Examination of witnesses (Questions 500
WEDNESDAY 12 APRIL 2000
500. But surely you are there as the chief adviser
putting together this team, the sort of academic backbone of the
defence of the future, and you are putting together the lessons
learned from the most recent episodes of where war is actually
the real thing, but we have got now this chasm of inability to
operate because we could not actually effectively fly a mission
like Kosovo without American support.
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, I will ask
the Air Vice Marshall to say a word, but I must address the strategic
direction that I am given. If I am told to prepare to fight on
a very major scale without the Americans, then quite clearly that
is a strategic direction which I would have to adhere to, and
the Government's defence policy is very clearly published.
(Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) If I may, it seems to
me that the reaction is that there is a difference in class and
kind between the Prowler question and the satellite-based intelligence
question. Staying with the Prowler-type question, essentially
I agree, that Europe needs some form of capability. It is a capability.
It is not a Prowler and it is not even necessarily a jamming aircraft.
It may not be the only way of doing it and we are looking at alternative
technologies to achieve not dissimilar effects and to enable us
to contribute to the capability for NATO or a European subsection
of NATO to carry out operations of the Kosovo sort.
501. Have the Americans sold the Prowler aircraft
to any allied nation at all?
(Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) No, they have not, and
they themselves do not have enough and they could not have operated
in Kosovo if it had not been for UK tankers. Earlier on you were
asking do we role-share and this is actually a classic example
where that was done.
502. The SA80, what do you see as the principal
defects of the SA80 rifle and its sister weapon, the LSW, and
what can and is being done about it with the remedial programme?
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Again I will ask
Brigadier Figgures to talk in detail about this. My own experience
of the SA80 has been entirely a happy one, if that is the right
word to use with a weapon, and I find it almost impossible to
miss with it, so I think that, as a weapon, it is extremely effective.
The shortfall, as I think you are probably well aware, is that
in extremes of temperature it has been less reliable and these
are considerable extremes, and that it is not able to operate
with NATO ammunition because of the different nature of ammunition
which we have procured. There is a programme, a "get well"
programme, under way. The Secretary of State will decide how to
take it forward and we have a programme ready to go to replace
or, rather, refurbish sufficient of these weapons to equip everybody
that we need to equip.
(Brigadier Figgures) The SA80 has merits. It also
has demerits, which I think are recognised. We have carried out
a rigorous analysis of its shortfalls as a result of trials in
1995/96 in extremes of climate. We looked at what was necessary
to enable it to operate effectively in those extremes and, therefore,
by extension, give a high level of confidence that it will operate
in temperate climates, so we will have a global capability. Essentially
we propose to make modifications to the feeding of the round into
the chamber, the firing of the round, the extraction of the round
and the ejection of the round. We have developed, in conjunction
with the battle school at Senneybridge and using operational experience,
the rigorous battlefield mission which we will test it against
and which we tested the prototypes against, so we believe that
these proposed modifications will give us a weapon which will
be robust, fire 10,000 rounds without serious shortcomings and
have a high level of reliability in the hands of the infantrymen
involved in section/platoon/company attacks and it will be as
good as, if not better than in that respect, other weapons in
the world today. The light support weapon issue that you raise,
clearly there is a question of reliability and again we will address
that. The light support weapon is used to suppress an enemy and
deny them the opportunity of taking counter-action. That relies
upon the weight of fire and accuracy of fire to ensure that the
fire trench in which he is operating is covered with fire and
consistently covered with fire. Changing magazines does call into
question whether one can lay the weight of fire necessary on it.
However, with a reliable individual weapon, we must investigate
whether we cannot generate the necessary weight of fire within
the fire team to provide that suppression. Clearly, if we cannot
do that, then we must look at a solution which enables us to do
that and we have plans in hand to do that, so we are going to
ensure that the modifications that we are going to put in place
are rigorously tested against this demanding battlefield mission,
we are going to look at the capability of the light support weapon
with respect to suppression in a section and we have options,
should we not be successful, in that. Therefore, I think we have
a well-thought-through package of providing a reliable individual
light support weapon for all infantry soldiers.
503. Could it be a very expensive solution because,
as I understood what you were saying, there are one or two scenarios
you want to try and then have a contingency plan if things do
not work out? Would it not be cheaper and better to go to the
contingency plan now which is just to get a new rifle?
(Brigadier Figgures) One of our contingencies, clearly
this involves a considerable sum of public money and we want to
achieve the necessary operational effectiveness for the least
expenditure, but to buy a new weapon system could well be five
times as much as this programme. This is an approximate order,
but I think it gives you an idea that it is very easy to say,
"Let's buy something new", but it is not necessarily
going to be the most cost-effective solution to it.
