Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 520 - 539)



  520. That is interesting. Clearly it has been a success. I am pleased about that. Let us talk about where the gaps were. Phoenix was clearly operating well, now tell me what was not?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We do not yet have the comprehensive Intelligence, Surveillance, Target-Acquisition Reconnaissance capability. We have got a lot of bits and pieces of it between various NATO nations. What we want is a modern, highly capable, intelligence gathering system, one which can then lead us forward through the various phases into target acquisition and engagement which is supported by data links and which is reliable and readily available. To do that we are going to procure the ASTOR system, I think you know—the Airborne Stand-Off Radar.

  521. Tell me how it will fit in?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It will provide a very long enduring airborne radar which will enable us to monitor what is going on; also the communication data links that are required to support the rest of the pack. There are other bits of a new reconnaissance pod for the Tornado and another one for the Jaguar, the Sender and Spectator UAV systems, which are new, modern airborne systems. All of this will enable us to have much more comprehensive and multi-sensor intelligence surveillance.

  522. Mobile targets?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes.

  523. That is interesting. The Americans refer to "dynamic targeting", do they not, and I presume that is what we want to be contributing to.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The Americans have got some such vehicles in service. Indeed, their vehicles might be one of the possible solutions to this problem.

  524. Wherever we have been as a Committee we have been, I would say, brutally aware that we are almost entirely dependent on the Americans for intelligence. It is a bit hurtful to know that it is probably our only source. What is your view on that?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I do not think it is entirely true but I do not think I can go into the details in this particular forum. Certainly we do have heavy dependence on the Americans but I think it is far from being a one way street. I think the Americans would say the same thing to you.
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) Specifically in Kosovo style approach, on electronic reconnaissance our capability is recognised by the Americans as being a substantial contribution to them. During Kosovo we were heavily dependent on the current American JSTAR system which is the direct equivalent of ASTOR except that ASTOR is a more modern system and therefore produces, by some important measures, about three times the quality of the product as the current JSTARs. The Americans are going to do an upgrade which will give them a system similar to ASTOR but ASTOR also has a very crucial benefit, over mountainous terrain; in Kosovo there are substantial flat areas but there are also substantial surrounding mountains if you are trying to stand off and look. And the fact that ASTOR will operate up at the 40-50,000 foot altitude as opposed to the 25-30,000 foot makes a huge difference to the area that you can see into.

  525. The surveillance picuture is kind of building up for me too. You have told me about Phoenix, you have told me how ASTOR will fit into that, did you tell me if Phoenix could talk to other aircraft as well as to the ground?
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) Not directly as things stand.

  526. Is that a shortcoming?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) No. It is an air traffic problem certainly. It is tactical, it provides information back to tactical command which he can then apply.

  527. Would you like it to?
  (Brigadier Figgures) We got over that by having a forward air controller with the ground control station such that normally he directs the close air support, he can see the image and relay the target points and what he wants done about them to the commander.

  528. You would not have to have that if it could do it.
  (Air Vice Marshal Nicholl) Can I illustrate with some clear information. There are US systems at the moment whereby the reconnaissance picture actually appears in the cockpit of the aircraft that you want to do the attack. That involves huge band width, there is a lot of data to be passed to put up the image. The image is head down and it is not easy for the pilot to see in some circumstances. Indeed, some US crews say they do not like it, I only say some. We are working currently in trials with a system whereby data from the controller of the Phoenix, noting a target and spotting it, putting the cross hairs on it, those cross hairs will appear in the helmet of the pilot, if you turn your head, you are looking at the same point on the ground that the Phoenix is, all automatically relayed. We are not there yet. We have a trial system running, it is flying daily, I have flown it. It is a different way of doing it but the end result is exactly the same.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I think it is important to keep it in perspective. Phoenix is what it is. It is a tactical system originally designed for targeting the Central Region. None of us is claiming that it is the answer to a maiden's prayer. It is what it is. We have got plans under the ISTAR development programme to have two more UAVs, one of which will be tactical and one of which will be at formation level, in order to develop this scene further.

  529. Now you talked about moving through to the end game and presumably the end game is to see how much battle damage has occurred. How are we going to get better information about that because there are some serious shortcomings on that?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) That is a matter of having the vehicles and improved sensors, so that is what we have to do.

  530. So these two will complete the shopping basket of surveillance?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I am not sure it will complete it. These are predominantly war fighting aids, but the sensors which they can deploy can be used for a range of purposes. This is a very rapidly developing field as well, by the way.
  (Air Vice Marshall Nicholl) We are also looking at the potential to get the weapon to tell you what it has done rather than using aircraft or a UAV to look subsequently.

Mr Cann

  531. I have got some allocated questions and one for myself as well. The SA80, I think everybody I have spoken to in the Army regards it as an absolute disaster in terms of operability. It also was a disaster in terms of the amount of money it cost to develop it. You have to strip it down to 14 pieces to clean it rather than four, like the previous rifle that was used. Having said that, that is all on record, as for Challenger 2, as opposed to Challenger 1, people who have to operate the tank were involved in the design stage all the way through. Now, have we learnt that lesson or have we not?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I certainly hope so and it would certainly be my own hope that we should do that. As you have already heard, the SA80 improvement programme involves the details of all the people who are actually going to be involved, but, if it is any consolation, every time I stand up in any kind of forum and talk on this kind of thing, I emphasise this particular point and try and encourage industry and everybody else involved to actually go and stand in a trench for a few days and see what it is like because I think the human engineering part is absolutely fundamental.

  532. Cleaning a rifle at one o'clock in the morning in a muddy trench is a bit different from being a civil servant in MoD drawing lines.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Indeed. Happily civil servants, and I think even Mr Mantell, would not claim the designs as theirs.

  533. I now want to talk about aircraft carriers, if I may, because we have had them swanning about in the Gulf for a few months now, which have got sufficient Harriers on board by and large to provide air combat patrols to protect themselves, but not, as far as I can see, to do anything much more, so I am a big supporter of the SDR proposal for big new carriers which can actually launch air attacks.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I am not aware, by the way, that they are protecting themselves. I do not think they have anything to protect themselves against. I think they are providing a contribution to the whole air defence picture.

  534. According to our notes, it is mainly combat air patrols.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Combat air patrols are against any air threat to anybody. They are not anything to do with defending carriers specifically, but they are exactly what they say; they are patrols against any potential threat from anywhere.

  535. I appreciate what you say, Admiral, and that may well be the case marginally.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) You have perhaps had more experience of this than I have!

  536. But I know what they were designed for. They were designed to fly Sea Kings in the Fair Isle's Gap.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I am not challenging you on large carriers; I think that is most estimable.

  537. That is right. Well, we are in agreement then. At the end of the day we call them aircraft carriers, the ones we have got, and they are not. They are Sea King carriers with air combat patrols above them and you can put a few RAF jets on them, okay, and ruin their engines with the salt, but, apart from that, they are not a lot of use for the kind of projection of carrier—

  Mr Hood: Could I just remind my colleague that we are asking questions, not having a chat.

Mr Cann

  538. Well, it is not often I get into an argument with an Admiral! I think we have covered my first question, that we need bigger carriers. Yes?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We need carriers that can do what we want them to do.

  539. And these do not?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes.

  Mr Cann: So we are agreed.

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