Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 433 - 459)



Mr Hood

  433. Admiral, welcome to the Defence Committee. I see you have an impressive team of supporting colleagues. I wonder if I could invite you to introduce your colleagues?

  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I thought it was quite important to have one of each uniform to demonstrate how joint we are. I am Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff for Equipment Capability. To my left is Air Vice Marshal Steve Nicholl, who is the capability manager for Strike within my organisation. To his left is Brigadier Andrew Figgures, who is the capability director for Direct Battlefield Engagement, one of the particular capability areas that we run. On my right is Mr Carl Mantell, who is the Director for Capability, Resources and Scrutiny and on his right is Brigadier Ian Rees, who is the Director Defence, Physical Supply Chain. He is not a member of my organisation but is a member of the Defence Logistics Organisation.

  434. During this session, we want to explore some of the lessons arising from the performance of particular equipment in the Kosovo campaign. What has been your role since the conflict in assessing the lessons learned and doing something about them?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) If you will forgive me, I know the Committee likes brevity but it might be worth your time if I explain what the purpose of my organisation is. Since October, we have been establishing the equipment capability area within the Ministry of Defence as part of the Smart Procurement initiative. The aims of this organisation are to produce a clear customer for each of our equipment projects who can set and agree targets with the supplier who is the Defence Procurement Agency, to bring together requirement generation and financial planning, which previously was in separate parts of the organisation and to produce an equipment financial plan which we own. We specifically attempt to separate capability management which is what we are in the business of, defining areas of capability and managing them, from equipment solution provision—i.e., when we define what sort of capability we want we do not in the first instance consider how that might best be met in equipment terms. That is the role of the Defence Procurement Agency so we try and put each role where it most obviously belongs. We approach all of this from a joint capability direction, not from a single Service platform replacement approach. We do not make assumptions about this. It is perhaps worth saying what I think capability is because there is a lot of confusion and debate about this. It is perhaps easiest to say what it is not. It is not just equipment; it is a combination of equipment, doctrine, training, support and manning. I try and encourage my people to look at it like that so that we do not immediately leap to the conclusion that we need to go out and buy something. We first examine whether changes in our procedure, tactics and so forth might improve matters. In general, we proceed by conducting a balance of investment across our capability areas and by assessing what is the gap between the capability which we have and the capability which the Defence Strategic Plan tells us we need. To do all that, I have four capability managers, one of whom is Air Marshal Nicholl on my left, who control and direct each of four major areas: strike, strategic deployment, manoeuvre and information superiority. The last is quite an important one because it is the first time we have tried to bring together for a joint organisation the responsibility for information warfare and information superiority. Under them, there are 15 directors of equipment capability who head up areas which represent the capabilities that we decided to divide our work into. None of those capability managers owns the totality of any individual Service's programme. The Services' programmes are spread across all of the areas. We really have grouped by capability and not by environment, Service or platform. Our role in addressing the Kosovo lessons learned is part of our normal routine business. We are regularly assessing the capability we think we need, matching it against what we have, establishing what the gaps are and then looking at ways of filling them. It is in that spirit that we have approached the Kosovo lessons learned as important inputs to our capability definition and to our gap analysis, but not giving them in the first instance any greater priority over any other gaps and information we have, but letting them take their place and seeing within those capability analyses where these might help us to improve. As you would expect, some of them we are taking forward urgently and some in a slightly more analytical way. That is what our role has been.

  435. As a result of the Kosovo experience, to what extent have you had to reorder your equipment priorities? Are there any requirements previously on your wish list which now look less important or relevant following the conflict?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Of course, and the most obvious example of something that needs addressing has been perhaps our insufficient capacity in the Smart and precision guided munitions area. We have work underway in that area, but we are giving it a higher priority now. Air secure communications is another area we have had to re-examine and give a higher priority to in the work that we are doing. I think it is fair to say that there are no lessons from Kosovo which did not figure in our analysis beforehand. What has changed is the priority that we are attaching to some of them. Of course, in doing that, we have to think of the other scenarios in which we might operate and make judgments about what the most likely ones are and where the Kosovo lessons learned would be directly applicable and where they might not be.

