Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 500 - 519)



Mr Hancock

  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.

Mr Brazier

  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.

Mr Hood

  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.

Mr Brazier

  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 ones?
  (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 one?
  (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.

Mr Hancock

  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.

Mr Brazier

  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 bases.

  Mr Hood: I would like to move on to ISTAR, which, for the record, is Intelligence, Surveillance, Target-Acquisition and Reconnaissance.

Laura Moffatt

  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.

  519. Right.
  (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.

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