Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)



Mr Williams

1.  I must first apologise for the absence of our Chairman: he has had a sporting accident and suffered from a rather severe ankle break so I am having to sit in the Chair today. May I welcome Sir Kevin Tebbit, Permanent Secretary, to this hearing on the Ministry of Defence and the Exercise Saif Sareea II. Would you like to introduce your colleagues?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) On my right is Lieutenant General John Reith who is the Chief of Joint Operations and as such is responsible for this level of exercising and indeed for all our deployments as well as exercises. On my left is John Oughton, who is the Deputy Chief of Defence Logistics responsible for supporting these sorts of exercises.

2.  Is Mr Webb here from the support group? He gave some evidence to the Defence Committee the other day in relation to his activities.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I would not expect so. I did not invite him.

3.  What a pity.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) He is our Policy Director who is responsible to me for policy.

4.  That would have been rather interesting. It seems that the people the Defence Committee wanted were not there because you thought they would be coming to this Committee and some of the people we want are not here because you thought they were only wanted by the Defence Committee. Before we go to questions, may I welcome back to the Committee Angela Eagle and say how glad we are to have you with us again. It has probably been explained to you that we have altered our format. We normally give everyone 15 minutes for questions. The task of lengthening answers has been made even easier for you by the fact that we are only having ten-minute sessions initially per member but there will be the opportunity to come back for the balance of the time towards the end of the session. This exercise has been something of a debacle, has it not? I am surprised you look surprised. You obviously have not read the newspapers.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) If you read the report . . . I think you must not have read the report. I am sure you have read it; I know you have read it.

5.  When the Chairman of the Defence Committee, who is noted for his understatements refers to a decision as being bonkers, I am inclined to think there might be something wrong and something for us to follow up on. Can you explain to us precisely what the objective of this exercise was?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) The objective of the exercise was to exercise key elements of our Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF), that is to say by deploying key elements of the force—around 50 per cent of our Joint Rapid Reaction Forces for the sea and land elements, about 33 per cent for the air element—across a distance of 5,000 miles, to be sure, once there, that it could engage in joined-up war fighting and sustain itself for a period of time at that job and then to recover those assets subsequently from the theatre. All of those elements, as you will see from the NAO report, paragraph 1.22, were achieved successfully.

6.  That is very much a matter of opinion. It is very appropriate that you use the term "recover those assets . . . from the theatre". That seems to be the precise term most of us would apply. You said that it was to exercise the key elements, which I assume means therefore to show that they actually worked in the environment into which they were being rapidly deployed.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) That is correct: to demonstrate the Joint Rapid Reaction Force concept.

7.  In your opinion it was successfully carried out, despite the fact that having travelled 5,000 miles the tanks seized up in four hours, your long-range guns melted, soldiers' boots disintegrated, the communications were no more secure than they were in Kosovo. Other than that everything is going well now, is it?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I would dispute virtually everything you said.

8.  Please do. Mind you, you have signed up to this and remember all these are virtual quotes of circumstances described in the report which you accepted.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) There are facts and there are contexts and there are interpretations placed upon them. Perhaps I could begin by doing so. I should say that this was the most arduous exercise that we could have possibly attempted and we did so deliberately. We do not try to do things easily, we try to put our forces through the most testing trials we possibly can in order to demonstrate where the points of tolerance are and where the changes are which need to be made and that is what we did.

9.  If that was the purpose, why did you originally plan it for the United States of America?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) This should not be confused with an operation, which is a very different matter. That is the first point. The second point is that you mentioned the tanks. It is true that the tanks, in part of the exercise, that is to say exercising in the southern Omani desert, experienced very high usage of air filters.

10.  You used up the global supply of air filters and had to fly them all in.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) We did not.

11.  It is in the report.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) May I please answer your questions? We did not use up the global supply. I am afraid that there is a word in the report which qualifies that. We never used up the global supply of air filters; at no stage did we run out of air filters globally. That is the first point. The second point is that the manufacturer reckoned that in virtual blackout conditions the filters would last for 14 hours. We found that in the southern Omani desert, not in the northern exercise zone, they were used up after four hours. We have now learned the lesson that if you exercise in the southern Omani desert you need an awful lot of air filters. That is the lesson which was learned; it is a very important point.

12.  So it is like the leaves on the track: it was the wrong sort of sand.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) Nothing at all like that. If you do that, you use up the air filters more rapidly. The answer is of course either to increase supplies of air filters, which we now have, or not to exercise in the southern Omani desert, which interestingly we have now found even the Omanis do not try to do. We took the hardest test we could possibly find. Third, we chose not to put additional protection on our tanks when we did the exercise. That was a judgement made by the exercise planners for cost-effectiveness reasons. You always have to balance operational needs, finance and exercise arrangements when you are going forward in these sorts of things. They took the judgement based on their understanding of the conditions they would find that it was not cost-effective to have the necessary protection to reduce dust on the tanks. In the light of the experience of how quickly these were used up, they probably made a wrong call, but the rectification is very simple. Had these tanks been going into operations, they would not have been deployed in the way that they were. For one thing they would have had up-armour on the sides, we would have increased the level of armour. That in itself would have reduced the dust ingestion and would have eased the problems. There are several other things that we can do to the tanks to solve this problem, very simple things, but they do cost money. If we wished to spend between £5 million and £90 million, we could deal with these problems very quickly. It is a straightforward cost-effectiveness issue; it is not an issue of capability of the tanks. That is just on the tanks.

13.  Just as a matter of interest, on the recommendation which was originally made it was going to cost you about £20 million to carry out desertification. How much has it cost you to undo the damage which has been done to the vehicles?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) They have not been damaged at all; they have not been damaged.

14.  They have not?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) No.

15.  So it has cost you nothing.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) What happens is that the air filters get clogged and in the south Omani desert they got clogged after four hours; in the north it was not as bad as that. You then change the air filter. Nothing mechanical was damaged in the tanks at all; there was no damage at all.

16.  If you are going to carry out an exercise in Oman—

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) You do not want me to answer your other questions. I am happy to come back to them.

17.  Do not worry. According to the report there is a tank I have not heard of, the Omani Challenger 2. I assume this is a Challenger 2 designed to work in Oman, or is the title somewhat misleading?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) No, you are quite right, the Omanis procured the tank.

18.  So they have a tank which works out there.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) Ours work.

19.  Hold on. Did it not occur to you to ask them anything about the problems of operating in their country? It seems fairly basic to know a little bit about different types of sand. I seem to remember that President Carter used helicopters to fetch hostages way back in history in Iran.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) This was not a lack of knowledge, this was a judgement made on the basis of cost-effectiveness, using what proved to be an inaccurate judgement about the speed at which air filters were used up based on what the design authority told us would happen. That was incorrect, we now know what the facts are and we shall act accordingly. You are quite right, when the Omanis bought their Challengers, they did put extra modifications on them, or had them put on, which eased this problem. I might say that they do not exercise in the southern desert, which we did, which was the real problem, but that is beside the point. I do not want to get into the wrong kind of dust or leaves on the line issues which you raised.

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 9 December 2002