Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 159 - 179)




  159. Thank you very much. This must be the quickest return visit I can ever recall. Yesterday we were discussing fairly easy subjects, now we are getting on to really contentious things like Bowman. I know we did discuss it earlier in the year but we have a number of additional questions to ask. Admiral, the saga has dragged on for a long time and shows every signs of exercising your mind and your successors' minds, and successive Committees' minds before eventually Bowman is going to be deployed. As the initial starting date was several years ago and has been delayed further, the world will have changed since Bowman was originally conceived. Is the requirement for Bowman still relevant to war fighting in the year 2010 and beyond?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Certainly. It has, of course, changed since it was originally launched in 1987 or thereabouts, but the two principle features of it, that is to say the provision of secure communications to our forces—and, indeed, not just to our land forces, but to the air and maritime forces operating with them—and the ability to use that as a basis for a digitised system, a system for exchanging combat data digitally, will be absolutely vital. Indeed, they will be more important in 2010 than they were when we first conceived this system.

  160. What about security? There are a lot of smart people out there who can make a living, or even a hobby, some are even as young as 16, of breaking into secret systems. Are you reasonably satisfied that it is going to remain secure right up until 2030? I know it is an impossible question to ask, but it is the kind of question that needs to be asked because the whole basis of this has to be secure communication. What efforts are going into making sure that as far as is humanly, scientifically and technically possible, this is going to remain secure?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) There you have obviously touched on one of the most difficult issues, not least in the communications world where generations of equipment change within months, and that is one of the reasons why it is so complicated to deliver the Bowman system. Having said that, I think it is important to understand that there are different levels of security which are relevant in different kinds of operations and different kinds of use. For example, some tactical information in a street battle may only be important for a very short period of time, providing of course you do not compromise the system itself. In other areas, strategic or operational level information, you may want a much longer lasting security. We can look at different levels of security for different elements of the system. I think it would be difficult to give you a guarantee that the system will be impenetrable for the next 20 or 30 years, but clearly another of the difficulties will be to maintain the system and up-grade it as different generations of equipment become available to our potential enemies. One of the difficulties with the whole of this business is that in the communication system it is very difficult to pick an entry point, there is always something new just round the corner, but you have to cut through them. What you have to do is make sure that you have an incremental path where you can take advantage of technology change as it becomes available.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I do not think people under 16 or over 16 succeed in penetrating cryptographically protected systems. That is the key difference. There is a complete distinction between hacking into a computer system and getting into a cryptographically protected communication stream of noughts and ones. Part of Bowman, wherever we buy the radios, the cryptologic chips, as they are called, are United Kingdom designed, approved in Cheltenham, and we are absolutely confident that those chips will be up-gradable during the life of Bowman. There is no question of people penetrating something which has been protected cryptographically. It is a separate world to hacking into computers where you can get in on the telephone line.

  161. Those words will be engraved on my mind, Sir Robert, and I hope you are absolutely as confident as you can be. If we have 55,000 and one gets stolen, what will the consequences be if people have access to one of the kits? Will that compromise the other 54,999?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It should not necessarily do so in principle. Obviously, with cryptographical material, if people have access to key cards and so forth, systems can be compromised, and that is something with which we are familiar with dealing. What you do is change the system immediately and change the key cards.

  162. Advise people not to leave them in cars?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It is indeed more easy to leave a piece of crypto around than it is a laptop. The key thing is the point that Robert has just made, this is not just a happy afternoon's fiddling, it is a very seriously difficult business.

  163. The Defence Committee, a long time ago, when you were in naval college, first commented on the deficiencies of Clansman and how much old equipment was actually in the new Clansman. Now we still live with the system. Apparently, from the document that you submitted to us, we are going to be living with a fairly open system for another decade or so. What are the consequences of our armed forces operating a system which is hardly impenetrable? How can anything be done to up-grade at no high cost? What can be done to ensure that the kits that our guys and women are operating are going to be of relevance and serviceable until 2010 and even beyond?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Neither I nor Sir Robert would attempt to say that the position is satisfactory. Clansman is an old system which we are struggling to maintain. I am confident, and so are the army, that it can be maintained in an operational way until Bowman starts coming in, but obviously there will be an overlap period and the key parts of it will be protected.

