Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Order, order. Good afternoon and welcome to the Committee of Public Accounts. Today we are very happy to welcome you once again; thank you for coming to our Committee this afternoon to talk to us on the very important subject of combat identification which has been a problem throughout the history of warfare. Would you like to introduce your colleagues, please?

  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) Since it is a very military focused subject, I have on my right Major General Rob Fulton, who is the Capability Manager in our organisation for the equipment programme relating to these issues. On my left is Commodore Nance, who is the Director of Joint Warfare and responsible for the overall policy work in relation to these subjects.

  2. May I refer you to page 18 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and particularly to paragraph 2.28 which says that in July 2001 you produced a policy paper on this subject? Given the importance of what we are talking about this afternoon, and the increased risks involved in working with coalitions and other armed forces, why has it taken you so long to produce a report? Why only a report in July 2001?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) May I make one or two general remarks in that context? The first thing I would want to say is that this issue of combat identification is not an end in itself, it needs to be seen in the wider context of operational effectiveness, of combat effectiveness. The way in which we believe as a Department that we will reduce the number of casualties, including casualties from friendly fire, is by ensuring that we move to a broader strategy involving greater speed and agility on the battlefield or battle space with longer range systems, with more precise targeting capability, with better information overall of what is going on in the battlefield, what the Americans call situational awareness—a picture. In that way the military objective will be secured, preferably not even needing military action: deterrence will be strengthened because of the capability of the forces which are presented which reduces the number of casualties for all reasons, whether it is killed by the enemy, or indeed by friendly fire accidents or indeed casualties on the other side. The idea that nothing has been going on throughout the 1990s until this particular policy on combat ID was developed, would be completely wrong. What went on were two big trends. The first was a move away from fixed NATO military concepts to much more flexible coalitions' joint military operations involving expeditionary forces operating with completely different countries than ones presumed before in a much more fluid environment. This major strategic change which went on throughout the 1990s clearly complicated the task of trying to encapsulate something like combat ID simply. The other thing which is going on is what the Americans call the revolution in military affairs, the effect of rapidly changing IT, digitisation, the ability to communicate huge amounts of information very quickly in real time. Those also were changing very quickly, so that instead of simply looking to identify a particular target the issue moved more towards getting a complete picture of the battle space. This also complicated the task of simply drawing up a combat ID policy. Key signposts along the way for us were: the creation of a permanent Joint Headquarters in the UK in 1996, since when something like 170 different British operations have been mounted of varying size and intensity of military risk; the Strategic Defence Review of 1997-98, which set the way for this broader concept of manoeuvrist warfare rather than attrition warfare; all the work which has gone on since then in implementing the Strategic Defence Review in various areas, one of which is the combat ID issue.

  3. That is a useful general introduction. Let us turn back to page 8 of the report and look at paragraph 1.8. I would just ask you a more general question. Is one of the things which is holding you back that once you come out with a clear policy it is going to become apparent to the general public that of any casualties that you have, 10 to 15 per cent will come from your own side? Is this something which is worrying you, that if we have to go to war we are going to have to admit this to our people?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) This is clearly a very delicate issue and the first thing one has to say is that we take this whole issue very seriously indeed. There is a duty of care. There is also a morale issue and a legal issue here. Any of these statistics about the risk of fratricide have to be taken very seriously indeed and we do. Having said that, I would not want to give the impression that this is the only statistic that matters. Ten to 15 per cent is the result of modelling and the best information available that was drawn together during the 1990s. The actual casualty level from fratricide which would be implicit by these figures would be about 2 or 3 per cent of the actual forces involved. We are immediately having to put these into context. What is most important is how many people get killed, whether it is from fratricide or from anything else. The only figures we actually have of what happens on the battlefield as opposed to these modelling scenarios are from the Falklands War and the Gulf War. We have not had a British incident involving fratricide since the Gulf War, since 1991. In the Falklands, we lost 255 people, every single one of them was just as seriously a loss as any other. Eight of those were from fratricide. That meant 3 per cent of our total casualties were from fratricide. In the Gulf conflict we lost 15 people killed in action, nine of those were from fratricide, an awful percentage to lose from fratricide but only 15 people died altogether. That is 0.1 per cent of the total size of the force were killed. The important point I am trying to make is that the really positive message behind this is that by moving away from attrition warfare—and the Falklands was, when it came to it, attrition, just taking a position head on—to a manoeuvrist approach to warfare, which was true of the Gulf and is becoming even more true now, one reduces the risks, minimises the number of casualties. War is a dangerous business.

  4. I appreciate that. I am just trying to get a feeling.
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) The reason why we had not written about this statistic earlier was not because we were trying to cover anything up.

