Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 460 - 479)



Mr Cann

  460. That is a new quote for my book: "War is an economic activity".
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Of course it is. The Tomahawk is the ideal weapon for certain circumstances. It is not the ideal weapon for attacking armour.
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) There is also the problem of the constraints on the launch platforms. What you are interested in is the guidance system, the cruise capability, the long range entry so that people are separated. Two years from now, we will be starting to field Stormshadow, the air launched equivalent, and the nation will possess hundreds, as opposed to the numbers that you know of Tomahawk in tens. The capability is attractive but it is very expensive, as the Admiral says.

Mr Gapes

  461. We have also seen recent press coverage about the possibilities of converting the Paveway II and Paveway III to a GPS based system. What are you doing to remedy the difficulties of using laser guided weapons?
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) The Admiral mentioned that we wanted an all weather precision system. We would like to deliver just the warhead and keep all the expensive, clever bits as much as possible. In looking at all weather precision guided weapons, we have several choices. We could go down the JDAM route but that, because it is a different weapon to those that we possess at the moment, would involve considerable costs in the integration. There may be a cheaper route by putting JDAM-like cleverness and GPS-based guidance into the shape that we currently own with Paveway II and Paveway III. That requires some work but we are doing the work to establish what is the best route forward on this and how we integrate it. It is not a panacea. When the bombs are sitting underneath the Tornado, they cannot see the satellite. It can take up to 30 seconds for a GPS system to lock onto the satellites and start navigating. That only starts a few seconds after the bomb has dropped and comes out of the shadow of the aircraft. There is a huge range of circumstances in which simply sticking a GPS weapon onto the aircraft is not a solution. It does you no good at all. What you need is an integration with the aircraft so that you can pre-prime the weapon with where it is, where the satellite is, the current universal time and so on. That takes a lot of integration and is not cheap or simple. I might also add one other thing about precision guided weapons. I sense from reading evidence to the Committee before that you think dumb bombs are a silly way to go. We need to be clear that dumb bombs have a considerable capability. If I was required to attack this building, the Houses of Parliament, I would be quite confident of our ability to hit it with dumb weapons from medium altitude. Post the work that we did on better precision with dumb bombs during the Kosovo campaign, I would be pretty confident of our ability to hit this wing and this corridor with dumb bombs. We are seeking the precision to be able to hit this room or the one next to it with precision guided weapons. The problem with precision guided weapons is that they are guided and if the guidance fails I have less probability of hitting St Thomas's Hospital the other side of the river with a dumb bomb than with a system with the ability to fly itself. If it mislocates the satellites, I do not know where it is going to go. It will go a long way. It is a low probability but it may be a collateral damage risk that I am not prepared to accept.

Mr Hood

  462. You are not telling us that the lesson from Kosovo is that you know how to blow up Parliament easier?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It is a tempting thought.

Mr Gapes

  463. You have indirectly answered a number of questions I was going to ask, but there are some specific points. You referred to Maverick earlier. You referred to the Joint Direct Attack Munition, JDAM. Those are American systems. You said that no weapon was a panacea, but the reality is if you are carrying out assessments you will be clearly at some point making a judgment as to which route we go down. Can you tell us at this point in time what assessments you feel are the best way forward?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We clearly need the ability to be able to be much more precise in the way that we attack things. We need to be able to be confident that we can attack the target that we want to get to. We are giving a lot of thought and effort to precision but at the same time we also have to be aware that we may find ourselves—as we did, for example, in 1990—confronting large armed formations in the open desert. We may need a different kind of capability. We need to keep as big a range of munitions as we can but we are, without doubt, short on the all weather precision capability and we are doing our best to improve that but we will not put all our eggs in that basket.

  464. How much is this driven by cost factors?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) In any activity, you have to make choices. I do not suppose the Ministry of Defence is unique in that. Our aspirations could quite easily out-pace the budget that any conceivable political party might wish to allocate to us. I think that is also true of other government departments. We have to make choices to live within our allocated resources. That is not new either. Nor, by the way, is it unique to this country.