Mr Cann

  436. Are we talking about Tomahawk here?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) No, precision guided munitions of all sorts.

  437. Of all sorts including Tomahawk?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes.

  438. And the laser guided ones?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes.

Mr Hood

  439. Do you have a role in contributing to and taking forward NATO's Defence Capabilities Initiative and the United Kingdom and NATO studies of the lessons of the Kosovo campaign?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The Defence Capabilities Initiative is one of the factors within which I must work and, yes, I am required in doing my work to look to see what opportunities there are for collaboration or for cooperation or for improving interoperability. We do that through a series of working groups and contacts which we are in the process of developing. As I observed in the beginning, we started setting up this organisation in October. We have already had meetings with more than one NATO partner and are establishing relations both at the top level in the organisation and at the Director of Capability level so that they are talking to their colleagues in different nations.

  440. Are the gaps in capability identified by NATO and also by the recent WEU capabilities audit broadly the same as those on the United Kingdom's agenda for improvement? Where do our requirements differ from our allies?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I do not think that in broad principle they do differ very much. I have not yet seen the Kosovo lessons learned from all nations but there is a consistency of theme in those lessons learned broadly consistent with the lessons we learned which I have already outlined the key parts of. There is a broad agreement across NATO as to the areas which need to be improved.

  441. In answer to my first question, are there any requirements previously on your wish list, you said that there were but you did not go into much detail as to what the differences were.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The ones I specifically mentioned, the precision guided munitions and secure communications, are two obvious example of high priorities. So too are strategic lift, both by land and sea, but those were part of the programme beforehand and indeed were capabilities identified in the Strategic Defence Review as being important areas in which we had a shortfall. The four areas I have mentioned are those which are the most significant and the most important.

Mr Hancock

  442. You have not been set up long so we have to give you the benefit of the doubt. The learning process for you is still very much part of the game plan, but you have had the benefit of having instant action to reflect on. It is the failures there, the weaknesses of our equipment and what have you, that concern this Committee, and our ability to be in better shape the next time. What do you think were the significant lessons that you have to put to good use and the way in which you are going to direct your field of influence? On three specific points, can you tell us about how you feel we are going to make steps to improve three of the major drawbacks? One was the lack of a secure voice communication for our aircraft. Secondly, the failure for us to be able to refuel all types of aircraft and being tied, particularly with the US, only being able to deal with the US Navy. Thirdly, the heavy reliance on secure wide area networks and Internet technology and the failure of us to be able to deliver our own system there. Could we deal with those three as one and then the other lessons that you feel you have to now spread the word on?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Live operations are in a sense a kind of laboratory. We perceive them in that way and indeed would expect to have a lot of lessons to learn after each one. Not all the lessons are the same of course. The lessons in the Gulf War were very different in some respects to those in the Kosovo War and the reason was that the terrain and the objectives were quite different, so you would expect to learn different things. So were the groups of nations that came together to join those operations different. That would cause you to learn different lessons too. To address the specific things you have mentioned, as far as the aircraft, I will ask Air Marshal Nicholl, who is the expert here, to give you a bit more detail. As far as secure communications for aircraft were concerned, we had a system of frequency hopping radios which provided us with a deal of security and which we shared with a number of members of NATO. This particular operation was the first sign that the Americans had fielded a new type of secure radio which was incompatible with our frequency hopping radio. Consequently, we discovered that we had to keep up to date here. It is the case that the Americans are able to give a great deal more resource to this than we are. They are therefore finding it easier to keep up with the technology, but we have made provision now for trials of secure radio and action has been taken. The Secretary of State has made an announcement about it and if the trials are successful, our aircraft will shortly be fitted with that, both those operating in this particular campaign and in due course on a wider basis. As far as refuelling is concerned, I will ask Air Marshal Nicholl to give you the detail but it is the case that we refuelled a number of aircraft from different nations from our tankers during the operation. The exact numbers I do not know. I dare say Air Marshal Nicholl does, but it is also true that within the American forces there is more than one system of refuelling used. Loosely speaking, there is a probe method and a boom method. We use the probe method. Not all American aircraft do. Our tankers are not equipped to supply those who use a different system. As far as secure communications are concerned, I think it is important to understand that eventually the sorts of operations that we were engaged in in Kosovo were largely urban operations, mainly of a static nature, which is a different kind of concept of operations and requirement from that of fluid, mobile warfare. We have had to make different provisions for it. Brigadier Figgures can give you the details of that. We have certainly learned what we have to do there. We have made provision to deal with it. As a matter of course, like most other departments, we have to make choices with our resources. We deal with the most urgent things because we know that when we face particular circumstances we can take urgent action to put the individual matters right or to address the specific needs of an operation. In most cases, we know how we are going to do that too. Sometimes, as in the case of secure communications for aircraft, we find a new problem we have to address.