  5. I am just trying to get a feel for this before we get into more detail in a way that the general public could understand. You can see it is a point which might well concern them. If we are talking about surviving in the fog of war, what this report tends to show is that in campaign after campaign, admittedly you are much more successfully reducing your overall level of casualties, still 10 to 15 per cent of the casualties you sustain come from your own side. You will appreciate that the public might perhaps be forgiven for feeling that the Ministry of Defence had not conducted itself with the commitment on this subject that they might have expected or is that an unfair comment?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I think it is an unfair comment. You are commenting on modelling statistics and I am arguing that the important thing is reducing the number of casualties overall rather than focusing on this. My main point was that it is deeply regrettable that any of these risks exist. Warfare is dangerous. The Government's proposition, in fact defence policy, is based on developing a concept of operations to do with operational effectiveness that not only reduces the overall number of people likely to be killed but in doing so also reduces the number of people likely to be killed through fratricidal incidents.

  6. Do you accept, again reading this paragraph 1.8, that there is a lack of operational analysis of the risk of fratricide?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) There is not an awful lot of material to go on. That is the main problem that the Department found. The Americans have been collecting statistics from their exercises and they have most information. We are now building in as a routine more information from our own exercises. The information we have so far is very thin in this area, which is the problem rather than the quality of the analysis. I am conscious that I am talking about subjects which my colleagues here know an awful lot more about than I do. I wonder whether it would be helpful to have a military view on this.

  7. Yes, if you want to intervene, by all means.
  (Commodore Nance) It may be helpful just to identify the fact that this 15 per cent figure derives from one exercise and a total of four fratricidal incidents inside that exercise.

  8. I have been advised that this figure has been pretty constant throughout the last century.
  (Major General Fulton) I think one of the difficulties here is that there are three sets of figures which coincidentally fall between 10 and 15 per cent. The first of those figures is the figure which the Department uses in order to make its preparations for a campaign in terms of planning for medical facilities and so on and so forth. The second figure, the one to which you refer, is the historical one which shows that from nation to nation and through history as far as we can tell, approximately 10 to 15 per cent of casualties in any campaign have been caused by friendly fire.

  9. Not just in the last century but going back throughout history.
  (Major General Fulton) Beyond that statistics become somewhat unreliable. The third statistic is the 15 per cent which is referred to in the third from last line of paragraph 1.8, which related to an exercise and some data which was gathered from that exercise. Your figure of 10 to 15 per cent is right and is reflected in the report; there is just a risk that we trip over the fact that there are three sets of figures here.

  10. Let us get down to more detail now. If you turn to page 11 and paragraph 1.27 you will see the sorry saga which is related there. "The High Velocity Missile and the Javelin ground-based air defence systems were deployed to Kosovo in 1999. Shortcomings in identification capability meant that these assets had to be placed on a `weapons hold' procedure to avoid fratricide, meaning they could only be used in self-defence". Here we are talking about a Rapier missile system costing £2 billion to acquire but which, because of the risk of fratricide, does not seem to be very effective. What is your comment on that?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) It does depend on the scenario. In this particular case we had air superiority; this was the Kosovo campaign and I remember it extremely well. We had already established air superiority, therefore there was no need for open release of authority for ground based air defence to operate. The skies were already clear.

  11. I am sorry to interrupt you. It is quite a complicated subject, particularly for people listening as this meeting is being broadcast. If the Serb planes had been approaching you, how effective would these missile systems have been?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) My point was that the Serb planes were not.

  12. They were not. I know your point was that the Serb planes were not. But what is the point of having a missile system which cannot be used?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) Had we not established air superiority by that time they may have been more important in the campaign than was the case. Since our own air power had chased the Serb aircraft from the skies, the need for ground based air defence was less clearly important. It was prudent therefore to put more constraints on the use of that in order to avoid the risk of friendly fire incidents and show that in order to minimise the risk of friendly fire. It is not just a question of the system you have, it is also the procedures you employ, the tactics, the training you use. It has to be built into an overall concept. There can be different situations obviously, when the judgement would mean that it was still necessary to use such systems. However, we shall be introducing the Identification Friend or Foe system mode 4 to ground based air defence as part of our improvement programme so this will improve the usability of the assets in future.

  13. Would you now please turn to pages 23 and 24 and look at paragraphs 3.13 and 3.18? I want to ask you now about the land environment and what steps you are taking to ensure that you will improve combat effectiveness and reduce the risk of fratricide in the land environment. Am I right in thinking that in the past perhaps you have not given the commitment to the land environment and the dangers of fratricide within that environment that perhaps you should have done?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) No, I do not think that is fair, it is more the inherent complexity of the ground environment rather than any lack of willingness on the UK's part. In fact it would be my contention if I needed to make it—and I would rather not do it—that we have probably gone further than any of our allies in the ground environment area.