  164. With respect, that is not an immensely reassuring answer. I know it is the best that can be given in the circumstances, but as we have seen the ISD has been put back on several occasions, and we know that the whole project is hardly moving along at a rapid pace and with perfect success, so I am not even certain, and I do not think that you are even certain, when Bowman is going to be introduced. In the meantime, not for a year or two years or three years, but for a decade and beyond, people are operating a system that is well past its really useful date. We have numerous examples from conflicts that we have been involved with that the system is not adequate, and yet it will remain inadequate for a decade. Hoping things come right with Bowman in time for the next war or the war after, can anything be done, or is anything being done, in the short-term, ie, a decade or more, to make the system more useful than apparently it is at the moment or is even likely to be in the next decade?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We have been able to put in systems specifically for operations where that has been necessary, and that happened in Kosovo. We can find ways of meeting the needs of a particular operation, but as I said, I would not pretend that the situation is wholly satisfactory. I think, in a sense, you said it yourself earlier, the answer I have given is the best I can in the circumstances. That is why we are putting a great deal of effort into ensuring that Bowman will deliver and why Sir Robert is spending a great deal of his time on that subject.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I have two points, first of all, we have set by sufficient resources to recognise the support costs of Clansman. It is not something we are just sitting back and saying, "These radios seem to break down quite a lot, isn't that terrible?" We have set by sufficient money to maintain Clansman. It is not rocket science. As you said yourself, they are old-fashioned radios. That is the first point; maintain Clansman and make sure it is okay. I checked this week whether we had had any bad reports from Sierra Leone about the performance of Clansman, and we have not. The second point is that it is absolutely true that it is not a very robust system, and that is partly because it is old-fashioned and heavy and if you drop it there are a lot of forces inside the box. So we have a competition under way now to provide 43,635 radios, which are called personal role radios, to the infantry, and they will start delivery next year. That competition is under way. We plan to place the contract later this year. There is not any encryption on them. I am trying to separate the Clansman point out into functionality and reliability. These will be reliable, they are modern radios, and we will start delivering them from the end of next year and we will complete the programme over about a 12 month period.

  165. The US Marine Corps hired a team of 30 Navaho Indians to fool the Japanese. Maybe the Welsh or Glaswegians will serve the purpose in the short-term. Perhaps you can drop us a note on that, because that seems quite useful?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) It is characterised as a low probability of intercept radio, which in English means that it is difficult to listen into it if you are not meant to.[1]

  166. I am not surprised Sierra Leone did not throw up too many problems, I am not aware of the fact that the Sierra Leonian rebels are a high-tech military. What about Kosovo, do you have any lessons on communications from Kosovo? The impression we have is that the Serbs could listen into a great deal that was passed along our communications system?

  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We have lessons from that and they do not only touch on this area, they touch the secure areas of communications as well, on which we have already done some work. The measure which Sir Robert has just referred to is part of that. We are introducing effective personal radios, but the provision of an entire modern encrypted system depends on the delivery.

  167. Is anything happening in the EAC on Bowman? Are any key decisions being made or likely to be made that we should be informed of?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) The wonderful thing about the EAC, of which I am a member, is that it does not make decisions, it just generates advice, and as you know, that remains confidential between us and our ministers.

  168. I do not want to know what the advice is, but will advice be proffered in the fairly near future?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I think we have proffered advice on Bowman several times over the last 12 months and I expect there to be some more advice proffered in the very near future.

  169. The answer is yes.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I do mean yes.

  170. You are very frank on many things. At least we can read your expressions. Thank you very much.

Mr Hancock

  171. Sir Robert, could I ask a couple of points on what you have just said about the 45,000 radios that you are going to buy? Surely having to concede that you need to buy them is indicative of the fact that Bowman is still so far off that you cannot foresee a time when you are going to have them, and also is indicative of the fact that Clansman is so unreliable that you are having to buy an off-the-shelf radio to allow troops to communicate better on the ground. I would like to know if that is the right scenario and, secondly, how much is it going to cost to buy these 45,000 radios? You said you have a budget set by for it, I would be interested to know where that is and if this is going to be an add-on to the total package that Bowman is costing the nation?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) No, it will be instead of. I think the Chairman opened this morning with; had the Bowman requirement remained stable over the last 15 years or so? The answer is, of course, that basic requirement for a voice and data system that is cryptographically protected and cannot be intercepted has remained, but in detail it has changed enormously. We are not suggesting that these personal role radios should, as soon as Bowman appears, be thrown in the dustbin. They have been able to help us reduce the cost of the total Bowman system. It is a perfectly reasonable solution to some aspects of the requirement. I think Admiral Blackham mentioned street fighting. These are very short range radios, designed to allow infantry soldiers to communicate with each other while they are in combat. It makes far more sense to have that sort of radio for that than a really highly sophisticated Bowman set which you have to carry around on your back and might weigh 20 pounds with lots of batteries and computers et cetera, so this is not a waste of time or money. As to the cost of the thing, I would rather not get into that now. We are right in the middle of a competition and if I quote you a cost—I will just say a small number of scores of millions of pounds, that is about as close as I would like to be.


  172. That is confusing. That is an encrypting remark.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) You are getting too close for my part. I have to speak in these opaque terms, because equally I realise it would be very frustrating for the Committee not to know whether I am talking about 10 or 100 or 1 billion. I am talking about a small number of scores of millions of pounds for 43,635 radios, that is not a bad buy.