  443. What you say is very plausible, or it would be if there were not such large gaps between the real action and the quiet periods between. You are talking as if this came as a complete shock to everyone that we were having to put all this together to go to Kosovo. All of these things must have been readily apparent to your, your predecessors and other senior commanders and certainly must have been known by senior ministers. We had, in effect, pretty substandard kit when it came to taking on this sort of operation.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I do not think I accept that. For a start, the operation was successful, but to address the specific questions that you have mentioned, the new American secure radio was fielded for the first time in this operation.

  444. That was a surprise to us, was it?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We had not had to operate with them before.

  445. They had not told us that they had switched to a new system, our chief ally?
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) Yes, we did know that they had applied a secure element on top of the HAVE QUICK II two radios that was, in effect, the NATO agreed system. What we were surprised by was the fact that they not only had it available on their aeroplanes but they insisted on using it in this operation. I say "surprised"; that was a limitation. The fact is that there is a NATO lag behind the speed at which any one nation and the most powerful nation on its own can make the decision. There was an American decision to move forward without waiting for allies and to apply that in this particular operation. That was potentially a problem.

  446. Were they made aware that that would probably disadvantage us?
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) Yes, and we had during the operation a number of work rounds. This was not a disaster. The work rounds involved use of code words to deal with the extra level of classification. Those code words imposed additional workload on particularly single seat pilots, who in effect have a substantial number of additional words and mental processes to go through. That adds to the problem but it is not in and of itself a complete stopper. We would like to do better. The lesson that we have learned from Kosovo is that we should follow with the Americans in putting this additional level of security on and that the rate at which the ability for one to buy scanners—the sorts of things that we know intercept mobile phones and so on, dealing with the hopping radios and the rapid rates of change that we have on our radios at the moment—does mean that we have a limitation. On refuelling, I turn your comments round completely the other way. The American Air Force is not interoperable with anyone else other than the F16s that it has sold round the world. The US Navy and the US Marine Corps we were able to refuel. 85% of the fuel that United Kingdom tankers gave away they gave away to other nations. No other nation is in a position to say that it was as interoperable. During the campaign, because of the incredibly intense air to air refuelling activity, this is a small piece of terrain, the sort of size of Wales, and at times there were 100 tankers a night getting airborne. There was a huge problem there. We alone of the NATO nations put the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System into our refuelling aircraft and made them far and away the most desirable tankers in the force. The fact that some parts of American forces could not use it is not our problem. You may be aware that one tanker captain was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and that was specifically, apart from his overall operational experience, for the support he provided personally to two EA6B Prowler American aircraft electronic warfare operations.

Mr Gapes

  447. Can I take you back to this problem about compatibility of systems? Is that a general problem for all the NATO countries, that the Americans have their own specification and nobody else is able to be compatible, or is it a specific problem that we have? Are there any other NATO countries that are able to have a better relationship than we are?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) As a general rule, it is quite a widespread problem. The fact is that the Americans are able to put far greater resources in than most other NATO countries and they are a single country as opposed to a group. When they discover some new development, they tend to introduce it into service there and then, which is a reasonable position for them to take, but it may introduce difficulties in the remainder of NATO's forces that are at different stages of development or different stages of procurement and cannot therefore immediately change.

