Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 100-119)



  100. I think that is the answer, is it not?

  Chairman: The team is going to write to you.[8]

  Mr Hancock: They have not got one.

  Chairman: What Mr Webb said is he is not an equipment specialist. We need some reassurance. You do not have to mention Iraq but the fact they are capable of being deployed in the desert.

Mr Hancock

  101. That we have a tried and tested capability of the full desertification of our main battle tanks. Yes or no; it is a simple question.
  (Mr Webb) We will write to you with an answer about the desertification state of the Challenger programme.

  Chairman: And quickly.

Mr Hancock

  102. My questions relate to your spending in the next three years. Bearing in mind the increases in capital expenditure that have been agreed, you will have £1 billion more to spend on equipment. I would be grateful if you could explain to us where the additional New Chapter programmes feature in that, which ones are going to be favoured out of that £1billion and which ones have you already decided to drop that we have not yet been told about?
  (Mr Webb) When you are doing a policy exercise within a time-frame, what you do is, as I described earlier when we went through the process of this, is decide what effects you are trying to achieve and then you try and work out, based on what force structure you have got at the moment, what additional pieces of equipment, logistics, people and so on you need in order to do the extra jobs that were identified in the New Chapter. We did that work—General Fulton led it—and you end up with a very long list, some of which you winnow out immediately because it does not look like being very relevant or not worth the money and the Treasury had very much visibility of that. Out of that came, along with a lot of other factors, an increase in the defence budget. You then need to go back and re-visit it because one of the things that Smart acquisition tells us is that before you buy anything you should spend a proper amount of time assessing the right cost/performance/time balance and getting the risk out of it before you commit yourself to purchase. So although you have a package of the sort of measures that you would like to take based on very rough costings when you do the policy work, when you come and do what we call the "programming" work, which is the process Bruce Mann was talking about earlier, you need to do a lot of refining. So it is perfectly natural that some things that were in the original package you decide to do a different way or they do not look so good on second scrutiny as they did when you were putting together a piece of policy work to get the shape of the package right. We are now involved in that process. We were able to spot some specific things which were worth doing immediately—bringing forward the UAV's, putting an extra terminal in the E3, things of that kind, and things on the homeland defence side which were clear winners—and we cruised ahead with those. Others needed to be sifted as to their relative merits and it is a terrible mistake that you can make to commit yourself to a piece of equipment too quickly because that is how you get yourself into these unrisked programmes with over-ambitious timescales which you then turn out to rue. We say we should spend time doing proper assessment phases. That is what is happening on a lot of these.

  103. Out of that £1 billion you know you have got to spend on capital, what have you flagged up as essential arising out of the writing of the New Chapter and what of that has now been committed?
  (Mr Webb) The network is one very good example of what we saw as being central, for the reasons that many members of the Committee have picked up.
  (Major General Fulton) We have seen that what we do need to do is to improve our ability to gather and move information around. That arose not only out of the New Chapter work but also out of the parallel development work of the networking ability. A lot of that is elements that do not readily trip off the tongue as being programmes that are identifiable as a piece of hardware. They are fitting tactical data links into strike aircraft, for example. In terms of committing to money, committing to a proportion of that money, that is clearly part of the current planning round.

  104. So that is the only project that you can actually tell us about today?
  (Mr Webb) I have mentioned the extra terminal for the E3.

  105. You have two, that is a billion for new equipment. What have you dropped? What have you decided not to proceed with?
  (Major General Fulton) Since the New Chapter no decisions on the new equipment programme have been taken.

  106. Are a number of the pre-New Chapter commitments now being revisited with a view to view dropping some of those?
  (Mr Webb) Only in the sense that I explained Mr Hoon's position earlier, that we should always be ready to look at what has lower priority.

  107. Are any of the processes being evaluated for total abandonment?
  (Mr Webb) Any what for total abandonment?

  108. Any projects that were scheduled for capital expenditure prior to the New Chapter being published. Are any of them now being seriously considered to be dumped completely?
  (Mr Mann) I think the reason that you have got a look of puzzlement on this table is that actually we have, as you probably know, a piece of process in the autumn of every year called the Short-Term Planning Round which reviews where we are going to be spending our money in future. One of the targets of this year's round, which is now well under way, is to make decisions on how we are going to spend the new money that you have described. There is a long list of items which are now being considered as to their relative priorities. The second thing—

  109. Can I just interrupt because we have not got a lot of time and I want to get to the bottom of the question. You are the policy team, we get one crack at you every whatever it is, 12 months, it may be less. I want to know out of the pre-New Chapter commitments that were introduced for serious money to be spent on projects are any of those projects which have been clearly identified in the past now being seriously considered for being scrapped? Yes or no?
  (Mr Mann) We go through a process—if you let me finish—every year which looks at all these things. In about January or February we put advice to ministers on decisions we believe should be taken to alter the forward defence programme. We are not at that stage yet. We are several months away from that stage which is why you are getting puzzlement on this table. We are two or three months away from those sorts of decisions.
  (Mr Webb) I would say to you, Sir, also I hope so because it is of the nature of equipment projects and a lesson of our past that some projects which looks very promising at what we call initial gate, the early feasibility work, when you did the assessment work on them did not look like such a good idea. I hope, Sir, you will not create an atmosphere in which we cannot cancel those projects. You could create an atmosphere in which you say you just plunge on and on.

