Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 540 - 559)



Mr Hancock

  540. Which is?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We are looking at a range of options clearly.

  Mr Hancock: Yes, I know and we do not know what we want.

Mr Cann

  541. We do know what we want. The SDR said.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The SDR has made it quite clear that we want carriers that can deploy 35 or 40 aircraft.

Mr Hancock

  542. But what type of aircraft to do what, and the aircraft carrier gets bigger and bigger and bigger?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The aircraft carrier does?

  543. Yes.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) You are more privy to this than I am, Mr Hancock.

  544. I am just interested to know what the Ministry of Defence expect these aircraft carriers to do and what sort of planes they expect to fly from that and whether there will be a plane ready to fly on an aircraft carrier when the aircraft carrier, which we still do not know how big it is going to be, is in the water.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Shall I answer that question, Chairman?

  Mr Hood: Colleagues are getting a bit restless. It must be getting near lunchtime!

Mr Cann

  545. It has been said that we had difficulty building up UK land forces in Macedonia. Now, I can understand that from the geography, but is it just the geography or have we got problems with personnel, equipment and other matters that could be remedied?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, I think the SDR identified the fact that we need to improve the amount of strategic lift that we have got and that was a clear conclusion with which I agree. Now, at the moment we have various methods of deploying people around and I might ask our logistic colleague to speak to this since he has not had a chance to speak yet. We can own assets to do it and we can take assets up off the market to do it, but there is no doubt at all that in an ideal world you would own the ability to transport all that you wanted for an operation in assets to which you had immediate access. The trouble about that is that for most of the time they would not be doing anything particularly useful, so we have to strike a sensible compromise between what we own and between what we can be fairly confident we can get off the market when we need it. That is the way we approach it.

  546. The classic is the Falklands, is it not? In the Falklands, because you were going to an exposed island, you could actually buy in ro-ros and all sorts of stuff to use to buttress the armed forces. In an area like Macedonia, Kosovo or all the things the SDR is designed to cater for, you are not going to have the port facilities and the ability to do that off the shelf, are you, quite as much?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, we do have port facilities in Macedonia and we used them.

  547. Thessalonika?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes, but the fact is that if you want to deploy them without a port, the only way you can do that is with specialised amphibious ships and specialised amphibious troops and we had some of those, but only in certain numbers and we cannot put in a division of amphibious troops, so if you want to do an operation on that sort of scale, then you have to use ports, as indeed you would for an amphibious operation after a while because whilst you can get the first wave across a beach, any further logistic support or other support has got to come in via ports that you have gained access to or by ports you have constructed. To pretend that you can cut yourself off from the use of any port permanently I am afraid just is not true, but in the case of deploying large land forces in a planned way into a country with whom we had a host nation agreement, ports are always going to be very important and that is what is the case in this case and perhaps Brigadier Rees would like to enlarge on that.
  (Brigadier Rees) I will obviously come back to the strategic bit whether it is air, sea or the extent to which we move freight by land in due course, but to concentrate on the Macedonia issue, which I understood from your question was relating to the structure and infrastructure of the countries and whether that imposed any constraints on the way in which we operate, I have to say that it did not. Although there is not a wide choice of infrastructure, road, rail, et cetera, means of delivery, apart from some slight choking at the bottleneck, which was the border between Macedonia and Kosovo which was quickly sorted out when a NATO bypass was arranged, apart from that and the fact that Skopje airport runway was a little on the small side, but did not pose any considerable insuperable difficulties, I am not aware of any difficulties with Macedonia as a platform on which to operate logistically throughout the entire operation.

  548. A land operation?
  (Brigadier Rees) Yes.

  549. From everything you read in the newspapers it was said that there was no way we could get into Kosovo in any reasonable time through Macedonia, that is not correct?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We did get into Kosovo when we needed to.

  550. Unopposed.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes, but any delay in entering in an opposed way would be to do with the ability to generate forces as well.

  551. May I move on. ARRC. How well did that operate? I see it as ten divisions of which about one and a half are ever available for anything. Was it good?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I am willing to venture an opinion but you are taking me a bit beyond my field of responsibility. This is something that you really ought to be asking the Operational Commander or the CJO. It is not within my ambit of responsibility although I am happy to comment.

  Mr Hood: We will be seeing General Jackson soon.

Mr Cann

  552. Logistic support, did that work well in the Kosovo operation?
  (Brigadier Rees) Yes, I believe it did. I think in terms of the lessons that we drew from Kosovo logistically, and I think the supply chain, perhaps not surprisingly that the supply chain worked bearing in mind that it is at first and second line in terms of being integral and logistic support used on the ground or in theatre, whether it would be land, sea or air, are well tried and trusted mechanisms. Similarly, the base organisation in the United Kingdom, and the whole supply chain that fed through to the frontline was indeed tried and trusted as well. So it was not that the operation itself posed any logistic difficulties or challenges to that extent. Clearly we were not operating over very long distances. I think the main lesson we really drew out of it was the fact that the Chief of Defence Logistics' appointment and the Defence Logistics Organisations which came out of the Strategic Defence Review was really vindicated by that operation, not only in terms of the recommendations it made for future capacity of heavy lift, whether that be by surface or by air but in terms of also the organisation that was put in place within the Defence Logistics Organisation, for example to corral all movements—air, sea and land—under one defence agency, the Defence Transport Movement Agency, all storage under one Storage and Distribution Agency. I think we have seen benefits arising from that which was put in place obviously just over a year ago now which lasted throughout that campaign and has enabled us to build on that.