  465. Clearly, we cannot afford everything that we want. You have referred to so-called dumb munitions as opposed to smart munitions. If you had to make the choice and you could have a large quantity of relatively cheaper munitions, as opposed to state of the art American systems where we cannot get the quantities that we require, where would you come down?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I would not make the choice. I would rather keep both capabilities on the grounds that I would be able to acquire increased quantities of one or the other in extreme circumstances should I need to. Indeed, all the operations we have conducted in recent years have shown that we have been able to go out and acquire more of whatever it was that we needed. That is part of our assessment process: how could we top up this capability that we need, rather than keep large numbers of things on the shelf which, as every shopkeeper knows, is a very expensive way to do business. I would rather keep the capabilities of both and a stockpile of a sensible size and then be in a position to go and acquire more when the circumstances demanded it.

  466. Taking an incremental approach rather than going to a state of the art system? Is that what you are saying?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) No. I would want to be in a state of the art system but I would not want to sink myself into it so deeply that I could not afford to be in any other system. We need a range of choices, depending on circumstances, terrain, targets and so forth.
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) Can I illustrate specifically with Maverick? We are in the process of acquiring Brimstone, an excellent anti-armour weapon for a vast range of circumstances. There are some circumstances that we have discovered in Kosovo where our current cluster weapon was not desirable and Brimstone itself would have problems. Maverick fills that niche capability. It is not something that we would have necessarily felt we could afford to go out and acquire, to get the totality of the system. As it happens, the fact that the Americans have integrated Maverick onto the AV8B, directly equivalent to our Harrier GR7, means that it looks as though—and we are doing the work to confirm—we have a cheap route to fill in that little corner, but it is stay with the main thrust, as the Admiral said, and fill in the corners where you can.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We know where we can get Maverick missiles when or if we need to increase the number.

Mr Brazier

  467. Could I take you back to an earlier answer? You quite rightly reminded us that you cannot use highly expensive systems continually to destroy very cheap ones because with an even remotely comparable aggressor you would run out of money. You also rightly reminded us of the difficulties both of finding targets because the stuff was tucked away and of avoiding collateral damage to the targets. Could I nonetheless rephrase Mr Cann's question to you by saying how is it that Britain managed to use up apparently the whole of its stocks of some of its smart bombs, certainly a very high proportion of its smart bombs, that America managed to use up an absolutely unthinkably expensive amount of Smart bombs as well and some not so Smart bombs and at the end of it we appear to have found so very few enemy targets knocked out on the ground when we arrived there?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) There was a wide range of targets that—

  468. I am talking of military targets.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) There is a suggestion behind what you said that we spent all our effort trying to attack tanks. We did spend quite a lot of effort trying to do that but we also spent a lot of effort trying to attack a very large number of other targets which were successfully attacked. I have to repeat that, if tanks are not fielded, they cannot be attacked. I would regard it as a sign of one of the successes of the air campaign that it stopped tanks being fielded. That reduced the chances we had to destroy them without, in many cases, unacceptable risk of collateral damage, but it did not mean that they were out on the streets, terrorising people. We know that they were hidden away. One must understand that in a coercive campaign you are trying to change people's behaviour. That is the object of the exercise and that was achieved.

  469. Yes, but with enormous numbers of unsuccessful shots against not just tanks but APCs and all the other moving targets. The second question is this: what this campaign, although you say it is different terrain, had in common with both the Gulf and the Falklands was a very low amount of built up area. In that respect, it may not be typical of campaigns of the future. Had we been facing something more like Grozny, where very considerable amounts of heavy kit could be tucked away in reinforced concrete buildings, we would have had very little option but to use large amounts of weapons, either dumb weapons or a dumb capability, with inevitably very large amounts of collateral damage because smart bombs do not offer a solution to operations in built up areas.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I agree with you. We have all seen the results of the Grozny activity and the sorts of things that the Russians found themselves doing. There has been a very large amount of collateral damage.

