Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1-19)




  1. Welcome for what I hope is not the only visit that you will be making to this Committee. Congratulations on your appointment. We have established a principle of rather selective hearings on major appointments in the Ministry of Defence—we had the Chief Scientific Advisor, now yourself—in recent months. You have been rather high profile, Sir Michael, over the last few days. I shall be asking you whether this is your long-term policy. We very much welcome you. We are strong supporters of the Armed Forces, usually against the Ministry of Defence I must say, so you will be in the rather ambivalent position of a serviceman but also a bureaucrat. Most of your predecessors have managed to combine the roles very competently, particularly your immediate predecessor. The first question, Admiral, is really how do you really see the role of Chief of Defence Staff? Did you have to go through an interviewing panel or was it just like the election of a Pope, which is a rather different process than the elections we go through? Did you emerge? Were you selected? Was there a headhunting panel? I have never worked out how people become Chief of Defence Staff.
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) The process is a little bit opaque to me as well, Chairman. Basically my predecessor would have looked at the potential candidates who could do the job, and he would have looked at their background to see whether they had experience in joint operations, whether they had operational background, whether they had worked in NATO, whether they had worked in coalitions and so forth. Then I guess what happened after that was that he then discussed those candidates with the Secretary of State and who the Secretary of State spoke to I have no idea, I am sure he would have discussed that with probably his other ministers I guess. Then the Secretary of State would have taken the list of potential candidates, there was probably a batting order, to the Prime Minister who in turn made his own investigations, if you like, and out of which my name emerged at the end of the day. My interview, as such, as you describe, is a continuous process of evaluation over the time that I have been performing, certainly my last two or three jobs, I guess, where I have caught the eye or otherwise of people either in the Ministry of Defence itself or other influential people in Government circles or whatever.

  2. Until a decade or so ago it was almost Buggin's turn for the services. You must have looked at the sequence of appointments. Despite the fact it is now based on merit, has there been, do you think, any recognition that it might be unwise to neglect one of the services over a lengthy period of time? Is there a sort of modified Buggin's turn operating?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I think it would be certainly wrong to neglect a service deliberatively but I am a believer in the best man for the job. I think what the country wants as the Chief of Defence is a person who is best suited to do it. If it happens to mean that you finish up with a run of two or three from the same service, then so be it. It is quite good that from time to time you will see a change in the colour of uniform because I think that is healthy to give another perspective on department's business but I certainly would not want to force a buggin's turn, although I have to say that by the time you have been through the attritional process to get to the sort of rank which I have gone through, which is pretty severe, it is about a 50 per cent cut all the way up from lieutenant right through to rear-admiral and then vice-admiral. To have got through the various filters on the way you are not going to be an idiot by the time you finally get there.

  3. You never found being a submariner means that your communication with the wider world is somehow constrained? You have to learn to communicate to more than 500 people for six months at a time?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) You are perfectly correct, Chairman, in saying that one of the joys of being a submariner is that you do not have to talk to anybody for large amounts of time. It also encourages, I guess, the Nelsonian blind eye to a certain extent because you can hear what you are supposed to do but no-one knows if you have received your messages. Not at all. In fact, it requires a better understanding of how to communicate when communications are very difficult.

  4. You have time to contemplate too, I suppose, under the surface?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) It is a busy life. Living in a submarine, Chairman, you are in a survival mode. Every minute of the day you are in a hostile environment. I do not mean "hostile" in the sense of enemy forces but you are under water and if something goes wrong you die. You do not jump out of an aeroplane where you might have an parachute. As we sadly saw with the Kursk incident back last year, if every man on board a submarine is not doing his business he can cause the death of all his colleagues on board.

  5. Do you have any scope in your job to emphasise one aspect of it? Have you got a personal perspective as to how you see the job emerging or where you would wish to emphasise? For instance, I cannot recall Chiefs of Defence Staff recently appearing so regularly as your predecessor on Frost on Sunday. Is there a conscious effort by incumbents of your office now to be more visible so that people can actually see who the senior military man is in the Armed Forces?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) There is a dichotomy here. We have a problem in the Armed Forces and that is getting the recognition that we exist at all around the country. As we have reduced in size and as we are in less and less parts of the country and as fewer and fewer people have had experience of relations or fathers, uncles, aunts, mothers in the services, so we have become more invisible. There is a desire to make sure we do project ourselves into the media in a way which makes people realise there is an Army, Navy and Air Force. On the other hand, I am personally shy about too much profile. I think it is very proper to be asked questions about operations, for example, and to have a military person giving a view about an operation that is going down, such as we did during the Kosovo campaign. I think it was a mistake in 1982 not to have had a military person in front of the cameras to explain events as they were unfolding, so I think that is a very desirable change of affairs. To deal with the very sharply focused business of what the military are doing, not to get involved in policy and so forth, that is properly the domain of Ministers. The answer to your question is, on the one hand, I think we tend to be shy about our business, we like to just get on with it and not have a high profile, but equally we have a desire to make sure that the knowledge of the forces is spread around the country to make sure that, first of all, the people in the country know what we are up to, and what we are up to tends to be pretty good, so it is a good story to tell. Secondly, if we do not tell people we are around we are not going to get the recruits we need.

