Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. You are talking about modifications for our weapons?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) Yes and wrapping up communications systems.

  21. Before I turn to my third question, I have another one to put to you. I think you have already answered this by implication, but perhaps you can give us a direct answer. Which would suit us better, the short-take-off-and-vertical-landing aircraft or the conventionally operated aircraft? Presumably the answer is the short-take-off-and-vertical-landing aircraft.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I have opinions on that but it would be better if you heard from the authoritative source.
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) A great deal depends on whether the short-take-off version turns out to perform as we expect it to, but we have already covered that point. You can argue both ways. Both versions have advantages and disadvantages. In brief, STOVL aircraft can be operated in circumstances of shortage of sea-room or wind conditions that prevent you from operating the conventional version. You have a lower training volume. The conventional aircraft carries a greater payload, both in terms of weapons and in terms of its range. So it can cut both ways. We are carrying out a great deal of analysis to see. Of course, we have expressed a strong interest in the STOVL programme because that is where we are today, with the existing carrier aircraft. I think we would need some strong evidence to change our position, but I believe it would be unwise of us to commit ourselves until we knew whether the STOVL version worked.

  22. My final question brings together these matters and subsequent matters on the carrier programme and the issue of costs. There has been a string of reports in the papers and well-authenticated leaks that there is a great deal of pressure on the MoD's LTCs at the moment. In particular, a lot four or five years out. How much of that comes down to the inability of Smart procurement to deliver the savings expected and how much of it comes down to a straightforward shortage in overall totals? If there is to be a difficult trade-off between equipment and personnel, there is not a lot to play with on either side of the coin.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) Smart procurement delivered a £2 billion saving to the LTCs when we completed the Strategic Defence Review. We are now working hard in the project teams to deliver further savings and we have targets for doing that year on year. I do not remember a time during my professional career when the MoD equipment budget was not under pressure, whether during the Cold War climate or not. We have always had more things on which to spend money than we have had money. I shall leave Admiral Blackham to discuss that. He allocates the resources to the equipment programmes.
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I agree with what Sir Robert has said. It is worth saying—perhaps here I am slightly departing from what he said—that there has been a change since the end of the Cold War, which happens to coincide with some other changes. There is a greater degree of change in the world and we are conducting a live laboratory, if you like, in doing operations, and we are learning lessons about the equipment that we have and the sort of thing that we want to do. There is a step change in the rate of technology developments, particularly in the communications software. That means that we shall always be looking to address the lessons that we have learned or to address the technology changes. That is bound to create further pressure on any budget. We are always happy to look and to ask ourselves how we can get in to our programmes something that is new and more desirable as a result of lessons learned and we ask ourselves whether it is more important than some of the things that we have and adjust the programme accordingly. I think that kind of pressure is likely to accelerate.

  23. The overall shoe is getting even tighter on parts of the foot, is it not?
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I am not sure that I agree with that. The budget that has been announced publicly has a real terms increase. We are planning to spend more on equipment this time round than we did last time.


  24. That is a very ministerial-type answer.
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) I am getting towards the end of my first career so perhaps I should look at a second!

  25. I am afraid you are not going to be a People's Peer! To what extent have you thought about the mix between air defence and ground attack capabilities in the future carrier-borne aircraft?
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Do you mean the defence of the carrier itself?

  26. Yes.
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) A great deal. If you forgive me, I shall give a slightly lengthy answer.

  27. That is very ministerial too.
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) You can tell me to shorten it if you wish. It is important to understand that we approach all these issues from what we call a capability approach. That is to say that all the time we ask ourselves what we are trying to do and not what we want to own and to operate. So we are looking at the various scenarios of those operations and asking ourselves what are we trying to achieve. Having answered that question we have to look at ways in which that may be done. Invariably, there are several ways of doing it and probably by using assets from more than one environment. There is a balance to be struck. In the case of the aircraft mix on the aircraft carrier, we have created the Joint Harrier Force precisely in order to give us the kind of flexibility that different scenarios demand. Any given operation with air defence and ground attack, both of which roles the JSF will be able to conduct extremely well, will depend on the nature of the operation and will vary from time to time. I do not believe that I can give you a precise answer to that at all. I am saying that we can adjust the balance to the nature of the operation; what are called tailored air groups.

  28. Will the STOVL design be able to accommodate Hawkeye aircraft?
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The Hawkeye? I am going to revert back to the capability approach again. The Hawkeye aircraft is one way of providing air-warning information to an aircraft carrier but the product that the carrier commander needs is information. He does not necessarily need a Hawkeye. He may or may not want the aircraft to be based on board. The question I am asking the maritime operators is, what is it that you want to know and when do you want to know it. Then we shall look at the entire intelligence and surveillance infrastructure that we are developing and ask ourselves whether that will answer the question or whether we need to do something else to answer it. Having done that, we then have to ask ourselves whether that is best done by rotorcraft or Hawkeye, and if the answer is Hawkeye that is likely to have an impact on the design of the aircraft carrier because it is a conventional take-off aircraft and quite a big one too. If we come to that conclusion, which would be independent of the variant of JSF that we picked, we would have to arrange the aircraft carrier so that it could operate it.

