Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 240-259)



240.  I have a bridge outside that I would like to sell you. May I just clarify whether or not you believe that all lessons have been learned? Can we take it that if we have a future report of an exercise, errors or failings in equipment will be discovered but they will be different ones and we will not be learning the same lessons again? I am a bit concerned that we do not just go through the whole process over again.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) That is a very good point. We should have learned more lessons and sustained them better. What we have done as a result of the exercise and the 2,000 lessons learned is that we now have a six-monthly rolling process of updating action taken in relation to exercise lessons. That is done by the General here, the Permanent Joint Headquarters. There is also an `outside-the-chain-of-command' audit done by what is called the Director of Operational Capability (DOC). DOC does this audit separately to make sure that it is happening. In addition the front-line commands—this is where the Permanent Joint Headquarters come in as a challenge element—are also applying their lessons. We now have this six-monthly rolling programme to make sure these things happen.

241.  In a sense, all I need to know is that in future new failings will be discovered rather than the same failings again. Do I have that assurance from both of you?

  (Lieutenant General Reith) I now run a database of lessons identified and we have been doing it for some time since the HQ was formed six years ago. The lessons identified come from exercises, operational deployments and so forth. I also draw the front-line command lessons identified as well. We hold that database and what I now do every six months is submit what is called a joint warfare equipment priority list into the MOD. We extract from that database the most pressing things we need to get right for Joint Rapid Reaction Forces.

242.  We have to go to vote, but while we are voting, perhaps you might like to have a look at this bridge.

  (Lieutenant General Reith) I should be intrigued.

  The Committee suspended from 17.54 to 18.01 for a division in the House.

243.   May I turn now to the question of the SA80? I certainly had it jam on me, so you have been exceptionally lucky, Sir Kevin. May I ask why some examples of the modified SA80 were not used in this exercise? I understand that there is a relatively small number of them, but I should have though it would have made sense, given that you had an exercise going on, to try some of them at the time.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) An interesting point. I still worry about the inference that we should have been using this exercise to try to do everything. We did not need the exercise to test the SA80, that was being done quite separately.

244.  So nothing went wrong with the modified one in Afghanistan then. You are not re-modifying it again.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) As I explained, the one in Afghanistan was in fact the modified gun. As the general has explained, the problem was not the rifle itself, the problem was the maintenance regime, which was not being followed because we had not issued clear enough guidance to the operators.

245.  Would it not perhaps have been helpful to have found that out in the exercise we are discussing here before men had it in combat in Afghanistan?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) We did not realise that they were unaware that the answer was to put more oil down the barrel.

246.  You would have discovered that had you exercised it in the desert during this exercise.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) We might have done or we might not.
  (Lieutenant General Reith) The SA80 A2 rifle went through a very rigorous trial system where it was trialed in all conditions. We did not feel we needed to exercise it in Oman.

247.  Okay, I can understand that. May I turn to the question of personal equipment and in particular the issue of the melting boots and so on? We have had discussion over a long period in this Committee about the way in which individual servicemen feel the need to purchase their own boots because the MOD stuff is not satisfactory. I do remember that you did dispute the issue of whether or not the boots melted. Could I just refer you to paragraph 2.43, the second bottom line, where it says ". . . regularly over 45 degrees, boots were melting". This is a report to which you signed up. If you did not believe that boots were melting, then you should not have agreed to this being there. In here there seems to be a whole litany of examples where the clothing seems not to have been adequate, boots were not good enough, tents were not suitable and it is almost as though all the focus were on the high tech equipment but not sufficiently on the personal equipment as used by the individual serviceman. While I appreciate that the additional phone calls were a bonus, that is not sufficient to balance the poor quality of equipment.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) We do keep clothing under very careful and close review. I do not want to say anything that would imply we are complacent about that, we are not. We are continually trialing new equipment to see whether it is better. Indeed when the exercise took place, we were moving from cotton-rich to polyester-rich Combat 95, because it was tougher and we thought that would be more useful. We have learned that maybe people get too hot in the polyester stuff. We may look at changing the specification so that desert combats are brought into effect in conditions where normally we would have used the standard issue. On the boots, my understanding is—and I should be grateful if the General corrects me if I am wrong—that the boots which caused a problem, were not actually proper combat boots, but were chukka boots for use in the headquarters, for sitting in offices, which some people may have taken out into the desert and tried to use there. My understanding is that the ones which melted were the wrong ones. They should not have been used in any case.

248.  The reason I raised the issues before about lessons having been learned was do I take it that we are never likely to get this again then, these issues of inadequate personal clothing, inadequate boots? Effectively there should be no need for servicemen and women to be buying their own equipment.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) You will always find individuals who will want to have their own thing. Soldiers are no different from other people about preferring one sort of thing or another. What I can assure you about is that the quality of the clothing we have and are continuing to develop is always measured against the highest standards. The General wears the stuff. He knows better than I do, but I am really not aware of defective clothing.