  448. I understand the problem but my question is: are any other NATO European partners in a position to have a better communications link than we have on those issues that you raise?
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) To take a simple example, yes, those that have bought the F16 or the F18 have an immediate, easy fit and easy integration for some systems where we, with a different background, would have to do much more work. Even if we chose the same weapon or the same communication system, the same data mechanism, we would have a much more difficult ab initio integration problem than those for whom the Americans had in effect already developed it. It is not an even handed thing. It does vary. I would not want the Committee to feel that this is something where the Americans are treating us with disdain. We are only 50% of their problem. There is a tension over there as well between the Atlantic community and the Pacific community.

  449. This is a problem relating to specific aircraft, as opposed to a general problem?
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) When we apply a new cryptographic system into an aircraft, each aircraft needs that system installed in a different way and has different integration problems. Classically, for example, we have to go through a whole system of studies on electromagnetic compatibility. Does this piece of radio affect the compass? The way it affects the compass in our aeroplane will be different to the way it affects an F16 or an F18 or whatever. The Americans will have put money and effort into establishing compatible systems for their aircraft. It is then available to those, if they can afford it, who also own F16s or F18s to go and buy that off the shelf. It is not always available cheaply, but it is available to them. We have to do that integration work from scratch for our aircraft.

Mr Hancock

  450. What were the major weaknesses in our equipment capabilities, as you see it?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We have discussed communications at some length. As is well known, we believe that we need a better precision bombing and precision guided munitions capability than we had then. We need a better strategic lift than we had then. We knew that already. We were in the throes of acquiring it. Those seem to me to be the most important lessons. Obviously, when we are able to field a new army communication system, we will have a better army communication system on the ground too, but that work is also well underway. I think I stand by my statement that there were no capabilities that we were unaware of. What has changed is the relative priorities.

  451. If we judge our ability to remedy those failures with the way in which you would evaluate the MOD's ability to put right the wrongs, would you not feel that some of our NATO allies would be able to fill some of those roles for us with a more specialised role for individual countries within NATO for future operations of this kind, rather than us trying to afford to put all of our wrongs right or all of our capabilities in good order? Would it not be better for us to have more of a specialised role?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It sounds as if you are inviting me to redo the Strategic Defence Review off the cuff.

  452. We have been through this since the Strategic Defence Review and we have to learn some lessons. What we know is that our capability was defective in lots of areas.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I do not recognise that picture. I think we were very effective in the majority of areas but of course we have things that we need to put right, most of which we had identified before. It is true that at any given moment we can only use the resources that we have and we have to make choices. That is not unique across government. I have no doubt at all in my mind that one could reach an agreement in which different countries undertook to provide different parts of the capability. That seems to me to be a political question, not a defence one, because it will obviously restrict those countries' abilities and capabilities in other circumstances. The capabilities that we are going to field are those that have been identified in the Strategic Defence Review and form part of the government's defence policy.

  453. When will your wish list be available for us to look at?
  (Mr Mantell) We have already published an initial stab at that. Lord Robertson did that before he left to be Secretary General of NATO. We have a plan later in the year to publish rather more on this. I do not, I am afraid, have a precise date.

Mr Hood

  454. Is it in great detail or is it just typical MoD PR?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It will explain the lessons that are learned. The thing that my organisation is concerned to do is to make sure that we try and identify which lessons are going to be universally applicable to any kind of operations, which are specific to the particular kind of operations in Kosovo and which are the most likely to take place. That is not just for me; that is Ministry of Defence policy and arguably a government policy issue as well. Then we will address the capability gaps against those needs, but it does not follow that every lesson learned from Kosovo needs to be implemented with the same urgency. Quite clearly, we cannot do all the things that we are currently doing and a whole lot of new things unless we are fortunate enough to be given a much bigger resource. That is not my call either.