Mr Gapes

  470. Can I take you back to the impact of what we are trying to achieve? Does your remit, when you think about choices of weapon systems, include thinking about the wider psychological effect of the use of a particular weapon system on an enemy? For example, would you bring into your calculations about which weapon system to use the impact that it would have on, for example, Milosevic or in some future conflict another figure on the other side, and how they might react if they were attacked by a Tomahawk as opposed to by bombs delivered by aircraft?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) In generic terms, I suppose so but I would not want to push that too far. Assuming that I were in a position to be able to judge the impact on Milosevic or Saddam Hussein's mind of what we might do, I suppose I could attempt to take it into account. What we are trying to do is specify our capability in terms of outcomes. What do we want to be able to do here? In terms, broadly speaking, of military outcomes, we want to destroy this or blow up that or deny access to the other thing and then invite our suppliers to present us with ways in which we might do that, having first assured ourselves that there are no tactical, doctrinal or other things that we can do, organisational training, crew support and so forth, that would allow us to do it with what we already have. Whilst we understand the general thrust of warfare and we make some judgments about that, I think it becomes a bit difficult if we have to analyse the particular minds of particular leaders of particular countries. I am not sure that I could analyse a politician's mind as well as that.

  471. If you are dealing with an opponent who operates hiding of systems, huge numbers of decoys, does not engage directly and you have a weapon system whereby you could get very close to his seat of government by using that as opposed to just bombing generally and perhaps not hitting many tanks or anything, is that not a factor you would take into consideration?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Indeed. Perhaps I have been a shade dismissive. We do some psychological research but of a generic sort. It is really difficult to get down to individual people's minds. Of course we try and judge that kind of impact, yes, and that will be one of the factors we take into account, but in the end we have to specify a capability in sufficient clarity for someone to decide what sort of equipment might match it.

  472. Can I ask a final question about weather forecasting? Large numbers of our aircraft flew back with their bomb loads because of poor weather. They were not able to use them on the targets because they could not clearly identify the targets or because they were concerned about collateral damage or the target moved and therefore they were not sure where it was. Does this suggest that we have sufficiently capable weather forecasting or were we just unlucky that we chose to launch this air offensive at a particular time of year in Kosovo and probably, if we had done it at a different time of year, we would have had different weather?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) One of the things with which I comfort myself every day, especially today, is that I am not responsible for the weather. I know you have had already had a session with the Chief of Joint Operations on this subject. It really is not my field. This is not a piece of equipment. My understanding is that we got excellent and accurate weather forecasts from the Meteorological Office throughout. It is true that the operation was conducted at a time of the year when the weather was not very good. It was a surprise to people that quite so few days out of the 78 were suitable days for visual bombing of the safe sort that we wanted to do. We did not control when the operation started. That was determined by the behaviour of the person we were trying to change. I am not sure what we can usefully say. The level of accuracy of weather forecasts that we get from the Met Office is very good and was very good throughout the Kosovo campaign.
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) It certainly was. Operations would be launched when it was known that there was patchy cover. To run an operation over somewhere like Wales and find that the forecast is for showers and your particular operating area happens to be where there is a shower but somebody else either going to the same place an hour later or going somewhere just 20 miles away finds his operating is clear—that accounts for a significant proportion that came back.

  473. What about equipment problems? Were there any problems of interoperability because of the weather?
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) I am not aware of any other than in the generally poor weather and the very dense air traffic, for want of a better word, in the tanking area. That is why we fitted the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, JTIDS, which gives other JTIDS equipped aircraft the precise location of the aircraft and gives the command set the precise location of the aircraft. That is the only thing I am aware of.