  6. One of the criticisms that this Committee made after the Falklands War was that the Ministry of Defence were not particularly well trained to speak to a wider audience. In some ways there is a greater interest in defence matters now, particularly at a crisis time, and the need for competence in presenting the case to a wider public is of critical importance. We recommended in 1983 that there should be courses available for people on presenting themselves. Not many of us have gone on such a course, as you might be able to tell, but have you gone through any training programme in how to appear before the media?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes. Most people going into senior positions are encouraged, in fact invited, to go and do a media interview technique course.

  7. Do you have any training programme on how to appear before the Defence Committee?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) No, this is new territory, Chairman.

  Chairman: We will send you a video of a few classic videos of appearances of how not to appear.

Dr Lewis

  8. Can I just come in on what you said about it being appropriate to answer questions on military operations, but I think by implication you were saying perhaps it is not appropriate to get involved in political controversy. Was that the gist of your answer?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Yes, very much so. I am sure that the people in the country, if we are involved in an operation, would like to see a military person answering questions about the operation rather than someone, say, in a suit. I think that is appropriate. I serve the Government and will carry out its orders and I do not believe that I should be involved in chewing over in public my views about the policies that Government is making. Of course I will express them in private through my proper chain of command.

  9. We try to function very much as a non-partisan Committee, so I hope the Chairman will indulge me just to this extent when I raise something that is a particular problem for those of us who are in opposition. That is that when we are questioning Ministers about something of which we disapprove, such as the European Union's Rapid Reaction Force, in recent times we are finding Ministers coming forward saying—this does not apply to you but it applied to your predecessor—"It shows how much you know, because the Chief of the Defence Staff fully supports what we are doing". That puts us in a very difficult position because we cannot then attack the Government's position without attacking the Chief of Defence Staff. Can we hope that in the future that, when we are debating issues as controversial as the European Union's Rapid Reaction Force, we will not find ourselves regaled with public headlines such as "Force's Chief backs EU Force `It will make NATO stronger, not weaker'", particularly when Sir Charles told some of us who had met him from the Backbench Defence Committees in private that he had doubts about the Force?

  Chairman: Before you answer that, if you follow Dr Lewis' advice your tenure will probably be the shortest. I really do not think it is your job to criticise the Government. It took a civil war and 300 years to ensure that the military, even though they dissent from the views of their political masters, appear to be supportive. Dr Lewis can ask his own question but I have to say I really do not think it is wise for a Chief of Defence Staff to argue against Government policy.

  Dr Lewis: If I could just refine my own question taking what the Chairman has just said. Chiefs of Defence Staff may then find themselves having to be supportive of policies that they do not in fact really endorse. Is this not putting them in an extremely anomalous position if they are then talking to the public about policies and being prayed in aid by politicians when, in fact, the positions being put forward are not the positions to which they really subscribe?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I work for the Government and if I have a moral belief that what I am being told to do is wrong then I must walk. Of course, I will proffer my advice and if the Government chooses in the balance of its judgment to do something else and I am told to get on with something else then I will get on with it and I think that is quite proper too.

  Chairman: You can appeal over the head of the Secretary of State and seek a personal meeting with the Prime Minister. We can all appreciate the great dilemma that you are in. Ministers have to argue cases that they may not believe in. The Minister for Defence Procurement appeared before us yesterday. I just cannot believe that she believes the policy that she was espousing before us. This is part of our constitution, I am afraid, like it or not. Sorry, Dr Lewis.

Dr Lewis

  10. But in that case, surely if it is the case that you are faced with the possibility of having your advice rejected, it is surely anomalous then to go on the public record taking a position which is in contradiction to what you really believe?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) Throughout my career I have often proffered advice which has not been taken by my superior officer.