  14. Would you accept that by far the biggest problem is on land?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I would agree with that, yes, and I am sure my military colleagues would too. That is not surprising, because it is much more complex, smaller groups of people operating more flexibly, fewer big platforms than you have at sea or in the air, more dispersed forces and therefore naturally the problem is more likely to be greater in the ground environment. We have been working throughout the 1990s to develop collective solutions to this because clearly it is on the ground in particular where one is operating in a coalition. We would not be operating just as the UK, we would be operating probably with the United States, possibly with the French, with the Germans, the Italians as well. In those situations it is very important to have compatible solutions and we have been working at this towards a thing called a Coalition Combat ID solution. We have now reached the stage of what is called an advanced concept technology demonstrator for that. We have also produced a NATO standard for NATO battlefield target ID and that was done in June 2000; it is called a STANAG[1] and there are lots of these. That was essentially written and produced as a result of the UK's effort on behalf of all our other allies.

  15. All this is very interesting, but are we going to be killing fewer of our own people on land than before?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) First we have to get a system which can be operated commonly among allies likely to operate in coalitions, which can interrogate and reply, do an electronic exchange. This demonstrator work is continuing. It draws on studies produced during the 1990s and we are hoping for a solution soon. If I may come back to the original point I made, this issue should not be seen purely in the context of individual Identification, Friend or Foe systems, it should also be seen in the wider context which includes situational awareness and tactics, training and procedures. The situational awareness is being improved for the UK forces by the personal role radio, for example, which was introduced last year and is already proving valuable in Afghanistan and will be improved much more rapidly with Bowman, a programme which I hesitate to mention to this Committee and which I know has been a rod for my colleague Rob Walmsley's back when he is talking about the 20 major projects each year. Nevertheless we are confident that Bowman will come into service in 2004. It will be on 20,000 different platforms. It is a very big programme, £2.2 billion, and as part of its function it will provide a situational awareness element to it, so people will know where they are and that will also help this general problem of combat ID.

  16. Can we deal quickly with our role within NATO? Could you turn to page 17, paragraphs 2.24, 3.8 on page 22, paragraph 3.10 on page 22? What we are talking about here is the key role of NATO. Can you say a bit about the key role of NATO in taking forward combat identification? What part will your Department be playing in ensuring that this subject is dealt with properly in NATO circles?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) We are fully represented in all the NATO activity. The reason I mentioned the standardisation agreement in this ground based area is because we were the ones who initiated it and put most of the effort into it. There is a comment in the report about staffing from the UK. I have to say that we staff according to the priority of the area. I did look into this in the light of the report and I am broadly satisfied that we do have that staffing right. There are several groups operating in NATO and we have to make sure we put our efforts in the ones who are really delivering the results rather than the ones who are simply co-ordinating, because there is no point having a co-ordination group if it does not have material to co-ordinate. That lies at the root of one of the comments in the report about whether we were covering the committees properly. It was staff from the UK who sorted out this ground battle standardisation agreement and we will continue to put our weight where it counts.

  17. Please turn now to page 21, paragraph 3.2, which refers to the six lines of development. Why do you believe that the six lines of development are an effective way of taking forward a policy such as that for combat identification?
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) This is a standard way in which the Armed Forces particularly the Army, carry forward most of their work. It just happens to be a technical tool that the Army find helpful in pursuing almost any issue. As it happens, this one is a rather relevant tool for pursuing this issue because combat ID is a combination of specific equipment, specific training, specific rules and procedures and you need to wrap all of these together and that is what this particular technique does. It is more a discipline that military officers use to ensure that they go through subjects thoroughly rather than something which is particularly combat ID specific. I look to General Fulton to tell me whether I am right or wrong.
  (Major General Fulton) I would agree.

Mr Steinberg

  18. I have listened to some of the answers you have been giving the Chairman and frankly I think some of it is a load of waffle to be quite honest. I do not think you have answered the questions at all.
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) We always enjoy our exchanges.

  19. We do, do we not? I am not complacent, by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact is that the report clearly says that 10 to 15 per cent of fatalities in conflict are fratricide, yet the three of you sit there and cannot give a straight answer as to whether that is accurate or not. We are told by the Major General and the Commodore that this was one exercise in Kosovo. [2]I should have thought you would be able to give us exact figures on the exact number of people who have been killed, how they were killed, who killed them, when they were killed and by what means. I should have thought every single death from friendly fire would be monitored quite clearly. What you are saying to us is that you are not sure.
  (Sir Kevin Tebbit) I am not saying that.

1   Note by witness: This stands for Standardisation Agreement. Back

2   Note by witness: The reference in the question to Kosovo should have been to BATUS-British Army Training Unit Suffield. Back

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