249.  It is a bit like your SA80 which works all the time: the General's clothing is not necessarily of the same standard.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) The General really is the expert on boots, not me.
  (Lieutenant General Reith) In the conditions we were expecting, the normal boots would have met specifications. In fact people wore those boots throughout and most people had no problems at all with their feet. We made a conscious decision not to issue desert boots for everybody; part of it was expense because once you have issued that pair of boots to a chap, he may never operate in the desert again, but for an exercise where some people were there only for a few weeks, it was not cost-effective so to do. We issued the boots to those who were going for the prolonged period during the hottest period. We were not expecting temperatures outside the range of the normal boot during the period.

250.  Do I take it then, if troops should be sent to some destination unspecified in the Middle East in the foreseeable future, that we will not have reports coming back of unsuitable footwear and clothing?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I cannot promise you will not get reports; you might still get reports. I can give you an assurance that we do not lack stocks of desert boots.

251.  With respect, that is not really the point.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I am just following the point the General has made. We took a decision not to issue large numbers of desert boots on this exercise, but we do have them.

252.  You believe that the equipment you have is satisfactory, and if troops are deployed in numbers they will have it and we will not have complaints coming back. You will always get some complaints about something, but in general terms complaints made will have little foundation.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I hate to predict the future but you are right. This is another example where, for an exercise, we took a judgement. It is not the same as operations. We have stocks, we can use them. If we have a different scenario where there is plenty of warning time we can increase stocks, as we can do with almost anything.

253.  May I come to a sub-point which has not been mentioned all that much and that is the foreign policy objectives of this exercise? What is the population of Oman?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I would not know.[14]

254.  One of the objectives was to develop bilateral relations with Oman. These are the people who sent us to the wrong kind of desert. I am reminded of the Albanians who used to say that they and the Chinese were three billion strong. Oman is hardly the most essential of our allies in the Middle East. May I just clarify what positive spillover there has been in terms of sales of military equipment? Do you think that the exercise that we undergo here, which highlights the failings of British military equipment is counter productive in those terms, or is it the case that those who are professionals in the field are going to hear about failings of equipment anyway and therefore there are no disadvantages to same as operations. We have stocks, we can use them. If we have a different scenario where there is plenty of warning time we can increase stocks, as we can do with almost anything.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) This report was not about failings of British equipment. This report is about the quality of the test we put our equipment through and the lessons we learn. I believe our equipment is as good if not better than anybody else's and if you do not believe that ask the other armed forces which we have to work alongside or fight and they will tell you that British equipment is very effective indeed.

255.  So they are buying it.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) That is the first point. The second point is that the Omanis are very important allies and they have been for a long time. They are probably the most important military power in the Gulf, among the Gulf states. This exercise has tended to put them in a stronger position because they gained from this exercise as well as we did. That is basically in line with our foreign policy, which is to sustain strong relations with the Omanis, a kingdom with whom we have very close relationships indeed and have done over a long period of time and still maintain a large liaison team with them. In terms of sales, it was not an exercise objective to try to promote British defence exports through this exercise. We do that very effectively in other ways and we are the second largest exporter of defence equipment worldwide. This is another reason why I wanted to try to put the report into context. Just because we exercise and train with our staff to the extremes that we can, does not mean to say it is not good equipment; usually it means it is the best.

Mr Williams

256.  Did you not play down somewhat the problem of the boots which Mr Davidson focused on? It says in the report that foot rot was not an issue but a major issue. That really underlines it as being very significant. You tended to treat is as though it was rather occasional and a matter which we did not need to consider.

  (Lieutenant General Reith) One of the lessons we learned very early on in the exercise and put right very quickly was that many of the troops who were deployed had not experienced difficult conditions such as that ever and of course it is 11 years since we last really did anything in the desert training-wise in that sort of heat and those conditions. For many years now we have been doing peace support operations where the soldiers have been working and living out of quite good quality accommodation. There they were living off their armoured vehicles for much of the time and therefore field discipline is very important. The lesson we learned was that they were not applying what I would call normal field discipline. The older amongst us who have done all this before automatically take off our boots every day, wash our feet, change our socks and powder our feet and you do not get foot rot whatever boots you are wearing. This was just a basic lesson which was picked up quite early. We had quite a few people in the early stages who were getting foot rot. Once we had rectified it, there was no problem.

257.  Are there not slight water problems in the middle of the Omani desert?

  (Lieutenant General Reith) There are always water problems in the desert, any desert. You do not need a lot of water to wash your feet. You can actually wipe them with a flannel with clean water on it.

Mr Bacon

258.  I think the boots issue has been covered and I do not wish to ask you much more about the washing of soldiers' feet. You did say that there were 2,000 people in the buildup period.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) Yes.

259.  For three years.

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) Not for three years. We sent 2,000 to Oman as the advanced party.

14   Note by witness: The population of Oman is 3.3 million. Back

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