504. Brigadier, you have given us a very comprehensive
answer and, I must say, the last part of your answer on the LSW
was the bit I was happiest with, the fact that you are looking
at possible options. I served at the very end with the SLR, and
the unit I served with were involved in the original trials of
the LSW and were frankly incredulous that it was brought into
service. None of the problems was to do with performance on the
range, but they were to do with the whole way in which both weapons
are designed. To give you three or four examples, you slam the
weapon with a fixed bipod down on a concrete surface and the barrel
bends and, without completely redesigning the LSW, you cannot
get around that. With all the fiddly little bits of the SA80,
trying to clean them with cold fingers or at night is just desperate
and the changes you have mentioned are not really going to affect
that and of course if it is not kept properly clean, as you know,
it does not operate very well. You cannot even fire it around
a left-hand corner. Is the Heath Robinson cocking device going
to be sorted out? I am not making a-party-political point here,
let's be clear, because the last Government bought this weapon,
but is it even going to be possible to fire the revamped SA80
around left-hand corners because in war corners are not all right-hand
(Brigadier Figgures) No, indeed. However, let me address
some of those points, if I may. The light support weapon, you
mentioned the barrel and the business of the bipod, well, one
of the problems is the weight of fire which I mentioned and we
have to ask ourselves whether we actually have an appropriate
barrel for you and this is one of the proposed modifications for
the light support weapon, so we will have a heavy-weight barrel
which will allow us a sustained weight of fire and all the consequent
advantages of not bending and so on and so forth.
505. With a floating bipod rather than a fixed
(Brigadier Figgures) I am not at this stage addressing
the issue of the bipod, but, I have to say, we are going to carry
out this rigorous battlefield mission and it is going to be carried
out by infantrymen in sections, it is not going to be carried
out by a load of specialists and, therefore, we will get, I think,
some very robust user comment back. On the business of the cocking
handle, the cocking handle we are going to redesign such that,
one, it ejects the cartridge and does not get stuck and, two,
it is easier to operate. Firing around buildings has always been
a problem and indeed if you are left-handed and you are firing
around a right-hand building, this is not good either. We have
recognised this in our future infantry system technology and what
we want to be able to do is give a site picture distant from the
weapon such that you can almost put the weapon around the corner
and fire it with the cross-hairs on the enemy, but this is not
available tomorrow. This, we propose, will be available something
in the order of 2008. Infantrymen have always had to make compromises
to allow themselves to engage the enemy and yes, I suspect they
are going to have to use it to best effect, but there again a
considerable amount of training and live firing is undertaken
to enable them to do that.
506. Well, I am very pleased to hear about the
trials anyway. We must go on to the Apache, but I would just leave
one final thought. I do find it really terribly sad, just as a
Brit politician, that the last time I visited an infantry battalion,
which was less than a month ago, I had all ranks saying to me,
"When are we going to rid of this rubbish and be given some
decent personal weapons?". I am sorry, I do not mean this
rudely at all because I have heard former Conservative Ministers
and current Labour Ministers say the same thing, which is that
you tell me that these things work well in the ideal conditions
of the range, but the ordinary soldiers, and not only infantry
soldiers, do really hate these weapons.
(Brigadier Figgures) And we are not only going to
test in the ideal conditions of the range.
507. Why do you not just get rid of the thing?
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, just to put
a gloss on it, the programme we have got I believe will cost tens
of millions, whereas the replacement would cost hundreds of millions.
508. I hear that. Obviously, as a Committee,
we have expressed reservations on this on and off for ten years
with some very strongly worded recommendations long before most
of us were on the Committee. Moving on to Apache, the US Department
of Defense's "After-Action Report" on the Kosovo campaign
had some quite difficult things to say on the US deployment of
Apache helicopters to Albania. The reports in the press too suggest
that it was not an unbounded success. What lessons has the UK
learnt with the view to the Apache being shortly taken into service?
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) First of all, I
do not want to try and defend or explain whatever decision the
Americans may have made because I was not part of that.
509. I understand that, yes.
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The way in which
we have envisaged the use of the Apache helicopter is probably
slightly different from the way the Americans have envisaged it.
Perhaps it is first appropriate to say that the helicopter that
we are purchasing is not quite the same as the one that they have
got. All the helicopters will be fitted with radar which is not
the case with the Americans, and they will have a more powerful
engine than the American ones have, but we see it as an air-manoeuvre
unit, not as a supporting-fire unit. It is not going to attempt
to replicate what Harriers and Jaguars do, but it is going to
be a manoeuvre unit whose job is to find, fix and strike the enemy,
in traditional Army parlance. We have absolutely no doubt that
for that purpose it is a superb weapon which will be very successful.
I think that is slightly different from the way the Americans
envisage its development, is it not?
(Brigadier Figgures) Yes, reflecting its capability.
510. Can I take you a little further into that.
You are absolutely confident that this new radar fit will be able
to pick up telegraph wires?
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I cannot answer
that, but I would be happy to supply that in a written note.
511. Because it is almost impossible to use
it effectively at low level in Europe if it does not. I was told,
rightly or wrongly, that that was one of the critical areas which
led the US Marines not to buy the Apache and to buy a revamped
40-year-old Cobra design instead.
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I am afraid I will
have to give you the answer to that subsequently.
