Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 480 - 499)



  480. Whether digitisation means enhanced security. You are saying it also means many other capabilities as well.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) In the sense that I used it, it has got little to do with security. Secure communications is a prime thrust of our communications work. Digitisation is a battle-fighting aid, providing information and a battle picture at all levels, so I used it in that sense, not in any other sense.

  481. We have been acquainted with the concept called "Joint Battlespace Digitisation". Would you care to explain that a little bit and given that there have been problems with inter-operability of communication systems and with the progress of Bowman, as we said earlier, what are the prospects of this being achieved?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The prospects of it being achieved are good. You will then ask me what the timescale is and that is a bit more difficult. I would not like you to think that this is virgin territory. We have already got large parts of the Forces where digital information is exchanged on high-data rate links both amongst our own Forces and with other forces of other nations. The maritime area is one and the air is another, but the land side has always been much more difficult partly because of the concept of operations and partly because of the nature of the terrain and earlier we talked about "wooding" and all the other things that interfere, but we anticipate that we will be able to pull the whole of this battlespace together. It is a pretty demanding task. If you imagine the Kosovo operation, the number of units involved, the number of aircraft, the number of ships, the number of soldiers and so forth and the number of command centres both locally in the area, the theatre, and back to the capitals of all the nations, that is the kind of network we are trying to build. The land digitisation of which Bowman is a key part is a subsection of that lot.

  482. We have been advised that the need to grapple with this problem was recognised as long ago as 1995, but that there has not been a great deal of progress in the MoD since then, and it has been suggested to us that part of the reason for this has been the reluctance of the individual Services to compromise on their aspirations to meet the need for a central system. Do you feel in fact more optimistic than this suggests?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I do. I have spent nearly all my service life, 39 years now, in an environment where information has increasingly passed in this fashion. The thrust is well recognised by all concerned. Indeed, a key part of my new organisation, as I said at the outset, is the creation of a capability manager with information superiority with the specific function to pull together all of this across the three Services and indeed he is the man, not the single Services, who is charged with developing all these systems. Perhaps it is important to point out that in my new organisation, I have the money for all the equipment and I have the staff for all the equipment and none of the single Services has any acquisition staff or any of the acquisition money, so there is no single Service approach to it, nor am I required to get the specific agreement of the single Services to what I have proposed. Obviously of course I would be foolish to ignore their views and I take them very seriously into account and the Chiefs of Staff and the FPMG all take a view of my work, but it is approached very broadly from a joint direction and the digitisation scene belongs to the capability manager with information superiority who will pull it together from a joint perspective. As a matter of fact, he is a civil servant, so he should be free of any of these prejudices. So I am confident that we will be able to get this together and that we will have no trouble with the single Services, and indeed I do not anticipate any beforehand.

Mr Hepburn

  483. You said that Bowman was introduced because Clansman was ineffective in those areas like Pristina. It strikes me as strange that we seem to learn that lesson now. What form of communication has been used in places like Belfast for years?
  (Brigadier Figgures) A system using a similar concept as Polygon, so repeater stations and it is a static infrastructure, secure, so we were able to field the Polygon system because of our knowledge of communications in Northern Ireland and we were able to get the requirement established and very quickly in hand and the procurement.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) But you do actually need to be on the ground in the area that you want to use it in before you can install it. You cannot put it into Pristina in anticipation, but you actually have to have static stations of various sorts, so you have got to be there first.

Laura Moffatt

  484. What about all this stuff we have been reading about troops having to use mobile phones then in Pristina and not only to make their own calls, but of operational purposes?
  (Brigadier Figgures) There is a large population of mobile phones in the Army and in the Services. Clearly when they arrived there, the combat radio, Clansman, they had problems with it and soldiers, being resourceful, used that which appeared to be most effective, but they said, "We needed something which gave us the appropriate security and would operate", hence the Polygon requirement.

  485. So it was true, that they are using them for business as well?
  (Brigadier Figgures) I am sure soldiers use mobile phones for every need and requirement.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) As I do myself. Incidentally, if you are implying that mobile phones are somehow free of these wooding effects, that is not true. In fact you have only got to come and stand outside the Ministry of Defence where I have to go and use mine, next door to the Horse Guards' Hotel to discover that they will not work and they will not work because of wooding caused by the buildings on either side, so they are subject to exactly the same limitations, but, as I say, you cannot put in a system like Polygon until you are already there on the ground.

Mr Hood

  486. I always thought that was because of the funny stuff you have got inside the MoD!
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, you must come and visit us. There is a big sign as you go in, saying, "Please switch off mobile phones".

