Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. If it did slip, or if Boeing decided not to do it any more, could Eurofighter be designed to be used?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) It is not currently designed so that it could use a carrier. We could change the design but we would be faced with a huge piece of work. The materials would probably have to be changed in order to avoid corrosion; the weight of the undercarriage would have to be doubled to support carrier landing which would eat into the payload margin; and the wing roots would have to be strengthened in order to take the full inertia forces on landing. That sounds to me like a very substantial redesign. It is always possible, but it would cost a huge amount of money and it would certainly add very considerably to the cost of the aircraft that Admiral Blackham envisages.

  61. As I understand it from what you have said this morning, you cannot guarantee two carriers at sea at any time. With my limited memory I understood that the SDR was based on having two regional operations going at the same time, complete with air cover. How do you square those two statements?
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The first thing to say is that those two operations can be defined differently in terms of whether they are war-like operations and for how long and exactly what the sequencing of them in time will be. I know that that sounds a little bureaucratic, but we have to make some planning assumptions. We do not currently plan to conduct two medium-scale war fighting operations simultaneously. As the Chairman has already pointed out, we cannot control our enemies, but we have to make a planning assumption. Never, at any stage, have we undertaken to have two carriers at sea at the same time. We will always have two carriers available and they will be available at different notices. That is the situation today and it has always been the situation. Those notices may well be appropriate to the operations that we are planning. As I said earlier, if we can dispense with deep refits of the sort that we have had in the past, if we are changing the propulsion of the ship, which will help and if we move towards what we call reliability-centred maintenance, then we would not expect to find either ship so far gone in a refit that it was not recoverable in a relatively short space of time. As I have already said, in 1982 we pulled ships out of refit in the days of our previous maintenance regime in a matter of days to send them to war. That is a matter of resources. In this case, the plan will allow us to always keep them at a shorter notice than our old regime used to allow us to keep them at. We could never guarantee two ships at sea at the same time. For a start, chaps want to visit their wives every now and then.


  62. I recall we pulled the Shackleton out of the Manchester Aerospace Museum because Nimrod AEW did not arrive, so we are incredibly flexible as a nation.
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) You have already drawn our attention to the fact that AEW is going to be part of this package.

  63. Both your historical memory and mine leads us both to the conclusion that procurement dates might occasionally slip. They usually slip. If—I am not saying it will happen—the 2012 date slips for one reason or another, would the Joint Strike Fighter be able to land on the existing class of carriers?
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) That will depend on which version we select.

  64. You must have given some thought to it.
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) Indeed, but we are not going to decide on the variant of Joint Strike Fighter that we accept on the basis of whether it can operate off our existing carriers or not.

  65. However, I am looking at a theoretical possibility that has, because of history, a distinct possibility of happening. You might get a situation where the carrier is delayed until 2014; the joint strike fighter is available; we have a requirement but without the carrier here are the aircraft with pilots trained and there are three or two Invincible class carriers that are still somehow in the water; a crisis comes along; no new carriers; three old carriers available. Is it going to be possible for the new aircraft to land on the old carriers?
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) The answer to your question is almost certainly yes but can it operate off an existing carrier, which is the more important question? No, probably not. That is why we are building a new class of ships in order to make sure that it can, but it is for exactly that reason that I, through my capability manager, have an agreement with Sir Robert, through his IPT leader, with some pretty tough targets in it.

  66. For all the tough targets there must be plan B or plan C in there somewhere. It will not affect us but it might affect some other people. I am not saying it is going to happen but it is possible.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) From my point of view, a far more likely occurrence is that the ships will be on time and the aircraft programme, with all the technical risk in it, does not deliver on time. The Joint Strike Fighter is where the development risk is in this programme. I have said lots of times that we plan to order these ships in 2004 against a 2012 in-service date. It is quite similar to what happened with Trident, which is one of the procurement programmes which delivered on time because it was given focus and very high level attention by everybody in the Department from the Secretary of State downwards. It did deliver and that was a United Kingdom produced platform against an American produced system which had the most appalling problems but the two were brought together and delivered on time. I think the pacing item is probably going to be the Joint Strike Fighter in the end and we will make jolly certain that the ship does turn up on time.

  67. In 2012, I shall be calling from my old persons' home to you in yours and either saying, "Robert, I owe you a pint" or, "You owe me one." I hope I will not have to do that but it is more than a possibility.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) Nothing I have said was meant to say that this was a cakewalk. I did not mean that. What I meant was that the development risk in the ships is completely different to the development risk in a Joint Strike Fighter. Therefore, the scenario that you envisage seems to me to be the less likely of the two. I am merely drawing attention to Trident where we did do the same thing and did succeed.