  Chairman: You have done pretty well out of it, I must say.

Dr Lewis

  11. Let me bring my bit to an end by just asking you this: supposing your advice was that something was bad, retrograde, undesirable, and the Government rejected that advice and you did not feel strongly enough about it to resign, and the Government then put you in the media firing line, would you then feel obliged to say to the reporters "I actually support this", when in reality you did not?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) If I have accepted the decision of the Government is to do such and such then I must both privately and publicly get on and execute such and such.

  Chairman: I would like to be in a position to emulate what the distinguished US Senator Sam Nunn used to say to all senior officers who appeared before his Committee which could reject an appointment and regularly did. He said "I always said to them when you appear before us if you are confirmed, do you promise only to tell the truth?" and that does put a person before a Committee in a rather difficult situation. I would have thought if your job is on the line it would be wise to say "Yes, I will tell the truth". We have no such power to command the truth from witnesses who come before us but we have rarely been lied to, rarely given all the information but rarely lied to. Harry Cohen.

Mr Cohen

  12. Maybe it is just me but I do not think the Committee got an answer to the Chairman's first question which was what exactly is your job? What do you envisage it to be? What are the principal features and purposes of it you see?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) The three single Service Chiefs' jobs are to deliver military effectiveness to the Secretary of State. They are responsible for the fighting effectiveness of their individual services. In the way in which we operate now, particularly where we are operating more and more in the joint environment, it is necessary to bring together the three disciplines in order to provide joint advice to the Secretary of State. I very much see my role as being that of co-ordinating the three Services to produce an effective fighting force which can go out and do its job and win and provide the Secretary of State with advice on how to utilise that force in the optimum manner. When I say "the force" I mean the Army, Navy and Air Force collectively. In making it capable of doing that, it involves everything from looking after people in the force, their infrastructure, the equipment and so forth, and making sure that I am providing advice which I think will help us to do what we can with the money we are given.

Mr Viggers

  13. Have you identified the major challenges which you face in taking over as Chief of Defence Staff and what are they?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I think the most important thing I believe that I need to concentrate on is to sustain the fighting capability of our armed forces. I believe we have got the best fighting force in the world. I think if we are asked to go and do something, we do it, and we win. There are a lot of pressures on us which could diminish that fighting capability. They are not pressures which are being put on us in any sort of malicious way, but everything from budgetary pressures, the business of the operations that we are in, the quality of life of the people who work in the Armed Forces against the commitments which they have to attend to, the various pressures that appear from the social and society side of life, legislation and so forth. I very much see my job as keeping an eye on all those areas to make sure, at the end of the day, as we apply them and implement different ideas in the Armed Forces, that the bottom line remains the same which is that we can go out and do our job well.

  14. Looking first at budgetary pressures, there have been a number of economies which have been put upon the Armed Forces in recent years. They are expected to find efficiencies every year, year on year, a kind of tourniquet. Do you think it is possible to maintain the highest level of Armed Forces consistent with those efficiencies or is there some truth in the expression one sometimes hears "crippled by efficiencies"?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I think it is terribly important we make the money we are given work for us as well as possible. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that, say, 15 years ago we had a lot of fat in the system. We have driven a lot of that fat out over the last 15 years, and particularly in the last five or 10 years. We should continue to look for ways of actually doing that. I do believe that we have a very tight budget at the moment. By that I mean that we have a budget which just about allows us to do what we need to do. I would very much like to see that budget increased to allow us to do our job even better still. In the process of working hard to see how we can persuade the Prime Minister, the Government, to see a further increase in defence spending, bearing in mind we had a small increase last year, we shall work very hard meanwhile to look for ways in which we can make the money we have got go further. Clearly, therefore, that comes down to efficiencies. Are there ways of doing our business better by either rationalisation or finding out different ways of working, by contracturisation or whatever? As long as—I come back to the point I was making a moment ago—at the end of the day what we do does not actually affect our fighting ability.

  15. Military expenditure in a time of peace is virtually discretional. Are you satisfied there is an awareness in the country of the need for military expenditure at the moment?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I am quite sure the country is proud of its Armed Forces. I am quite sure the country wants to go and see its Armed Forces when they go and do their business do well in it and to remain proud in what they do. When it comes down to the other pressures in society on whether there is enough money for health or education or roads or whatever it is, I suspect defence often drops in the list of priorities about where the money should be spent. That, I guess, is the way it is in peace.