  29. It must be difficult to design an aircraft carrier if you do not know what is going on it. When are you going to calibrate your demands for the type of aircraft with the design of the carrier?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I do not believe that we should allow ourselves to slip into that way of thinking. I do not think that it is difficult to design a 50,000 tonne aircraft carrier, with an in-service date of 2012 against the uncertainty of the aircraft in 2001. Most of the modifications that will be required will be close to the top of the ship. I do not think that we should get ourselves too hooked up on the intricacies of the aircraft interface at the moment. That will need to be settled, but it is not that difficult to run a twin-track strategy which is what the project teams are doing.

  30. It would be a problem if it were a little bit short. They would have to take your advice that the aircraft to be put on it were capable of taking off and landing.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) That is to do with the designing and not to do with how long it takes or how difficult it is. That is just to do with making sure that the ship is long enough.

  31. So there are no major problems on that. Perhaps we can turn to the carrier. The two bidders for the future carrier are now approaching the end of their phase-one assessment studies. Can you tell us something of their proposals? Are they both providing indicative designs for both a STOVL-capable and a conventionally-capable vessel? Do you have that information and how much are you prepared to disclose to the Committee?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I believe that there have been over 300 specific deliverables from each of the teams, which shows a huge range of information. Quite frankly, Chairman, even if I had read them all, I probably would not understand them myself. However, what I can say is that we have started to see the impact of an electric ship on the freedom to move around components that previously had been enormously constrained by the fact that we had long propeller shafts. You had to put the engines in a particular place and you had to have huge ventilation trunking to get the air down to them and the exhaust gases away. Part of the reason for going to electric propulsion is to ensure that we can design with an electricity generator in one place and the power is distributed through electric cables to a motor that is quite close to where the shaft leaves the hull. You begin to see the impact of that, as we predicted, and it looks to be a good thing. Secondly, we have been really keen to understand the through-life cost implications of everything. We have begun to understand the cost-drivers. That is why we are keeping a very careful, but cautious eye on potential developments in catapult launch such as electro-magnetic catapult launch which looks as though it could be cheaper, but we are not interested in anything cheaper unless we know—not think—that it will work. We are always looking for ways in which to save money through-life. That is part of the new culture and we understand the cost-drivers and the shape of the ship. We are beginning to see options for trade-off between performance and capability, including size. We remember that actually steel and air are not a great cost and we want to ensure that the ship is not, so to speak, shrink-wrapped around the aircraft. It must be big enough to make them easily handled and to generate reasonably economic, through-life maintenance costs.

  32. Are all proposals within the indicative cost ceiling that you have set for the vessel?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) At this stage we do not have cost ceilings against all the proposals. They are much more technically orientated. We have spent only £5 million with each of the two contractors at the moment. I think five-sixths of the assessment phase work will be with the contractor in Phase 2 and is still to take place.

  33. How much do you think that the companies are having to put in for the privilege of bidding for our contract? Is it much of their own money? Are they prepared to keep this rolling on for a protracted process before eventually you advise the Cabinet or the Prime Minister on making a decision?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) They do not have to put in any money. I am quite clear in my mind that they will choose to do so. One of the reasons for them doing so is to ensure that they can offer us the best proposition and enhance their chances of winning the competition. There is a risk in asking companies to do too much at their own expense, just in case they suddenly get cold feet and walk away from the situation. It is not a good tactic on my part to raise it, but I simply remember the Yeoman and Crossbow consortia where eventually the companies got cold feet about the amount of money that they were investing and decided to put them together. I think we have safeguarded our position in that respect by getting a commitment from the two groups to sustain competition. You cannot force a company to invest money in a proposal. We have to be alert to that issue.

  34. They have not given you an indication of how much they are putting in, have they?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) They do give me indications, but mostly I read about it in the papers.

  35. You do not ask?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I have asked and they will not tell me so that is interesting too.

  36. Do all the designs envisage meeting your standard of being able to generate 150 sorties a day?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) Certainly they do.

  37. In terms of the size of carrier, I thought that one of you said 50,000 tonnes.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I did.

  38. Was that a slip of the tongue or is that a little bit of weight inflation?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) It is purely a round number between 0 and 100,000.

  39. About 50,000 tonnes as opposed to 40,000 tonnes?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I am quite happy with 40,000 tonnes if you like, Chairman. Fifty aircraft usually means between 20,000 to 50,000 tonnes. If I am wrong I shall be delighted. I have made the point about not shrink-wrapping the aircraft. We shall make sure that the carrier is big enough to handle the aircraft efficiently in the hangar. The difficulty in the hangar of an aircraft carrier is in moving the aircraft because there is not enough space. That causes the engineers more trouble than actually fixing the planes.

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