well. No doubt somebody will want to buy them at twice the price as they are buying the present Sea Harriers. Now, I am sorry it is a long-winded question, but it is really pressing the reality of the answers given as to whether it is that costly and lengthy to upgrade the GR aircraft to cover the two weak points that we see with radar and missiles.
  (Lord Bach) The only comment that I am going to make is that everything I am told is true of course.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) The technical feasibility of this depends very much on having the weights, space and power margins already in the aircraft and I have no doubt that anything can be done, but it will be enormously difficult. Part of the reason for that is that apart from where the pilot actually sits, and here I would defer to Sir Jock, the most valuable place in the aircraft just about is the nose where all your forward-looking sensors are sitting and in the GR9 it is the forward-looking infra-red that occupies that space. You need all that space to put in a Blue Vixen Radar, so as soon as you start to put in a Blue Vixen Radar, you are competing then for (?), which is designed to give it such a powerful ground-attack capability. That will require a lot of aircraft re-engineering, will add weight, will add to the aircraft's outline shape and we will probably then send it into a whole lot of safety trials at Boscombe Down to prove that the aircraft is still safe in all possible configurations for launching weapons, et cetera, et cetera. I am absolutely clear that the feasibility of this would have to be proved in a study, but that study would, as usual, say, "Yes, it is feasible. It would cost an immense amount of money, take an enormous amount of time and will result in an aircraft that is not as good at its primary role as it is today".

Rachel Squire

  396. I think in the discussion we have just had, clearly some of the general issues on that are not confined to a seaborne piece of equipment and they are not confined only to the United Kingdom's defence capability. That brings me on to the issues raised by equipping NATO because I think all of us recognise that the nature of the threat that NATO is dealing with has changed considerably over the last 12/13 years and also all the NATO allies have learnt the hard way what shortforms exist in NATO's capability, particularly amongst European allies, so can I ask you, Minister, when you are considering and shaping what the Ministry of Defence's equipment requirements should be, what priority, if any, you give to the projects that would improve Europe's prospects of advancing both the Helsinki Headline Goal and indeed NATO's own Defence Capabilities Initiative?
  (Lord Bach) Well, thank you for the question. As far as the Defence Capabilities Initiative is concerned, we think we have made some good progress nationally in implementing it. We already possess a good PGM capability which we are enhancing, Storm Shadow and Brimstone, heavy lift, the C-17s at present, with provision for A400M, and we are also procuring ASTOR, as you know, which has come up in discussions today, and to enhance our ISTAR collection effort. What we are keen to do is to get partner nations to do the same. We do not think that the Initiative, which is now of course coming to an end, has been the overwhelming success we had hoped, to be frank with the Committee, and we need a credible follow-up, and I will tell you what our thinking is about a follow-up, if I may, in a minute, to be launched at the Prague Summit this November, mutually reinforcing the EU Headline Goal which you have referred to. We think that the new Initiative ought to focus on of course inter-operability and include elements on communications, on transport, on enablers, to name but a few. What have we learnt from our experience of the Defence Capabilities Initiative? What we think we have learnt and what we think the next phase must concentrate on is: first, it must be relevant to the fight against terrorism and NATO must ensure that its capabilities contain those necessary to deal with terrorists as well as other threats; it must take account, as you have already said, of the Headline Goal; thirdly, we must maintain as high a public profile as possible because I think we have got a job to do to present a clear strategy to ensure public support and understanding for the Initiative as was and we are going to put in its place; and most important of all is to focus on a limited range of key, clear, achievable targets with top-level ministerial ownership. That is some of our thinking at the present time. We are thinking of what kind of follow-on there should be from the DCI and we do want to see, if I may say so, it being rather more successful than the DCI has been in ensuring that NATO has the equipment that it needs to face not just the issues of the past, but what it faces now with terrorism.

  397. You keep picking up on the point about the follow-on from the DCI and some of your other remarks about inter-operability, transport, communication and so on. The NATO's Secretary General, in his usual forthright style, recently said that there is recognition that there are countries that can do some things better than others and I wonder, Minister, whether you think the time has come, particularly as we approach the Prague Summit, to take forward a debating NATO on greater role specialisation and identify that some NATO countries and allies are perhaps better able and better equipped to concentrate on certain specific areas and improve NATO's defence capability in those areas.
  (Lord Bach) Yes, I would certainly go along with that. The Secretary of State has taken, as you know, a keen interest in this and has led for Britain as far as this is concerned and there is no doubt that we would like to see the new DCI, if I can call it that, focus much more on what each NATO country can do and, by that, we include of course those countries that may come into NATO as a result of Prague, so the answer to your question in short is yes.

  398. Has there already been some discussion on those areas amongst the NATO allies?
  (Lord Bach) I would be very surprised if there had not been, as you say, led by the Secretary General, the ex-Secretary of State for Defence, who must have been before this Committee on a number of occasions in the past. I am sure there has been discussion and I am equally sure there has been discussion among Defence Ministers from NATO, existing NATO Members, and, I dare say, with those who may join NATO in the none-too-distant future.

Mr Howarth

  399. Minister, can I ask you another question relating not to the Sea Harrier, but to the GR9. I just heard in the last few minutes that the Harrier IPT Leader, presumably your team, Sir Robert, has told Rolls Royce that the original 30 GR9s selected for upgrade into the Pegasus engines will be the only ones to have the upgraded engine and that the decision has been made that the remaining 40 will not have the upgraded Pegasus engine. Where does that leave our fleet of commonality given that you are now going to have two GR9 aircraft, one type with the GR9A rating with the upgraded engine and 40 without?
  (Lord Bach) Mr Howarth, those answering questions here have some advantages, but also have some disadvantages. We do not have our mobiles going and we are not able to leave and come as of course Members of the Committee are allowed to do so, so obviously I am not in a position to answer your question in the way that you would like me to. Maybe Sir Robert has some background knowledge.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) First of all, I should not deny responsibility because that would be silly, but the IPT Leader is an aircraft that is "mature" in the jargon and therefore it is hosted by the Defence Logistic Organisation, so it is way past when I would have a primary interest.

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