Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 40-59)




  40. Thirty-one with Nottingham now, yes. Is it still 32 or 31? Would you put your reputation on 32, Mr Webb? Mr Mann is dying to get in. Mr Mann, would you stake your reputation on the fact that by the time you retire from the Ministry of Defence that at least 32 will survive?
  (Mr Webb) As ever, I cannot improve on what my Secretary of State has said, so I read it out from a letter dated 11 October. "The New Chapter made clear the Strategic Defence Review provided a firm foundation on which to build in our response to the challenges we now face after 11 September. At the same time the additional resources made available in the Spending Review provided a mandate for accelerating the modernisation and evolution of the armed forces and for investing in new technologies. As I said in my speech on the New Chapter, this also means being prepared to take a hard look at other areas which no longer add capability in the way they once did and to prioritise in favour of critical capabilities".

  41. What does that mean? Are we going to keep 32 frigates and destroyers? Mr Mann?
  (Mr Mann) I am smiling, Mr George, because I recall about ten years ago witnesses in front of the predecessor Committee to this one argued about phrases like "about 35", "35" and so on.

  42. "About 50", I can recall.
  (Mr Mann) Yes, I remember that too. If I can just describe the process which may help put your mind at rest, the process we undertake and we do it routinely inside the Department and we did it in a rather more structured fashion in the Strategic Defence Review, is to start with the strategic context to look at the world we are moving into and the sorts of missions the armed forces might be undertaking and then, if I can simplify and slightly parody it, to get together a group of military commanders and say, "That is the mission you are going on; there are the planning parameters; now tell us the force packages you would like to achieve the following military effects." Out of that, when it is conducted 10, 20, 30 times, you will get a set of force packages to undertake a very broad range of missions, and you can put that into a scatter diagram. You can deduce those capabilities which you are always going to draw on and those which are unique to individual types of operation. From all of that you can then say, "Well, to achieve that military effect I need the following numbers of infantry battalions, or frigates, or aircraft carriers or combat aircraft"—or whatever. That is essentially the process we went through in the Strategic Defence Review in a very full fashion. It starts from a foreign policy context: it has, I would like, to think an intellectual logic to it: there is no particular horse trading, compromise or whatever at the end of it: clearly we have to make sure—

  43. Did I hear that correctly? Will you repeat that?
  (Mr Mann) I will repeat that. That process starts from a foreign policy context—

  44. No. The bit about horse trading.
  (Mr Mann) It has an intellectual trail and we have adopted much the same intellectual trail in the context of the New Chapter work. At the end of it there is an intellectual foundation on which to build: it is not a simple game of saying, "I will trade you two frigates for an aircraft carrier, or an aircraft carrier for another set of combat aircraft", or whatever. That is not the nature of the game.

  Chairman: We have to move on. Mr Mann, we will go through the report and, when we talked to our naval chiefs and we asked what the horse trading was, they were pretty honest with us and I could not see anything in what they said that there would be any diminution in the size of the surface fleet as the price to be paid for the two new aircraft carriers. Now, we may well revisit our 1985 inquiry into the size and shape of the surface fleet but before this session ends I will read the letter from the Ministry of Defence showing the commitment we have to NATO of 32 frigates and destroyers, and I am merely seeking to elicit from you that that letter sent to me a couple of weeks ago is still valid and, in this debate you had over the New Chapter, whether the Treasury signed up to that policy to which we are committed to date of 32 frigates and destroyers. You know exactly what I mean. There are reports in the press, and I do not believe all I read in the press but every now and again they get it right, and if the price to be paid for two new aircraft carriers is the selling off to whoever of one third of our surface fleet then I do not think this Committee is going to take that horse trading with any enthusiasm whatsoever. So I will find the letter and I will read it out and you can tell me and Mr Webb can telephone his masters if he wishes to see if that letter is still government policy and will remain government policy.

