Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 80-99)



Patrick Mercer

  80. Thank you, Chairman, I am not sure I can be as eloquent with my questions as you were. Gentlemen, I had a depressing conversation with my father last night about the Sherman tank at Alamein which was not desertised, and let them down badly. My own experience, I recall there was no desert clothing available the first time, it had to be produced at very short notice despite previous experience in a hot and dusty climate. I can recall that in Bosnia we did not get the correct dust kit to keep our warrior guns operating and similarly the only people to get warm weather clothing were the staff. One of the Chiefs of Staff in exercise Saif Sareea made it very clear to us the point you have just made that choices have to be made in terms of where you spend your money and what you do with it.
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  81. It is an aphorism of war, as we all know, that what we prepare for clearly will not happen, something else will happen instead. We have got to have a balance of equipment, a balance of doctrine, a balance of force to deal with different things. One of the more cynical things which came out of exercise Saif Sareea was that some of these things had not been spent because there was a very clear expectation the exercise might be cancelled almost up to the last moment. What I would really like to get is some reassurance that now it looks as if we are going to be fighting in hot, dusty and arid climates in the near future that these various different projects are being taken seriously and the nettle is being grasped. I think that has been demonstrated, if I may say so, but there are a number of other factors which I would value your opinion on.
  (Mr Webb) Thank you for putting it that way, Sir. We do learn lessons from all these deployments. There is a systematic process. You have seen the top end of it so yes of course we do learn. I cannot speculate about future engagements but you can be sure that the lessons of this have been absorbed. The question about these exercises, they are expensive and you do end up having to ask yourself what increment do you add to what you know already by spending £100 million-ish on these kinds of exercises. Sometimes it is tempting to say "Well, we have got the force structure, we have got all the elements trained, what exactly do you add by going out and practising it all for live a long way away?" There is more time away from home for people so it is a mixed issue. But the armed forces really like to do it and it adds enormously to the armed forces' ethos to be able to actually go out and do as close as the job that they are expecting to do. When you are juggling with figures in the £80-100 million and then somebody says "Well actually as well as getting the tanks there to go and drive them around it is going to cost . . ." I cannot remember what the figure was I think it was £15-20 million ". . . maybe £20 million more just for that exercise", you say "Wow, this is the right thing". We decided to spend the money on Saif Sareea—

  82. Forgive me, Mr Webb, this is very clear. We were surprised when we arrived at Saif Sareea that certain elements of the exercise were—forgive me using the technical term—non tactical. Then it was explained that actually it was not there to be a tactical exercise. I understand the rationale which was explained, got it.
  (Mr Webb) Okay.

  83. What is being done to make sure that the kit with which our soldiers are deployed for the next round of hot, dusty combat operations is up to standard?
  (Mr Webb) I will ask Rob to talk about the details. We have absorbed these lessons and if we have to go to that environment of course, an environment of that kind, then we would be able to learn the lessons from the Saif Sareea deployment. Rob, do you want to say some more.
  (Major General Fulton) As far as Challenger 2 is concerned there is a measure in the current planning round to do the limited desertification and in particular the dust mitigation which I described. That will be considered alongside other elements in the equipment programme in the current planning round.

  84. Will that be a whole fleet management approach? Will Warrior and other vehicles be included in this?
  (Major General Fulton) I do not know the answer to that. I know the answer to the Challenger question which is two brigades and the ARRVs that support them. I do not know the Warrior question.

  85. It is not the whole tank fleet?
  (Major General Fulton) It is 234 Challenger.

  86. Remind me of the totals please?
  (Major General Fulton) I cannot. I would have to let you have them later. Clearly we have learnt lessons from other equipment elements as well which I can go on to talk about if you want or you may want to move on to another subject.[6]

  Chairman: Can you tell us privately what the mean distance between failure is likely to be on an exercise in Southport which has a lot of sand? If you cannot afford to exercise there maybe you should ask the Mayor of Southport or Sefton or wherever it is. We would like assurances that it is not going to be like Challenger 1 in the Gulf last time where people were running behind in case they broke down. It would be very helpful if you can let us know that.

Mr Jones

  87. I find Mr Webb's performance very good, I always do, because he is an archetypal civil servant, he avoids answering questions and supports decisions that have been taken. If you ever leaves the MoD I am sure the Strategic Rail Authority would love to have you. I am sure this is an example of the leaves on the line excuse is it not really?
  (Mr Webb) I will put that in the compliments box I think.

  Mr Howarth: From him you can take it as a compliment.