Mr Hancock

  173. You talked about secure communication being necessary. You, Admiral, talked about the speed of change in communication technology. If that is the case then Bowman ought to be in the Natural History Museum by now, because it has been by-passed by so many others, yet we have recently required the system to be reduced from its original specification and we are actually asking now for the product to be less rugged, we are asking it to have less protection against jamming and against intercryption. Who is responsible for that and why?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I am responsible for the capability, Mr Hancock. Just to go back, I think it is a little unfair to say that Bowman should be in a museum. Bowman has been running for a long time as a project. The equipment, when it is purchased, will be state of the art equipment, so it will not be a museum piece at all, it will be the latest—

  174. I thought there was one at Bletchley Park?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I think that has been broken into.

  175. That is why I was worried.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The equipment has yet to be purchased and will be state of the art equipment when it is purchased. The requirement is constantly under review. The world changes. Bowman was first envisaged during the Cold War. It would not be surprising if we made a number of changes to the requirement since then. We are constantly assessing the circumstances in which we might have to operate and the balance of resources that we want to put into different things. The Bowman requirement, as it now stands, is the requirement that satisfies the army's need.

  176. Are you actually suggesting that the army are now saying, through you, Admiral, to you, Sir Robert, "Go out and buy us a piece of a kit that is now less robust than we first wanted" and they are also saying, "Let's have a piece of kit which is easier to break into than we first required and is susceptible to more jamming than we first required"? Have they down-graded their spec to such an extent that you can be that specific that we are now looking for a bit of kit which is so degraded that one wonders why it is costing so much and taking so long?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I think it is probably not right to characterise those things that result in equipment which is less satisfactory to the army. It is very difficult to write a specification for shock for a piece of equipment. What we do find is that as we assemble these specifications people tend to be, because they are experts on shock, extremely cautious and it costs an enormous amount of money to make a piece of equipment resilient to these very high levels of shock. What you then do is go to the user, or you go to Admiral Blackham, and say, "Look, if we are going to afford this piece of equipment, does it really make sense to be making the Bowman able to withstand a shock which the piece of equipment it is in, like the armoured fighting vehicle, the Warrior, could not withstand itself?" So you could have a Bowman radio working with the Warrior destroyed. This is just a sensible systems engineering approach. Every down-grading of a requirement is not an undesirable factor. I can remember very clearly that every Bowman radio originally had a requirement to be able to sustain top secret communications, but that is just not sensible because TA soldiers are not clear to make top secret communications, so that is a sensible thing to start to eliminate from the requirement. Each one of these has been looked at very carefully by the operators. If they were not happy, Admiral Blackham's team would not have accepted it and we would not be procuring it on that basis.

  177. Presumably an awful lot of money has been spent down-grading this all of this time. From your point of view, it is fortunate that Bowman was not ready when it was first programmed, is it not, because you would have bought this Rolls Royce when really you could have settled for a Cortina? Are you suggesting that we are now taking what is generally accepted as US standards for this equipment? Are you suggesting that United Kingdom standards within the MOD and our expectations and quality standards are so high and that is why our costs are so high and the delays are so long, and that the Bowman scenario has taught you a number of lessons which you are now going to put into operation on other procurement contracts so that we see for the future a down-grading of expectation and a more realistic approach to what the equipment is going to be used for, and the requirement and the original spec is going to be driven more by the MOD's now more realistic approach to this thing?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) It is certainly true that Bowman has taught us a number of lessons. I am sure that we will come on to our perception, my perception, of why there have been delays. I would like to refute any suggestion that Bowman has in some way been down-graded, which will be to the ultimate detriment to the army. One of the great strengths of our new organisation is that Admiral Blackham's staff now have a real responsibility for the cost of the equipment they specify. A soon as you insert that discipline into the process, people are no longer over specifying where it does not make sense from a combat capability viewpoint. There is no question of us saying that this is a US system with US standards. We will buy some radios to US design, we will buy other radios at different frequencies to a UK design, and the standards will be coherent. We will not have half of it working, for example, the high powered amplifier working when the aeriel pre-amp is broken.

  178. I have to go back to your own memorandum, which states quite clearly that you are now seeking less protection against jamming. How can that be right? How can you accept less protection against jamming? Admiral Blackham talked about making sure that this equipment does not unnecessarily put people's lives at risk. If you are now accepting second best—and on your own expectation you are now down-grading it so it can be interfered with and can be jammed—surely you are now taking risks?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) There is a limit to every radio's ability to operate in a jamming environment. Somebody has to judge what is a sensible level at which to set its jamming resistance. I do not accept that this has been set at a lower level than is satisfactory. I do accept that it has been set at a lower level than before, but that does not mean that before was right and now it is wrong, rather the reverse.

  179. Do you say that the MOD got it wrong in the first place? Do you accept that they got it wrong and what you were seeking could not be delivered?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) No. I think when you look at a requirement as complex as Bowman you do try to modify it as thinking develops during the generation of the equipment specification. The interaction between my staff telling Admiral Blakham's staff what it costs and their understanding—and it is for him to speak on this—of the operational capability that is required, has produced a sensible adjustment of the specification in a number of areas. There is no question of supplying a radio which does not adequately protect against jamming. But I promise you that if you put it within 100 yards of a 100 kilowatt transmitter, it will be jammed. We are not going to do that.

1   See p 94 Q6. Back

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