Dr Lewis

  474. At least we have discovered so far that it is easier to obliterate the House of Commons with a not very smart bomb than to analyse the mind of a politician. Indeed, if you do the one, you do not have to worry about the other. I am not a very smart politician when it comes to communications systems. I know very little about them and therefore in the best military tradition I have been deputed to ask you questions on this subject. Some of these questions will touch on things you have already answered, but I hope you will bear with me as I work my way through the series that has been put together. A number of communications problems seem to have been thrown into relief by the fact that the form of warfare that increasingly we are expecting to be engaged upon is expeditionary warfare rather than set piece battles where communications would be run from a permanent headquarters far in the rear. This clearly complicates the problem. It is hardly surprising that we did have communications problems in the Kosovo conflict. Can you confirm that our forces have insufficient secure communications and datalink capabilities for operations like Kosovo?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) You are talking predominantly about ground force communications, I think. What drives the architecture of a communication system is the concept of operations, obviously. There is a considerable difference between fluid, mobile operations and static operations in built up areas which I will ask Brigadier Figgures to enlarge upon in a moment. The Committee is well aware that we are in the process of trying to introduce a completely new army communication system which has two prime aims. The first is to provide secure communications at the appropriate levels and the second is to provide a basis for full digitisation of the battle space. It would be true to say that we have not yet got full digitisation and we are not alone in that, but we have planned so to do. It will be built upon the present system. The present army system, Clansman, is old and difficult to support, although we can support it for as long as is necessary, expensive though it will be. That is one of the reasons why we want to get the Bowman system in, but it still cannot deal with the conduct of operations in a built up area. For that reason, we had to introduce a system to do that. We have experience of that of course in Northern Ireland, where we have to do the same kind of thing. We were able to introduce a system which allows us to do it. Rather than me attempt to describe ground operations communications, we had best ask Brigadier Figgures to talk to you.
  (Brigadier Figgures) The issue with combat net radio in built up areas is the straight line propagation of the radio waves. If one were operating in the shadow of this bottle, one would not be in communication. The way to overcome it is by having a static network with repeater stations which allow you to see into these shadows. That we achieved with the deployment of Polygon, which was a secure radio system for Pristina, and Polygon Plus which is going to be deployed outside. If we were fighting in built up areas, clearly communication is very important down at the lowest level. One does not have the luxury of setting up such a static situation. The personal role radio which will enable riflemen in sections to speak to each other and section and fire team leaders to speak to their respective riflemen will enable us to achieve the necessary communication when fighting in built up areas.

Mr Brazier

  475. Those will work in steel clad buildings, will they?
  (Brigadier Figgures) You are referring to the Faraday cage effect. Any radio will have that problem but not all buildings are complete Faraday cages and indeed you will be aware probably from the fact that your car radio works that there is an aerial outside but you can also get your transistor radio to work inside the car. So yes, they will work, but there will be attenuation of the signal.

Dr Lewis

  476. You have touched on a number of the points that I have got in this little mix of questions. First of all, you mentioned Bowman. Now, there were press reports suggesting that Bowman is close to collapse. Is that true and, if so, what will you do about it?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It cannot collapse; it is the Army's most important equipment priority and in my top two or three, and indeed, part of it has already been implemented. Brigadier Figgures referred to the personal role radio which is part of that set-up which will be placed on contract later this year, but it is a very difficult and demanding specification, trying to cope, as it does, with a wide range of communications, a wide range of vehicles in a wide range of terrains and it is a daunting challenge, but I have every confidence that we will find a route through.

  477. Now, reference was also made to Polygon and these are the hand-held telephones given to the Army at Pristina. Are you satisfied that they are providing adequate, secure and inter-operable communications and is it intended that this Polygon equipment would be extended to all UK troops and, if so, what sort of timescale do you have in mind?
  (Brigadier Figgures) It is secure. The level of security would not be that which we would use for war fighting, but it is secure and meets the requirements of the operations that we are undertaking in Pristina. The question of extending it, yes, we are going to extend it through to Project Polygon Plus which will extend the Polygon commercial system and it will give all UK troops access to it.

  478. Have you any idea of the timescale?
  (Brigadier Figgures) That is under way at the moment and the in-service date I cannot give you at this stage.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It is perhaps worth adding on security that we tend to talk about security as if it is a blanket thing, but it is not of course. What matters is the denial of the information for the period in which its early use would be of benefit to the opposition, and in some cases that can be a very short period indeed. Typically, with tactical operators around built-up areas, it does not have to be very long, so you can certainly accept different degrees of security, whereas strategically of course you would want something quite different.

  479. Applying my distinctly underwhelming level of knowledge about these things, you referred earlier to digitisation and I assume that, when talking about digitisation of communications, we are talking of something analogous to the fact that my mobile phone being digital is far harder to listen to from the outside than the previous versions, so, in other words, does digitisation equal much increased security?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) No, we are talking about something much wider than that. We are talking about the handling of a huge range of information in an automatic way. Information technology at its most advanced is what we are talking about, presenting a picture for all those involved in fighting a battle at an appropriate level for their role, but what was the question about?

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 3 July 2000