512. Thank you very much, Admiral; that will
be helpful. Can I just ask one last question on Apache. The American
study, as I understand it, concluded very much what the Russians
concluded about the use of their Hinds in Afghanistan, that in
order to deploy these helicopters effectively, you have to have
an enormous base area with very considerable amounts of local
protection, otherwise the machines can be very easily taken out
from the ground. Have we concluded that about the deployment of
our Apaches and where would we get the troops from if we were
to do that?
(Brigadier Figgures) Having grouped them in 16 Air
Assault Brigade together with infantry battle groups, one of the
tasks of that all-arms brigade will be to ensure the security
of the operating bases, so we recognise that they cannot operate
in isolation and it is an all-arms requirement, an all-arms activity
to ensure the security for obvious forward-operating bases.
513. Forgive me, but just to press the point,
if you are deploying 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is supposed
to be our most manoeuvrable and usable brigade, if it is doing
a forward task, it presumably cannot find from within its brigade
resources the manpower to protect. The Americans are bandying
about figures of about 5,000 men and that may be an overestimate,
and I am sure it is an overestimate, but you cannot find very
large numbers of guards for bases within the brigade surely?
(Brigadier Figgures) It very much depends upon the
task the brigade is given, the threat against which it is deployed,
the priority that the appropriate commander gives to the security
of those bases, but integral to 16 Air Assault Brigade are light
air assault battle groups and there is the capability to provide
their own security and if there is a requirement to reinforce,
clearly there will have to be a task of organisation to reflect
that new mission, but I think, and again this is straying from
the equipment capability to the overall capability, there is an
understanding of the need to ensure the security of forward-operating
Mr Hood: I would like to move on to ISTAR,
which, for the record, is Intelligence, Surveillance, Target-Acquisition
514. Thank you, Chairman; you have saved me
the job of having to say it. I really thought I had drawn the
short straw with this, but I do not think I have because I believe
that it is incredibly important, is it not, the way in which we
are able to make sure that we do not put our people at risk and
that we reduce collateral damage in any theatre, so I can see
how important it is. However, I have to tell you that the advisers
had to earn their pennies from me this morning because I was saying,
"Help me. What is Phoenix?" and they wrote back, "Like
a big model plane". Is that not wonderful, so I have an idea
what we are talking about at least, but it is an important issue
and I need to know how and if in Kosovo we were caught out on
this issue at all.
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, we do not
have a full ISTAR capability in service yet.
515. And ASTOR?
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, ASTOR is
a part of it. There is a whole range because it is a very all-embracing
system, but if your question is about Phoenix specifically
516. All of it. Let us talk about our capability
in Kosovo, where were the shortcomings?
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We have not yet
got the airborne surveillance entirely in the way we hope to have
it, not hope to have but plan to have. When that is in service
we will have a much better, full picture. We did use Phoenix and
I think with increasing success as the campaign went on. This
is a model aircraft, quite a large one. It was designed initially
as a targeting system not as a surveillance system but it has
been developed quite substantially and after some early difficulties,
actually not in Kosovo particularly but in the Services, difficulties
with both its reliability and its fly-ability, I think it is correct
to say. It was used quite heavily in Kosovo, indeed with such
success that we have been asked now by the military commanders
to send it back again so they can continue to deploy it.
517. That is interesting.
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Brigadier, would
you like to say anything about Phoenix?
(Brigadier Figgures) Yes. I believe you had interest
in this project before. It had a long gestation period but it
did come into service in December 1998. I think it is appropriate
to note that it is, outside Israel, the only tactical RPV in service,
zero length take-off, zero length landing, very good sensor capability.
One must remember it was written against a requirement for the
Central Region and therefore it has translated rather well into
this type of environment. I can give you some information on what
it was capable of doing just to illustrate how useful it was.
On the D-day when they crossed over, the Phoenix detected 12 Mig
21s at Pristina as the Serbs were withdrawing, these were detected
at some considerable range. It is interesting that a previous
RPV had flown over the same location and had not located that,
it had declared the area clear. It has a much better resolution
than comparable systems. Now when the Russians occupied the airport
the Phoenix overflew the complete area and was able to identify
vehicles and give information on their activity. Because of the
low cloud in that area, Phoenix was often the only UAV in theatre
that was able to provide any information on a regular basis. It
was tasked with monitoring the ground security zone and it did
that effectively. Prior to D-day it conducted a search of all
known Serb positions and this proved in fact in the majority of
cases the Serbs had withdrawn. It gave our forces a tremendous
capability which we did not have before.
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Certainly I would
not pretend that we have anything like the ISTAR capability that
we plan to have.
518. Let us just tease out then where you expect
to go with it. Tell me, is the Phoenix going to go back to do
the same sort of job or have you discovered things that it can
do now that perhaps it was not doing at the time? Was it under
used or did you find other jobs for it?
(Brigadier Figgures) It was extensively used and we
did look at using it in other areas. Perhaps an example might
be as an aid to a forward air controller, being able to fly a
Phoenix, looking for targets, information passed back to the ground
control station where the forward air controller was and he was
then able to talk to the aircraft to bring them on to target.
(Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) But the specific
purpose for which it is being asked to go back is for monitoring
compliance with the AMTA, Air Military Technical Agreement, and
that has been asked for by the current NATO commander in Kosovo.