Mr Gapes

  455. You referred to the need for more precision guided munitions. From the experiences in Kosovo, which precision guided weapons give us the best capabilities and which are less useful?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) There is a different range of weapons which are appropriate in different sets of circumstances, depending upon the terrain, the overall political objectives and the sorts of targets that you are trying to take on. In the case of Kosovo, for example, it was particularly important to minimise the risk of collateral damage. It was also pretty important not to increase the risk of casualties on our own side because both of those things would have had a strategic impact on the operation as a whole, both within NATO and perhaps more widely. That will determine the way in which you approach things. So will the weather; so will the terrain. The sort of weapon that you want for attacking a tank in a desert where it is open may be different from the sort of weapon you want for attacking a tank hidden in a school playground. We would always want a range of weapons and, as you know, we have a range of weapons. We have what are rather unkindly referred to as dumb bombs. We have now developed a system for achieving much greater accuracy than we had before. We have cluster bombs. We are doing some trials to try and integrate the Maverick air to ground weapon into our Harriers. We have laser guided bombs and we are investigating what other sorts of weapons may be appropriate to give us a full, all weather capability.
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) I can only support the fact that it does require a range of weapons. The particular circumstances in Kosovo highlighted one key feature and brought that up in priority. That was less the way it is commonly referred to as the need for all weather capability to keep operations going day after day. This was essentially a political and coercive operation. In military terms, at least in some circumstances, it does not matter whether you drop the bridge today or tomorrow. The fact that it is raining today and you have to wait until tomorrow may not be a military problem but it may be crucial to maintain the pressure, in this sort of operation, therefore to have attacks running today. That ramps up the requirement for an all weather precision capability. The problem with all weather precision capabilities is that they tend not to be reactive. They are only useful, in most circumstances, against pre-identified, static, longstanding targets. In the very long term, we hope to be able to create a much more reactive all weather capability but that is in the much longer term. In the short term, the advantage of our laser guided systems at present is that the designating aircraft is actually looking at the target area and therefore has some indication as to whether the target is there or has moved or whether something that will affect collateral damage decisions has moved into the area. Crews were able to look at the target area and say, "I am not happy. I am bringing the weapons back", and to take a very rigorous approach to avoid that strategic difficulty that the Admiral outlined.

Mr Cann

  456. As I understand it, I supported what we did in Kosovo and I still support it. We did the right thing. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it is fairly apparent that we managed to take out about three tanks during the whole process. When you watch the TV screens, as people like me do, it is the tanks that you regard as fairly important in ethnic cleansing. Has this been taken on board, our inability without collateral damage to take out armoured weapons on a field of what we would regard as neutral territory?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The taking out of tanks when they are in the open is relatively straightforward. The fact is that they did not come out. They went and hid in a variety of places. In some cases, you might be able to see them but if you are determined, as we were, to avoid collateral damage you still cannot attack them. If you damage a tank that happens to be parked in a school playground, it does not matter what weapon you use, however precise it is, you are almost certain to cause collateral damage. The important point about the campaign was that the tanks did not come out. If they had, they would have been destroyed in much greater numbers. They did not come out so that kept them off the streets, so to speak. It also meant that the Serbian army was able to preserve them. If people are not going to field forces, it is almost impossible to destroy them without risks of collateral damage. That was a constraint that was laid on the operation.

  457. You are satisfied, are you, that we have the capability to take out tanks that are in action?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes.

  458. Sure?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes.

Mr Gapes

  459. Can I take you back to your answer where you said that we needed a range of weapons? In evidence given to us previously, we have been told that the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile exceeded expectations. If that system is so accurate, if it is immune to the weather problems that we have had and which you have referred to and it also provides safety and security for those who are deploying it so that we do not have casualties amongst our pilots, why should we not simply put all our eggs in that one basket and go down that route, given that it is accurate, it is an all weather weapon and we do not lose our own pilots?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It is accurate against static targets. Its guidance system requires it to know where the target is before it is launched. It cannot be adjusted in mid-course so it is no good against mobile targets. It still would have the same effect having a much larger warhead than some of these other weapons that we have been talking about with collateral damage if it were used in circumstances where it was surrounded by buildings you did not want to destroy. You have seen the effect of a Tomahawk on a building. If you use that against a tank, even if you knew where it was, it would risk collateral damage on a major scale. It is also much more expensive than other weapons. That is not surprising. War is an economic activity. It does not make sense to use a weapon that is more expensive than the target. It would in the end cause the other side to be able to outlast you financially, a well known historical fact.

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