Dr Lewis

  487. Let me come back again to Joint Battlespace Digitisation. Try saying that after a few whiskies late in the evening and you will have difficulties! Accepting the fact that you evidently believe that this initiative is being driven forward in the MoD with sufficient urgency and accepting the fact that you believe that single Service requirements are not standing in the way of a central need, how are you going to extend this into the multinational area? Will the UK's command and control systems need to conform to United States or NATO systems or will theirs conform with ours? Would we not be better off procuring systems with which our allies have made better progress perhaps rather than continuing to develop our own?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, I think it is important to say, as I think I already have, that when we approached one of these areas, we had no preconceptions about what piece of equipment should match it and when we go out to a competition for something, everything is up for grabs. Now, inter-operability is a key part of our work and I am hoping to be able to introduce inter-operability criteria into our requirements to make quite sure that it is properly paid attention to. We have got methods in place and we have already discussed the DCI, Defence Capabilities Initiative, in some of the work groups that we have with other nations in this area. We have got the machinery in place to try and ensure that we get that kind of inter-operability and I am confident that we can do it. I barely go a day without hearing "inter-operability" mentioned, and indeed I was in the Pentagon two weeks ago and every single person I called on, some 30 people, all used the word "inter-operability", and I am not sure they meant exactly what I mean by it, but, nonetheless, they used it, so this is deeply embedded into our psyche now, and I am confident we can do it. It is never going to be as straightforward as it might appear philosophically. Nations inevitably replace their systems at different times from each other because of their history; you are where you are. We have got a programme in which we have invested quite a deal and so have other nations. There are of course other considerations to do with industry which are not my consideration, but will be the considerations on awarding contracts, so there are practical snags which have to be overcome, but the thrust towards inter-operability is well established and I have no doubt at all that it will be met and, I repeat, individual Services do not have requirements, or if they do, I do not recognise them.

  488. I just have a couple more questions, one of which goes back to where we started when talking about the fact that it was accepted that we did not have sufficient secure communications in the campaign. This is rather a large question, though it may not lead to an overlong answer. Have you been able to assess what damage was done to our operations in Kosovo because of insecure and inadequate communications?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We have the mechanism for doing that. I am not sure that I would want to answer that here, but I could give you a note, if you want.

  489. I am sure we would like to have that because, after all, our overall study is focusing on the lessons of the Kosovo campaign, so I am sure that would be enormously helpful. Given that there was this shortfall, what part of it was due to United Kingdom equipment capabilities and what part of it was due to those of our allies, and what is being done nationally and particularly within NATO to remedy such shortfalls and to improve the inter-operability of communications? You have touched on that last point already.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) If I may, I think I would like to follow up the rest in the same note, if that is acceptable.

  490. That would be helpful. Finally, we have a memorandum submitted by the MoD and this stated that the US Navy and Air Force are now heavily reliant on so-called "Wide Area Networks" and Internet and intranet technology, and that the connectivity between these systems and UK and other NATO systems is poor. If this unsatisfactory situation indeed exists, what are we to do about it?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We are doing something about it. It means introducing quite a lot of new equipment and that is not something that we can do overnight, much as I would like to. You did not mention in that, by the way, video conferencing facilities which the United States also uses widely and which we are now using. I do not think a single exercise or operation ever goes by without demands for new command and control equipment to match the latest that the Americans are using. It is as fast as that, and it is not that far off the requirements for several millions pounds to arise for a single exercise to match that, so we are doing what we can to keep up with it. It would be nice to think that we could somehow restrain the Americans, but I do not think there is any chance of that at all. We are doing what we can to keep up with it and there is work in hand to develop all the facilities that you mentioned.

  Mr Hood: I would like to move on to SEAD and electronic warfare.

Mr Hancock

  491. I am interested to know what lessons we have actually learnt about our ability to suppress enemies' air defences up at 15,000 feet, what we have learnt about what we could do above 15,000 feet and where you feel we have gaps in our ability to suppress their ability to knock us down.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Once again I will get the technical expert to give you the technical details, but I think it is worth saying at the outset that this is a very difficult area to assess. What we do know is that only two aircraft were shot down during the entire campaign which, given the number of soldiers of theirs, is quite extraordinary against one of the more robust air defence systems in Europe, and I think we all know just how robust the Yugoslav defences were when they were Yugoslavia and they are still pretty robust, so I could say that that is one measure of success.