  Mr Jones: I do not give many. Is it not true that post the Gulf War a lot of these things were flagged up then. Certainly when we were in Oman some of the persons on the ground were very embarrassed about certain Challenger issues including I think one excuse which was wonderful, it was the wrong type of sand, a different type of sand from what you had experienced in the Gulf. I just tended to find that there were excuses being made that were being put forward that should really have been foreseen in advance, not just because of the lessons from the Gulf but Oman is not a country which we have never had to exercise in before. Clearly the Omanis knew that they had to desertise their Challengers and in terms of things like tracks, the other excuse we got was that the desert is different there from somewhere else. What was the point in actually taking out Challenger tanks at great expense if they were basically just going to sit there? You might as well have left them on the dockside and put them back on the ship and taken them back home again if we were not going to learn lessons from them. I have got to say I agree with the Chairman I think there are some serious questions which have to be asked because if we are going to have any conflicts in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East the equipment we have got clearly from this exercise will not last very long. I am sure that will be a great concern to the armed forces and also to the people on this Committee. Can I just say, Mr Webb, you said you wanted this new culture in the MoD it would be nice if the MoD said "I am sorry, we got it wrong" because clearly on this occasion you did.

  Mr Crausby: A bit like the Conservative Party.

Mr Jones

  88. Yes, a bit like the Conservative Party.
  (Mr Webb) After the Gulf War, which I had quite a lot of visibility on, we did indeed learn lessons about desertification of tanks. It is worth saying, of course, that we had decided, as a matter of defence policy, to reduce our preparedness to go and fight in that era during the 1970s and 1980s, indeed we had sold off our desert uniforms. You probably remember that though actually, if I may say so, Marks & Spencers helped us get a new set which is even nicer very quickly. There is this point to be borne in mind. I remember soft Moroccan cottons, they were very good. It is not all bad news.


  89. Remind me, which year was the decision made to flog off all the uniforms?
  (Mr Webb) I think it was about 1970 something.

  Chairman: Careful. Your career is on the line here. We want an exact date said to us. Okay?[7] 3

Mr Jones

  90. It is reassuring that we can see if we go to Iraq our armed forces will be kitted out in the autumn or winter collection from Marks & Spencers.
  (Mr Webb) No, Marks & Spencers helped us with technical advice, we did not buy them from Marks & Spencers. We knew and had developed the processes for desertification of tanks after the Gulf War because the SDR said that we might need to go back into the Middle East area. That was a 1998 decision. The question about the exercise was not whether you knew how to do it but whether you made the modifications that were developed and available before you went. The question was not whether you knew how to make tanks safer and effective in a variety of different environments but whether you spent the money for this exercise. Now we can all make calls in arrears about what choices we have made but I keep coming back to the fact that we achieved the aim of the exercise. The fact that people might have liked to have gone and driven their tanks around a bit more was something to be thought about but the fact was we were not trying to do that. We were indeed predominately trying to get this force to the dockside, unloaded and assembled as a fighting force. The moving forward of it was a second priority and we decided not to spend money on it. I am quite happy to say this was a bad call if that is the judgment you want to make but I am defending it as the sort of call we need to make.

  91. Slowly getting there.
  (Mr Webb) If you optimise everything and you optimise against objectives you do not actually have then you are going to waste money. So I defend those including myself who took decisions in this area.


  92. It is very honest that you admit responsibility.
  (Mr Webb) I did.

  93. I shall go along to the PAC on Monday and hope the A team on equipment will expand on what you have said.
  (Mr Webb) I think actually we do have some of the A team on equipment sitting here. Am I getting this wrong, Rob?
  (Major General Fulton) No, choices had to be made and that was the decision.

  Chairman: Wrong choice.