Mr Cann

  68. We have accepted that we are not going to have two of these carriers at sea at any given time, definitely. That begs the question of what you need to do if you need to have two carriers at sea. I understand that you have said, Admiral, that you can get out of refit very quickly. I do not know whether that is optimistic or not but it begs the question what are we going to do with the three existing carriers. Are we going to scrap or mothball one just in case of need, or what?
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) First of all, I apologise for repeating what I said. The definition of "at sea" is simply a false one. Ships are not at sea all the time. What they are is available. They are not at sea all the time because, as is very well known to this Committee, we have to spend a great deal of attention on making sure that our people have reasonably balanced lives and careers. If ships are at sea all the time, they might very well be in the wrong place. It is availability that we are focusing on, not being at sea. I am confident that we will get the availability that we are planning to get, one carrier at short notice and one at slightly longer notice. As to preserving the previous carriers, they will not be able to operate the Joint Strike Fighter. They are not the right size; they will not have the right equipment on board. They cannot do it. They could of course operate Harriers if we happened to have any of those around. There are other things that they might do as well, which we will think about as we address our overall capability. If they have any remaining life, it might be worth considering whether we can use them for other purposes.

  69. No decision has been made?
  (Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham) We do not need to be making a decision. I am addressing capability all the time. I am asking myself how do we deliver what we want. How do we put this bomb on this target or these numbers of people where we want. A carrier offers the opportunity to carry aircraft and people and all sorts of things. We need to look, as time develops, and see whether we can meet what we need to do. I have in my back pocket at least the possibility of thinking of ways of filling capability gaps that might occur but I do not need to decide yet because we are doing what we need to do and we have a plan to succeed their capability with a much better capability.

Mr Gapes

  70. I want to ask you about ASRAAM. Can I first of all take you to the recent letter which the Chairman of the Committee received from Baroness Symons, which says that the government is not prepared to take delivery of any missiles until Matra BAe Dynamics can show that an acceptable standard can be met. Why have you not been able to accept these ASRAAM missiles into service?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) They do not meet the contracted conditions. We are ready to see a plan from MBD as to how they would achieve missiles with the contracted performance. At that stage, we would be quite prepared to negotiate with them acceptance of missiles to a lower performance on a temporary basis and they would have to be improved later. Most of the improvements, if there were any needed, would be expected to come from software so it is not a big re-engineering task. It is just loading more noughts and ones in.

  71. Whose fault is it that this missile is not up to scratch?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I would rather not ascribe blame in such an unambiguous way as you would prefer me to do. We believe that we have very clear contracted conditions for this missile. Industry took the contract. We renegotiated the contract a couple of years ago. They accepted it then so they did not do it in ignorance. We believe they have not delivered. The reason I do not want to be too unambiguous is that there is in a matter like this, unsurprisingly, some dispute between us and the company as to the scale of the shortfall. For that reason, they would say that some of the problem lies with us and they will no doubt tell you that if you give them a chance. I would say the bulk of the problem lies with Matra BAe Dynamics. That does not mean that they are not an excellent missile company; nor does it mean that ASRAAM is not going to be an excellent missile. It does mean that we are not going to take stuff until we are quite satisfied that the contractual conditions have been met or that there is a sound and robust plan for delivering missiles to their contracted conditions. That is what we are working on with MBD now.

  72. What is the scale of the task that is required to bring ASRAAM up to scratch and how long is it going to take?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) You have asked precisely the question that we want to see an answer to from the contractor. It is not us who designed the missile. How long is it going to take to bring it up to scratch? What I said was we want a robust plan from the company which sets that out.

  73. You said that there was a dispute between yourself and the company about what was needed.
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I did say a dispute between ourselves and the company as to whose fault—you used the word—whose responsibility it was. I did not say as to what was needed. That is the company's job.

  74. You agree with them exactly what is needed?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) No, because they have not yet shown us what they plan to do.

  75. You have no idea how long it will take?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I understand the line of questioning. Yes, I do have an idea how long it is going to take but I am not going to announce that now. It is not going to take very long. These are contractual negotiations and I would rather not conduct them here in this Committee.

  76. Let me try another way then. When are you hoping to get a new in-service date, given that the original in-service date was, I understand, December 1998? It was then put off for two years to December 2000, with a 90 per cent confidence for April 2001. We are now in May. When is the new in-service date going to be announced?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I will try to answer that question absolutely as straightforwardly as I know how. You are quite right: December 1998, delivery of 60 missiles to the Royal Air Force slipped two years partly because of aircraft availability but, in the event, it is a missile development programme that has used up the time so it is no good blaming anything else other than the missile programme. Then we said April. We are going through some tough negotiations with the company. I return to my point that when we have a robust plan for bringing the missiles fully up to scratch, that will determine the in-service date. I am hoping we will have that plan within the next month or so. At that stage, I will be able to tell you what the in-service date that we plan is.

  77. We have so far spent, on the figures we have up to 31 March last year, £479 million. Are there any more up to date figures on how much so far has been spent on this programme?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) There will be. I do not have them to hand but I can tell you that the total cost of the programme, as the same Major Projects Report makes clear, is still £5 million less than when we started.

  78. £823 million? Is that correct?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) I will check.

  79. The paper I have here is 823; it was 828; it is now five million less, so £823 million is the total cost if it is procured and everything goes ahead, but if it was to be cancelled you will have already spent up to £500 million on it. Is that correct?
  (Sir Robert Walmsley) Yes, but that does not mean that the money would not be recoverable. The idea that I should be sitting here discussing the cancellation of ASRAAM to me is in the outer realms of probability.

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