  553. Just to follow up on that, I spent two nights on a mountain top in Kosovo, very cold, and I was in the best tent, I suspect, that was available. The Americans seem to have a much better system of looking after their people when they are abroad, not just heated accommodation, not just getting it up quickly, they are better at both, I think, than we are, but also telephones home, e.mails home, and sometimes when I go to some places and see our people I am ashamed at the way the ordinary squaddie, if we can put it that way, is actually treated, compared with the way that Americans are treated by their equivalent of the Ministry of Defence. Are we trying to improve on this or not? Is this one of the lessons of Kosovo, the fact that it is difficult to retain people when they are not treated properly in the small things because the small things, if you are stuck out there, you have two football videos to watch and that is it, you are eight hours on, eight hours off and eight hours asleep, the smaller things matter a lot and I do not think we do them right. My perception in Kosovo is that we do not.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I think it is a reasonable perception, we have not done very well in this area. My immediately preceding job was as the DCDS for Personnel and we have started quite a lot of work as a result of this. We have not done very well with our accommodation, that was what led us to bring the emergency tenting in. I think there are a number of reasons why we have not done well, some of them are to do with legitimate operational causes; some of them, quite frankly, are poor performance and not only by the Ministry of Defence, by the contractor as well who is now on I think his fifth or sixth revised date to produce this accommodation which he contracted to do. But, in the long term what we are now putting in place is what we call the Expeditionary Campaign Infrastructure, a package of things which will be on the shelf and ready to go when this kind of operation occurs again so that is our potential aim. It will always be a bit difficult to do things like telephones and what have you urgently because different systems apply or we destroy the telephone network with our own bombs.

Mr Hood

  554. Admiral, we do have some comments to make on accommodation later on and Mr Cann is now trespassing away from what I invited him to ask you questions on. Can I come back on to my agenda and talk about refuelling and lift. RAF tanker aircraft used a type of air-to-air refuelling that means that US Navy aircraft but not US Air Force aircraft can refuel from it. Apparently UK aircraft, with some modifications, can refuel from US tankers. Did the number of UK refuelling assets limit our contribution to the air campaign?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) No. I think actually the Air Marshall has already talked about this quite thoroughly. So common, with the exception of the American assets you mentioned, is the fuelling system across NATO that the overwhelming majority of our fuel is given away to other nations. In other words, the fuel that we required was a very small proportion, about 15%, of what our tankers actually gave away. None of our sorties was in difficulty because of our ability to supply fuel. As I have said, we actually gave away most of our fuel to other nations. One could argue that it is the American Air Force that have got a capability which is a problem.

  555. We saw that when we were in the Gulf last week when we were talking to the pilots of tankers, that was one of the areas that we discussed. The MoD has underway currently a programme which is looking to provide an air-refuelling service through a PFI scheme. Has this been assessed in the light of the lessons of Kosovo and what changes may be needed?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We have not settled on how it will be provided yet, PFI is one of the possibilities. We have yet to reach a conclusion on that. Obviously anything we learn from Kosovo will be part of that.

  556. Have any lessons from Kosovo been taken into account in the Ro-Ro and airlift programmes that are underway currently?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I think the Ro-Ro programme which is, as you know, part of the SDR which is to procure the six Ro-Ro ships is forging ahead. I am very hopeful that we will reach a decision on that in the near future. The Ro-Ros themselves are relatively simple ships, they are what they are. They have a certain capacity and we see no reason to change that capacity. In theory it might be nice to increase it but I am not at all sure that if we did we would have a very valuable value for money asset because it would not be employed for a very large part of the time. Certainly, I would not wish to reduce it.

  557. What difference would it have made if the six Ro-Ros and three or four C-17s envisaged by the SDR had been available for the Kosovo campaign?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We would have carried more things more quickly and more conveniently. This is why we are doing it, of course, why we are procuring these things.

Mr Gapes

  558. Can I take you to questions about the munition stocks. I understand we consumed about £45 million of ordnance during the campaign and that extra expenditure has been approved for replacement ordnance. Also, I understand you are reviewing the stock levels for ammunition and other spares as a result of Kosovo. At this stage, have you got any conclusions or anything that has come out so far before your final conclusions?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, I have got two people who might supply us with this, but to deal with your first point first, the normal routine, which I think I can safely say is virtually in agreement with the Treasury, is that where we expend ammunition on this kind of thing, we replace the stocks that we have expended to the levels that we were at before, so that is paid by the contingency fund and that is what has been done on this occasion. As far as the overall review of stocks is concerned, and I will ask the Brigadier to talk about it, here we have to balance keeping stocks on the shelf, which is expensive and, by the way, sometimes deleterious to the ammunition stocks themselves, with the ability to actually obtain further stocks at short notice when we need them and that is actually what the DLO is busy investigating.
  (Brigadier Rees) Clearly ammunition, like all other stocks, we aim to keep as little in-house as possible and we get it in when we need it rather than holding vast stockpiles of anything as a contingency. The exercise that has been referred to is the sustainability planning guideline work which has come out of the Strategic Defence Review and my understanding of that, although I have not been personally involved in it, is that that work is now well advanced and we are looking to draw some SDR-related conclusions of those stockpiles, the extent to which we should hold them, the range and depth, et cetera, towards the end of this year, the autumn, when the conclusions of that work will come out. Therefore, a review of stockpiles, such as they are at the moment, clearly needs to wait to be carried out in the context of the conclusions from that study, but we only hold that ammunition which we need to hold which is consistent with the way in which defence is operating post-SDR.

  559. So it is too early to say that you have yet got any message or lessons about when you need to get things from the industry at times of emergency?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, we know what the lead times are for different weapons and that is something we are looking at at the moment, what to procure against which contingencies, but we have had no operation which was inhibited by the lack of munitions.

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