Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)

WEDNESDAY 24 MAY 2000

SIR ROBERT WALMSLEY AND VICE-ADMIRAL SIR JEREMY BLACKHAM

  180. Can I ask you, Admiral, how significant is the reduction now being sought in Bowman's protection to you as somebody who might have to order men and women into action using this facility?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, you would expect me to say, I think, that we would take very good care not to expose our people to undue risk. To say that we would expose them to no risk would be false. You cannot engage in combat at no risk, and equally, you cannot guard as well as we would expect against every conceivable eventuality. What we do do is look at the balance of investment made across a range of activities. Bowman is a service, it is part of an entire land combat system. We look at the balance of investment that we make and look at what is it worth investing in communication support. What we should be investing in is actual fire power and in protection, and in close consultation—because one of the important virtues of our organisation is that it consults closely with the front line, and indeed we formed a working group specifically to ensure that we do take full account of the views of the front line—decide what is a reasonable level of risk to take in the circumstances and where to put our investment. That is what we have done with Bowman. So I am quite satisfied that what we have now specified has the agreement and support of the army, who are the ultimate users, and my own staff are quite satisfied that that it is the right thing to be procuring.

  181. Have your front line commanders been fully appraised of the down-grading of the equipment, and what has their response been to that?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) As I just said, they are fully involved in the process of development.

  182. They have been fully consulted?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) They have been fully consulted. They are members of the working groups which develop all our requirements. So they are fully consulted. It is true to say that I am accountable for the cost of the programme and so in the event of a disagreement I have to make a decision, but we would hope that that situation does not arise. In the case of Bowman the specification has been agreed with the army.

  183. Has cost played a significant part in the down-grading of the protection factors within this piece of kit?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Cost plays a part in everything that we do.

  184. Is the cost significant?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) There is only a certain amount of money that any government will allocate to any activity.

  185. This has had a lot.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) What I have to do is make a judgment as to what the right balance is across a whole range of systems and capabilities. It would be foolish of me, irresponsible of me, and silly to specify a system which left our people unable to do their work or at excessive risk, and we do not do that.

Chairman

  186. When was the decision made to change the specification?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Reduce the specification, which is now known as Bowman LITE, about 18 months ago.

Mr Hancock

  187. How much have you saved do you think by degrading of the original concept?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) That is not really the issue.

  188. It is to me. I want to know the answer. How much is now going to be saved?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) That is not the way the problem has been approached. What we have done is specify a system which we believe is the right system and worked out what that is likely to cost.

  189. Admiral, your predecessors came to the previous government asking for X amount of money to be spent on this system. It is far exceeding that original cost and the time delay is enormous. I am asking the question now. A piece of kit that was originally agreed has now been seriously degraded from what it was originally. I accept that you claim to have very good reasons why that happened. I want to know simply how much less is now going to be spent on this? How much are you saving?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Firstly, I must take exception to "significantly degraded", because I have spent quite a while explaining that that is not what we have done. We have produced a system, in consultation with the army, which they accept and we accept meets their operational needs. Clearly, the system we are now procuring, because it has different specifications, is going to cost less than the previous one. I do not actually have any bids for the previous system—Sir Robert may be able to help here—but the actual cost of the present system is likely to be significantly less than was originally specified, because the original specification had requirements which we do not believe are necessary.

  Chairman: We will move on. We have the next 15 years to come back to that.

Mr Viggers

  190. We started with a very high specification which we are told was actually higher than necessary and higher than appropriate, and we now have a different specification, presumably based more closely upon what is currently available. To what extent did you consult Archer Consortium, who are the people producing the kit? To what extent did you consult the prospective supplier to find out what they can supply, as opposed to starting from the higher specification, which is what you originally wanted? Initially the question goes to Admiral Blackham.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The reason I hesitated there was because I do not deal with Archer, that is the role of the DPA and advice on that subject would come through the individual project team.

  191. From your point of view you would not be involved in discussions with Archer as such, but to what extent were you advised through the DPA as to what was available?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We are always in consultation with the IPT, and clearly we cannot specify something that is incapable of being manufactured. So to that extent we discuss what is available and see how that lies alongside our requirement, but the consortium with whom we are dealing have access to a huge range of technology. I am not aware that the technology per se has been difficult.

  192. In that case, a slightly different question to Sir Robert. To what extent have the adjustments which have been made been influenced by the capabilities already available in the off-the-shelf communication system? In other words, have you changed the requirement to generate an affordable solution?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I certainly have not changed the requirement, but it is of course true that we have adjusted the requirement to make the solution affordable. The budget has not been reduced, I just want to make that quite clear, because I thought the line of Mr Hancock's question was that we tried to, so to speak, take money out of the Bowman budget. The budget has not been reduced. We received a bid from Archer, and it is worth just reminding the Committee that it is now a single tender action. We once had a competition. Two companies got together and turned themselves into Archer, and we are now dealing with quite a difficult organism—a joint venture, project specific, owned by three shareholders, each of whom has an interest in securing orders from Archer—in competition with the other shareholders. I can go into that in detail if you wish. The point I would make is that Archer is a relatively new animal, it is about two and a half years old, and actually in effectiveness terms it is probably only about eight months old, and we can go into the reasons for that. Nevertheless, today I have at least 20 people in and out of Archer every day. We are working hand-in-hand with them. This is a new method of undertaking single tender action pricing. Instead of Archer, so to speak, posting a pile of paper over the wall to us after a year's work and us saying, "We don't understand it", and batting questions backwards and forwards for another year, my people are there working with Archer's people now, pricing components of the Bowman system as they define the specification. We are expecting—subject to various pieces of progress which we have asked Archer to make—them to produce a good bid by the end of next month. The issue of whether Archer have been involved in changing the specification over the years is not really relevant because they have not existed, but we are in touch with them today.

  193. As to the overall specification, is Bowman still as originally specified, to provide the single integrated battlefield communication system? Has there been any change or reduction in the number of troops, ships or aircraft who are to be equipped with Bowman?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We are expecting to provide some 55,000 Bowman sites in vehicles, ships and aircraft. Of course, the number of aircraft, tanks and ships has declined substantially since the Bowman specification was first produced, as a result of a series of reviews over the last 15 years. So it is almost impossible to compare the number now to the number that was originally first thought of, but the number that we are producing will equip all of those units that we think need to be part of it.

  194. And it is still intended to be an over-arching communications system, and no class of ships, troops or aircraft has been eliminated from the original plan?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) No. There will be some smaller ships which do not have a worthwhile role to play in integrated joint battle space, but significant of our units do and they will be so equipped.

  195. Some smaller ships?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Well, there are small vessels—mine sweepers and so forth—who simply do not have a need to be part of that. They are operating in a particular area, under the control of a commander and do not have the staff or the need to have access to the full range of information. Larger vessels—aircraft carriers, amphibious vessels and command vessels—do need that access, and they will get it.

  196. Were the smaller ships like mine hunters originally in the specification but have been deleted from it?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) No, originally all of those notions were in the specification. Of course we have proposed a great deal in our joint prospectus since then too.

Chairman

  197. We have the same number of vehicles as planned five or ten years ago.
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The same classes of vehicles as planned, but the number of the vehicles has declined.

  198. Has it?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Yes.

  199. From what to what?
  (Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) It has declined as our force structure has shrunk. The type and nature of vehicles remains the same.


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 6 July 2000