  16. Is there a need to train for war or do you envisage that the Government and the country can realistically assume that there will be a period through which we will have an opportunity to prepare for war before it comes upon us?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) This is something which I feel quite passionate about. I think it is terribly important that we do continue to train for war. We are front line forces. We have a role which is a global one. We must be prepared to respond to whatever the crisis may be. Although you could go into a situation where you become very good at conducting humanitarian operations and low level peacekeeping operations, train yourself for that, the step change to move from that to go and do a war fighting job is extraordinarily difficult. If you are trained at the higher level of war fighting capability then almost certainly you will be capable of doing all the low level tasks as well. I think one of the concerns that I have had in that particular sense of remaining well trained right across the spectrum of our capability is that as we are very busy around the world at the moment, conducting our various tasks, sometimes those tasks are quite tightly focused and do not allow the people engaged on them to be able to train in their full range of capability. To take a very, very simplistic example. The ship which is deployed off Sierra Leone, for example, and doing a very good job there, clearly it is having huge skill fade in its anti-submarine warfare capability. This is one of the things which I believe I must watch out for very carefully to ensure that in balancing out commitments against our resources, under the title of resources comes quality of life, comes money, comes proper training.

  17. Do you think we are doing enough and have done enough and will be doing enough to guard against asymmetrical threats by attack through computers, through nerve gas, through unexpected unconventional forces?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) We do give it a lot of attention and it features in our strategic context and strategic plan. I do not think you can ever do enough on this because it is an expanding business the whole time and particularly you mentioned electronic attack, if you like, IT attack, information warfare. Every day there is a new aspect to that. All I can assure the Committee is that it is very much uppermost in our minds. We look at it frequently in our Chiefs of Staffs meeting to see where there are new developments. We continue to give it maximum attention but to try to prepare for every single possible asymmetric threat but by definition an asymmetric threat is one you are not really prepared for. We do keep a very close watching eye on all this but clearly I cannot guarantee that we can cover every possible scenario.

  18. Which are your most severe pinch points, do you think, areas of greatest shortage?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) The manning of the Armed Forces is clearly one which gives cause for concern. We are undermanned in all three forces but most particularly in the Army. We are slowly improving the manning situation but in the case of the Army it will take some years before we hit our manning target. That requires a whole variety of activities in order to make sure we do keep the slope going upwards in terms of getting people in or stopping them going out, a combination of both. I put that pretty high. Tied up in that fall out a number of other issues as well. On the subject of having the right manpower in the Services means we try to slow down the rate at which they are leaving before the end of their careers. That then leads to making sure that life in the services is one which people like so much that they do not want to leave. So we get into the quality of life factors. For example, is the accommodation in which our soldiers, sailors and airmen live satisfactory? Frankly, in some areas at the moment it is not particularly satisfactory, so we must try to do something about that. If we are working them hard, and I do believe in working our people hard and keeping them well stretched, when they have their time off is the quality of life they are going to have when they have that time off one which they are pleased about? Are we looking after their families? When they are on mission, when they are on an operation, are we providing everything we can do while they are on that mission to remain in touch with their families and making life as reasonable as possible as we can, given the fact that they may well be in a hardship type of post somewhere in Sierra Leone or Kuwait or wherever the case may be? It is those personal issues which fall out of the overall manning problem that are ones which most preoccupy me.

  19. When I asked about the most severe difficulties I wondered whether you would mention Defence Medical Services where in some cases you have a 75 per cent shortfall in deployable consultants, for instance. This has become a most severe problem following the projected closure of the only remaining military hospital. Is this an area where if you had a view you would express it publicly or through the chain of command?
  (Admiral Sir Michael Boyce) I would certainly acknowledge absolutely that our Defence Medical Services are far from what I would wish. You correctly point out that we are desperately undermanned in a large number of categories within our Defence Medical Services. We are trying very hard indeed, through a whole variety of initiatives, to try to improve the image of the Defence Medical Services and, through that, the number of people in them. You will be aware of the new Centre of Defence Medicine that we are establishing in Birmingham, which is going down very well within the Army, Navy and Air Force medical fraternity. They find this an exciting concept and it has started to restore their morale. They perceive now that they are perceived as being important and the establishment of this centre has done a lot to stop the outflow of people who felt that they were no longer valued. We are trying very hard indeed to recruit people in who are already qualified, as well as bringing in young doctors and nurses. As I say, it is not an area which is a particularly happy one. We are better off than we were two or three years ago but we still have a long way to go.

  Mr Viggers: Recruitment is better but retention is actually worse. I will leave the point there, thank you.

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