Mr Jones

  45. Quickly on that, when we had the Secretary of State before us earlier this year when we were talking about the New Chapter, and I cannot exactly remember word for word but a question I asked was "What would be up for review?", and his reply was quite sweeping—that everything would be up for review in terms of this review and this New Chapter, including commitments to different parts of deployments, etc. I note the point you make, Mr Webb or Mr Mann, made about reducing commitments against the former Soviet Union and Russia, but what else has changed, or is it just a matter of you having been docked more money from the Treasury so you are sucking that into the system, or are there going to be some major changes as a result of this Chapter which are going to bring about changes in force structure and changes, for example, like the Chairman has already outlined? The Secretary of State was quite clear that this was going to be a new look at everything, and it appears to me that that has been done.
  (Mr Webb) I think we laid out in the New Chapter some of the capabilities which were relevant to the specific challenges of asymmetric warfare, particularly terrorism. I think what Mr Hoon was saying was really exactly what I have just read out which he has written more recently which is to say that, while looking at the additional resources, and let us be clear we are talking about an environment in which we are getting extra resources for defence—

  46. That does not mean you cannot spend the ones you have more efficiently.
  (Mr Webb) Exactly, and I think that is exactly the point he was making—that it provides a mandate for accelerating the modernisation and the evolution of the armed forces, and it does mean being prepared to take a hard look at other areas which no longer add capability in the way they once did, and I gave an illustration of that in relation to Russia. Things have moved on a great deal in relations with Russia, culminating in the Russia NATO Council which was established earlier this year.

  47. Can I give an example of the Falkland Islands? I said, "Would that be part of this general review?" "Oh, yes; nothing is outside this review". So what is happening in terms of looking at the Falkland Islands? Was that considered to be reducing—
  (Mr Webb) We did look briefly at all the dependent territories in relation to the international terrorism issue. I do not recall that Falkland Islands were seen as being a major increased risk from international terrorism.

  48. That was not the point I was making but in terms of resource equipment to things, for example, like the Falkland Islands, to the Secretary of State—
  (Mr Webb) All I am saying is we did not look at that as part of the New Chapter. There is further work to come and I cannot speculate about that.

  49. So basically you are trying to screw more money out of the Treasury rather than look efficiently at what you are actually spending?
  (Mr Webb) Well, the immediate exercise we were doing I would not characterise quite like that, but to make sure in the government processes the Ministry of Defence's needs were properly articulated. Is that the same sort of thing?

  Chairman: Far more nicely said! Kevan, we have a little section on equipment and infrastructure programmes so what we have just been talking about shades easily into that.

Mr Jones

  50. Mr Webb, part of the New Chapter is obviously about changes to the force structure but also equipment, and you have already mentioned the concentration in terms of network centric capacity. I have a couple of questions in terms of UAVs, which is a key part of that strategy. What lessons have been learned from the war in Afghanistan on the use of UAVs, not just in terms of gathering intelligence but also I think the Americans are using them in terms of fleeting targets and identifying possible targets. Also we would be interested to know your views in terms of what is the next step in UAVs in terms of arming them, or what has been used in terms of Hellfire missiles, and how you see that fitting into how capacity for this type of equipment would be going in the future?
  (Mr Webb) I will let General Fulton talk about this in detail but my sense is that UAVs have come of age; they have now moved on from being something which was not a completely integral part of the force structure to being now able to offer that, and certainly the intelligence that you can get from them and, as you say, the ability to carry weapons are all things we need now to look carefully at.
  (Major General Fulton) I think we would certainly agree with your assessment of UAVs. As to what we learned, I think it has been encapsulated: the ability for a long endurance observation platform to study an area, to detect changes in that area in a way that manned systems cannot, to go into areas where we might be reluctant to send manned aircraft—these are all well documented and clearly we have picked up those lessons. We have our own UAV programme which you may want to talk about in more detail and what we have sought to do is bring that forward so that we can make the Watchkeeper available to the front line forces sooner than it looked as though we were going to be able to before.

  51. On that, where are we at with the selection of the two consortia?
  (Major General Fulton) We are due to down-select from four to two to carry out the assessment phase and that announcement is due any day now. So we wish to get Watchkeeper into service because I think even what we have learned from our own Phoenix programme, originally procured as an artillery spotting device, clearly has proved itself very useful in Bosnia in terms of gathering information. Although countries have had UAVs in some form or other for a long time, we want to develop our own programme and bring those in. You also referred to the prospect of other roles for UAVs, such as the armour, so what we also seek to do in addition to the well-established programme is to look beyond that and we are establishing, as has been announced by the Secretary of State, a joint UAV experimental unit which will look at how we can take that develop forward, because clearly that is important. So Watchkeeper is very important for us; we want to get it in as quickly as possible; but we also want to play our part in understanding where we can go further from there.