  110. I am heartened maybe Bowman might have been considered under that process at some stage over the last whatever number of years but it was not, was it?
  (Mr Webb) Well, it was in the sense that we broke out part of it under Personal Radio.

  111. Very late in the day.
  (Mr Mann) I can adduce examples like the TRIGAT programmes, for example, where we have bitten the bullet.

  112. You cannot have it both ways.
  (Mr Webb) Let me have a go.

  Mr Hancock: Try.

  Chairman: Of course he can.

Mr Hancock

  113. Not here you cannot, Mr Webb, you might be able to do that with your ministers.
  (Mr Webb) We should make it easy to change direction on the equipment programme because sometimes for technical reasons or risk reasons we end up on the wrong track. Sometimes for policy reasons I have to come along—and a lot of people are getting a lot of personal involvement and have put a lot of work into this—but I have to say that is what I am paid to do to say actually we would be better putting our resources in this area rather than that area.

Mr Jones

  114. The Secretary of State told us when he came to see us that there would be a thorough review.
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  115. I tried to press him on that. I said is there anything that has not been looked at. "No, everything has been looked at". Mr Hancock's question was quite right: what has actually happened to that review? Is there anything in terms of being taken out of the budget or tweaked or so far as you need to redirect resources in a different way or is what I suspect is the case that what you have done is clearly justified getting more money out of the Treasury?
  (Mr Webb) No, no, certainly we are doing what Mr Hoon said. As Mr Mann has explained we have just not got to the decisions yet.

Mr Hancock

  116. The plan in the original concept was Challenger 2 would be modified quite considerably. A lot of money would be spent on upgrading the tank. The New Chapter suggests that might not be as big a priority and issue as we would have lighter armour that would have to be deployed. Now is that a good assessment of the situation that you would downgrade or retire that decision on the Challenger upgrade in respect of what the New Chapter is now saying?
  (Mr Webb) I just do not think we have got to a decision making point.
  (Major General Fulton) Could I pick up one point also which is that the New Chapter, in looking, for example, at the piece that I looked at in terms of countering terrorism abroad there is a limited role for Challenger 2, that part of the New Chapter was looking only at those capabilities that we need to counter terrorism abroad. One of the issues that we are now dealing with within the equipment capability area is to say "Here are some recommendations that came from New Chapter which are targeted at countering terrorism abroad but that is only one of the potential roles of the military". What we need to do within our process of auditing our capability and then deciding how we should take it forward, the process that Mr Mann described, is to say how does that balance out and that is the process that is going on at the moment. Yes, we are within the equipment capability area reviewing all the equipment programmes but what we have not yet done is be able to come to the assessment of those. Should we be buying a niche capability for countering terrorism in particular areas or should we be buying a balanced capability that we can apply across the board and certainly within our area. That is the stage of the process that we have got to.

  117. I want to ask a question, if I may, it is on the local issue, for me and for Syd, and that is the issue of HMS Sheffield and the possible effects of the early decommissioning of HMS Sheffield and the knock on effects of that on the other ships in the fleet. I would be grateful if you could give me your reasons behind the decommissioning of HMS Sheffield and is there any truth in the speculation that a number of other ships are now seriously being considered to follow suit? If I could ask another question and that is have you seriously considered the future of HMS Nottingham and whether or not she joins HMS Sheffield in being decommissioned or are you going to embark on a future rebuild of that ship?
  (Mr Webb) Sorry to go back and keep quoting from Mr Hoon but here we go.

  118. I read his letter.
  (Mr Webb) Well, what he said, in addition to the bit that I referred to earlier about looking hard at other areas which no longer add capability in the way that they once did, he said specifically in relation to Sheffield before that that the decision to withdraw Sheffield, the last Type 22 batch 2 frigate, has been made possible by the increased availability of more capable and modern Type 23 frigates. ". . . As a result of changes to operating patterns and the more efficient maintenance regime of Type 23s the required number of operational destroyers and frigates can now be generated from an overall force of 31 ships rather than the 32 identified . . .". That is a letter he sent last week. He went on to say then that in addition, as we were discussing earlier, we must be prepared to look at all capabilities hard.

  119. That means seriously then that we can really read into that that Commodore Laurence's letter which was quoted heavily in The Telegraph and elsewhere has some basis of truth in the fact that there are several other ships in the Royal Navy which will be considered to follow Sheffield into the scrapyard?
  (Mr Webb) We have said nothing at all about that. I have just given the explanation about Sheffield and I have said what the general process is. I am not going to offer any comment on other future issues.

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