Mr Crausby

  94. Away from various types of sand but just on that I hope someone nips out to Iraq and makes sure it is the right sand before we commit anybody. On the SDR new chapter the focus is on Network Centric Capability which is defined in the chapter with three elements. First of all sensors, networks and strike assets.
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  95. It is described in different ways as sensors and shooters but clearly at a very high level and we all need to work very closely together. So if sand is a problem then I am a bit concerned about the 32 separate communication and IT systems that we used in Oman. In those circumstances, especially with some of the reports that came back that they did not all work very well, particularly as far as the army in Oman was concerned, I just wonder whether Network Centric Capability is feasible in the short term?
  (Mr Webb) If I may say so that is a very important issue about joint rapid reaction because making things work together from the moment you arrive is terribly important. I think this is a very serious area and obviously the reason for taking out all that kit and trying it out was to see whether it did work and indeed a number of lessons were learnt from that. I will ask General Fulton to speak to that. In particular, of course, it underpinned the case for something which has now happened which is to deploy the new personal communications system for the army which replaced Clansman which I think you saw there. Absolutely. That is a very important area which certainly I remember we spent money on to try and find that out because it was important we knew not whether individual bits worked but whether they worked together.
  (Major General Fulton) Mr Crausby if I can just pick up your point about the network. Going back to an earlier conversation and Mr Jones's question there is a key fourth element which is the decision maker which we should not forget. If I could pick up two points on Saif Sareea. Firstly on Clansman, the shortcomings on Clansman are well known. It is old and it will be replaced by Bowman in due course. I say in due course because actually as Mr Webb has identified the Personal Role Radio has already been issued. It is well liked by the troops. It is the first foot on the ground of the Bowman family and we will see more of that in 2004. The second point I would make about Saif Sareea, you referred to a number of different communication systems. An exercise, paradoxically, is far more demanding on command and control than an operation because we not only have to deploy the blue force net but we have to deploy the opposition force net, we have to deploy also the neutral net, an umpire net so we have to create the infrastructure that we need in order to make the exercise work. Actually it is much more demanding than simply the number of troops on the ground would make it appear. I think if I had one lesson that we really did learn from Saif Sareea on communications, which we will take forward, it is that the commercial off the shelf technology—the COTS technology—that we are constantly encouraged to go out and buy and use does not cope well with any sort of sand, any sort of dust and it is not manufactured to standards, for example in terms of temperature, that are within the range that we are likely to meet. Therefore if we do go down the road of commercial off the shelf technology we need to be very, very careful. I do not know whether you saw it but certainly I have had reported to me that a lot of the air conditioning which was taken to the Gulf could not be used for the people it had to be used to keep the equipment down to its operating parameters. Now that is a lesson which I think we really do need to hoist in and we will.

  96. I am particularly concerned about Clansman because Clansman is not used is it? If you talk to the guys on the ground who carry it they will tell you—it is, what, 1978—they did not need Saif Sareea to tell them that Clansman is pretty well past its sell buy date. The National Audit Office goes further than that, does it not? They say that it proved completely inadequate for field units in the heat and dust of the desert. Now that concerns me not just with regard to Network Centric Capability but with any future operation as to what sort of risk our people would put out in the event of a poor system of that level. Okay Bowman sounds fine but you say "in due course," I am not quite sure what "in due course" means, I understand between 2004 and 2007. Now 2004 and 2007 seems quite a long way away if we get ourselves involved in difficult operations in between. I just wonder if you could comment on Clansman and the risks that are involved?
  (Major General Fulton) You have articulated very clearly the risks of Clansman. I would not describe it—and I cannot remember the phrase you read out—as poor as that but that is the gap that Bowman is designed to fill and Bowman will be introduced at the earliest possible opportunity and 2004 is as early as we can introduce it. I think I would like to also in a moment, once we have finished with the Clansman issue, go on and talk a bit more about "network centric capability" because I do not think you should necessarily draw conclusions on whether we can or cannot improve our capability through the development of the network on the basis of a single radio system that was introduced in 1978 with its known shortcomings. I would be happy to talk about that but perhaps you might want to come back on Clansman.

  Chairman: Perhaps you can drop us a note on that.

Mr Hancock

  97. Before I move on to the financial questions I want to ask, can I ask you to write to us to give us a firm assurance in the public domain for the record of this Committee that we have the capability of completely enabling our tanks to fight in the desert climate, and that we have a desertification programme which is tried and tested which is capable of being implemented in our tanks and capable of being engaged in an operation in Iraq within the next three to six months. That is the full desertification of the troops and tanks to protect them from all of the elements they will face there. If you cannot give that assurance verbally now I would hope you can give it to us in writing very quickly because the public of this country, and this Committee, are entitled to know the answers to that. It appears to me you have not learnt any of the lessons from the Gulf War. If you had you would not be looking at how you can improve desertification now after Saif Sareea. Ten years have gone by. I would seek from you, Mr Webb, an assurance that you can deliver that.
  (Mr Webb) Sir, I am unable to speculate on operations in Iraq.

  98. On the capability of being able to fully desertify 250 battle tanks in three months.
  (Mr Webb) We will happily give you an update if it has not been dealt with in the other Committee on the position of the desertification of tanks. I am just saying I will not be able to put that into a timescale context.

  99. Do we have a fully tested programme for doing it? Yes or no? Do we have a fully tested capability o the desertification of our main battle tanks today? Yes or no?

6   Ev 31. Back

7   Note from Witness: My comments relating to the sale of desert uniforms in the 1970's were based on my recollection that the Defence Review in 1975 made the assumption the UK forces would no longer be required to fight in a desert environment, and as a result of this assumption most stocks of desert clothing (primarily left over from World War II) were sold off. The MoD however, has been unable to find any records relating to what desert clothing stocks were disposed of and when. Given the timescale, it is likely that records may have been destroyed. Back

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