  52. It is such an important piece of the New Chapter, has not consideration been given to off-the-shelf items which are already there being tried and tested?
  (Major General Fulton) Watchkeeper will, in fact, in the sense that you describe it, be buying off-the-shelf in that we will not be building a new air vehicle. Air vehicle technology Mr Webb described as having come of age—I think it still has further development to go but nevertheless the technology is there today and the air platforms which are being offered by the four consortia are there on the shelf. The issue is really not so much the air vehicle. The importance of the air vehicle, and in a sense I think picking up your earlier point, is that what we learned about UAVs in Afghanistan was that the bit you cannot see is important. The clever bit was not so much having an unmanned air vehicle circling high over Afghanistan but it was the ability to take the product of that and deliver it to the right place at the right time in sufficient quality that a decision-maker could take a decision to engage or not and then that decision could be passed back either to the UAV itself or to another circling aeroplane or other weapons system. So the key we think to UAVs is not what you have but what you do with it, and the clever bit of Watchkeeper will to be make sure that the information it gathers will be delivered to the commander in as close to real time as we can do it, and it can be compared with other information gathered from other sources so we can build up a picture of the battle field.

  53. I am very interested in the last point actually because it is a concern of mine. I can see the great advantage of UAVs but certainly, post the publication of the Chapter in terms of this use of the new technology, I am a little bit concerned, and I think some others are as well. I saw, for example, a demonstration by BAE Systems at the Labour Party conference where it seems that somehow you are going to take the person out of this in some way and that somehow you will be able to fight a war, for example, from a comfortable armchair in Florida rather than in the battle field. I am quite reassured about the point you make about the human element of this. Do you think it is important to try and emphasise that in the sense that this is not going to be seen a little bit like, for example, in the media at the end of the Gulf War, that this was something people had nothing to do with and it was just sitting in front of a television screen?
  (Mr Webb) In conceptual terms you are on to a terribly important point. The question is how to ensure that you have within this what we sometimes call "detect, decide, destroy" sequence, the correct decision-making by an individual and at the right level. There is a need for political control over military operations to be reconciled with the practicalities of acting sufficiently quickly and in particular, if you get as something you yourself mentioned earlier on, the fleeting opportunity. We need to get that right but the way, in my view, is to have delegation to properly trained people who are able to make judgments with sufficient breadth, to have direct political involvement in the really big and difficult cases, and to have some understanding that you are balancing off quality and speed while still maintaining very high standards, because what we are not talking about here is indiscriminate use of force so we have to get these things balanced out. That is part of the further work we are doing. But the good news is that these networks give the decision-makers better information probably than they have ever had before, so you do not just see the vehicle or whatever it is that comes up as a potential target but you also have a chance to see the broader scene, the context, to look and to check and so on. So there is a plus point about the quality of decision-making as well as a bit of an opportunity.

  54. I accept that, Mr Webb, but the concern I have, certainly in terms of the way the whole network centric capacity has been spun out, is that somehow the human being has been taken out of it and I think it would be a good exercise for the MoD to keep emphasising that fact—that it is not about to take away the ability of the commander on the field to take the decision, or politicians. Certainly some of the issues on Afghanistan, for example, of the misguided firing on wedding parties and other things, so I think in this entire debate that we are going to have, clearly, and it is going to lead to a lot of good intelligence in terms of fighting battles, we need to re-emphasise and keep re-emphasising the role of the individuals.
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

Syd Rapson

  55. To add to that, the Americans are pouring an enormous amount of resources into UAV technology and the sensor-to-shooter, reducing the time between seeing and delivering a missile. Are we assured that our choice of consortia for this weapons system is going to be as good as the Americans or are they always going to have an edge, because their communication process of identification and killing is far quicker and less ethical than ours would appear to be. The British way of doing things tends to be a little bit slower and more accurate, and I am worried that we might have a weapons system which might well be more proper but not as efficient and as useful as a killing machine.
  (Mr Webb) Rob can talk about the technical side but I want to come back at you about the way we conduct operations because I do not think you are quite right on that.
  (Major General Fulton) The sequence as far as we are concerned very clearly includes a decision-maker, a commander, so the phrase which we adopted, "detect, decide, destroy", has that in, sensor, decision-maker, shooter is a very important part of it, rules of engagement or the ability of the commander to decide, in circumstances which as far as the New Chapter is concerned will provide not only more fleeting targets but also targets in much more difficult circumstances as Mr Jones has alluded to. So we are very clear that the Watchkeeper programme is a programme about giving the best possible information and Watchkeeper is all about the gathering of information. There is not an armed UAV component in it. It is all about gathering information and providing the best possible information to the commander, and the complexity of the system is determining who that commander is, and clearly that will need to be flexible because the circumstances will be different, but making sure the right commander has the right information and in such a form in which he can make a decision and not just be swamped with a tidal wave of useless information.