  492. It depends on how much they used them, does it not?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Indeed it does and what is really difficult is to know how much they used. This is a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, as you know. If an air defence system emits, you can detect it and you can launch ARM missiles at it, anti-radar missiles at it. If, on the other hand, it does not emit, which it does not necessarily have to these days, you will not necessarily know whether you have had any success or not in suppressing it, nor can you fire anti-radar missiles at it if it does not emit. Moreover, some of these systems are mobile, so it is quite hard to judge exactly what your success has been other than by the most obvious criteria, that they did not shoot us down, which of course is the purpose of an air defence system. Perhaps the Air Vice Marshall would like to enlarge on this.
  (Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) You said it depends on how much they are used. There were a huge number of missiles fired and we do not have a log of how many were fired, but we know from evidence from our own pilots that there were guys who had 20 missiles fired at them in five minutes, so there were a very substantial number of expensive systems used by the Yugoslav system, but, as the Admiral says, countering it is extremely difficult if you focus solely on SEAD, that is, your ability to kill their systems. In what is very widely known in the public domain, the O'Grady shoot-down in Bosnia, the radar was only on for a few seconds, just in the terminal phase, and that means there is nothing specifically identifying the target as an air defence system. It looks like a tank with telegraph poles on the top, but it is mobile and, other than its shape, it is not easily identified as a threat until the radar comes on and that is a significant limitation that we all face. The MAN-PADS, the low-altitude systems, a man carrying something the size of a photographic kit, are even worse. That means that there is a problem and we have to face that and recognise that and we are doing work on novel ways of addressing all of that. I do not guarantee any solution, but we are doing research and we do have work under way looking at how we can tackle that.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Which work will include defence suites of course and also tactics, quite importantly.
  (Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) And the key thing is that the objective is not actually SEAD, but the objective is to have freedom to fly where we wish and to operate where we wish, so it is a combination and I think the solution is much more likely to be a much more integrated system involving miniature air-launch decoys to confuse the systems, changes in jamming—

  493. But to send off decoy aircraft, unmanned aircraft, you have got to be fairly close to be able to do that effectively, have you not?
  (Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) Miniature air-launch decoys have the ability to go hundreds of miles.

  494. Do they?
  (Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) Yes.

  495. If we take this a stage further, learning the lessons from Kosovo, knowing that our capability is fairly limited up at 15,000 feet, and we talk about Europe as a stand-alone defence mechanism for the future, would we ever be in the position to go anywhere where we would put ourselves in a similar position to Kosovo without having a Prowler-type aircraft to support us?
  (Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) My answer would be yes, we would. There is obviously a risk equation. The Prowler was important in keeping the risk down and as to whether we could operate with the fortunate outcome that we had of no pilots or no crew lost at all and only two aeroplanes down were there no Prowlers there, my answer to that, I am afraid, would be that, as things stand at the moment, no. As to whether the solution has to be a Prowler-type aircraft, no, it does not. There are other technologies we could use and there are other systems, but I would not want to go into that in open forum.

  496. Are there any of our European allies who have a capability which even comes close to what the Prowler can provide?
  (Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) No, there are not. In terms of a penetrating, jamming aircraft, we are discussing with allies what we do from this. We have shared with the French and the Germans our air lessons learned and discussed with them how we might take this forward.

  497. It is an extremely big weakness though, is it not, for a European effort, a solely European effort where the Americans were not in any way contributing? They would not consider, I am sure, Prowler aircraft as NATO assets which will then be available to Europe in something they were not wanting to get involved in, so this is a deficiency that is going to have to be filled pretty damn quick if the European Defence Initiative is actually going to have any real momentum where they could actually say, "We can deliver an air-type campaign for 60 days" in a place and with a sophisticated air defence mechanism at their disposal. We would have to say that we could not do it, would we not?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, it is perhaps not surprising that the Alliance Co-ordinator up until quite recently assumed that all members of NATO would come to the party and the Americans were an important provider of capability, and I do not think one ought to be in the least bit surprised at that because NATO never conceived of fighting without the Americans, so that was a perfectly respectable position to take.

  498. Now it has changed.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Now we have got to look at the extent to which we think the European allies by themselves might operate in these sets of circumstances and address it and that is what the DCI is all about.

Mr Hood

  499. Surely it is in the area of satellite intelligence that we are so dependent on the Americans and this is something that the Europeans have got to grapple with?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, I think we are entering realms which go beyond my remit at the moment. The extent to which Europe might attempt to provide capabilities which currently reside only with the Americans is clearly a judgment that goes beyond my capability.

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