  56. Thank you. Whenever UAVs are mentioned I start to get a little bit nervous having lived through the catastrophe of Phoenix. I am sure some of my colleagues had not left school when the MoD first thought of something like Phoenix and it is only now working effectively. You said, General, that we had learned some lessons from Phoenix. The lesson I learned is that, firstly, we are not very good at making the UAVs and, secondly, not very good at monitoring the programmes, which were failing miserably. When can the military expect realistically a system that will function effectively? Can you give us some idea, because really we need something like this now. Are we going to have to wait three, five, ten years? Whoever wins, when will they have to deliver?
  (Major General Fulton) The current date is 2007 for delivery of Watchkeeper. As was announced when the New Chapter was announced, we are seeking to bring that forward and working with the consortia to bring that forward to 2005. 2005 would be the in-service date for the first elements of Watchkeeper—a system, not just the air vehicles but a system. Clearly as part of that we could expect to see trials versions and so on and so forth in the hands of front line troops, say, a year before that. We are aiming at 2005 with a reasonable expectation that we will be able to achieve it.

  57. And which consortia have systems working at the moment?
  (Major General Fulton) All four consortia have air vehicles that are flying and working at the moment.

Mr Howarth

  58. I want to pursue this because at the very interesting conference we had on Monday, Sir Jock Stirrup was making it clear that the MoD is now looking to accelerate the process of smart acquisition to make it even smarter and more flexible and quicker. I do not understand why on this programme we are still talking about even 2005, given that all the contenders have got platforms. I accept that it is not simply a question of platform but systems, application, integration, the key being as you said, General, what you do with the information. But then I heard you say at the outset, "We want to develop our own programme". Is this another case of the MoD having potential off-the-shelf options, not just platforms but systems as well, and saying, "We do not want any of those; we want to do our own discrete operation". Result: our troops get something that enters service after everybody else has got theirs and by the time they get it the technology is out of date and, whatever we procure, the French had the same thing five years ago, as a former general told me last night.
  (Major General Fulton) Can I just clear up any misunderstanding about my saying that we were also starting our own programme? That is experimental where we want to look at son of Watchkeeper, if you like—what comes after that—because we need to start thinking about that now. Clearly we have all learned a lot about UAVs from the operations in Afghanistan but clearly what we also do not want to do is start changing our mind and redefining what we want from Watchkeeper. What we do want is the four consortia who do have good, modern, state of the art technology which is what we are buying in effect off-the-shelf. It is the system which will take us until 2004-05 to bring in; there is also the issue of training our people to use them, developing the concepts and the doctrine because, as the Chairman said, Phoenix is not necessarily one but several generations behind and therefore there is the whole issue of ground forces being able to make best use of it when they have it. So what we need to do is to bring together all the lines of development so that when Watchkeeper does come into service it will be the very best system available for its purpose which is the acquisition of land information. Originally designed in support of the Land Component commander, but clearly what we need to do is not just only give that information to the Land Component commander—it needs to be made more widely available to whoever the right commander is at the time and it is that process that takes the time. The joint experimental unit will then look at what we need to do for the next generation so we can make sure we really do keep our forces equipped with the most up-to-date technology.

  59. And it will be interoperable with the United States' system, will it? It will be able to talk to them?
  (Major General Fulton) We will be able to exchange information. There is a discussion going on between us and the Department of Defense at the moment on whether we want information to come from an American UAV to a UK ground station and from a UK air vehicle to a US ground station, or whether we want the information to come down to respective ground stations and then for the ground stations to be able to exchange information, because there is another dimension to this for us which is that we have the ASTOR programme coming in which is also designed to, and will, acquire huge amounts of information from the battle field. Clearly what we seek to do is to be able to integrate our information that we gather from the ASTOR programme and the Watchkeeper programme rather than develop two stove pipes that just give stove pipe information to our commander and he has to work out which is the best one. The Americans are also working towards integration; they have UAVs, joint STARS and a range of other equipment, so I would not say that it is necessarily the case that UAV will be able to talk to UAV but certainly they will be able to share information.

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