Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 92 - 99)



  Q92  Chairman: Air Chief Marshal, it is very courageous of you, sitting alone, but please do not feel obligated to answer everything yourself. I am sure you have some very distinguished people sitting behind you to correct any odd error you might make, and I do not believe there will be many, so welcome to our Committee. Are there any introductory remarks you would like to make?

  Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup: Only to say that I very much welcome this opportunity because a great deal has been going on. There has been a lot of change in recent years and we have a lot more change planned and not all of it, if I may say, has been covered with quite the accuracy or dispassion that I would have wished, so this is an excellent opportunity for us to discuss some of those issues.

  Q93  Chairman: Thank you very much and we certainly welcome you without any minders you might have to reinterpret your remarks. Firstly, the RAF in recent operations has become even more closely integrated with the other two services in the form of close air support and network-enabled operations. Are you happy with this arrangement and do you see any further evolution to the process of greater integration with the other services?

  Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup: I am very happy with our progress in this regard. I think I would just utter one word of caution which is that we must be prepared to fight the next war and the one after rather than the last war, and the next one will, to some degree or other, be different. We think we can forecast some of those differences, but we certainly will not be able to forecast them all and there will be things about them that surprise us, so whilst there were lessons from Telic particularly in terms of air-land co-operation that we have learnt and which we are now incorporating into our processes and procedures, we must be careful not to be led from one single track down into another single track and we must be prepared for a wide range of eventualities. However, that said, the lessons that we learned from Telic are now being applied. Air-land co-operation was one area where we clearly needed to do better and both we and the Army have put a lot of effort into that. It involves changing our organisation and structure to some extent and we are doing that, it involves changing and developing our doctrine and we are doing that, and inevitably it involves much more training and exercising of those procedures and we have set those in train as well.

  Q94  Chairman: So integration with the Army and Navy is not a problem, but integration in operations with other countries, like the United States or even eventually France, is that feasible or do you have to make planning assumptions of an exercise? Are you happy that we could operate in the future successfully with our allies?

  Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup: It is perfectly feasible. We do an awful lot of work of course with the United States Air Force with whom we have operated very closely for a long time and with whom, in accordance with our defence policy, we anticipate co-operating closely in the future, but they are not our only ally or potential coalition partner and we do a lot of work, for example, with our French colleagues. If I can cite one instance of this, as you know, we are all contributing to the new NATO reaction forces. Those reaction forces have to be commanded and controlled and the plan is for nations to contribute command and control elements for each rotation. The original NATO plan was for France to command and control the NRF-5 rotation for six months and then for the UK to command and control the rotation for six months after that. We have agreed, my French opposite number and I, that instead of that, we will together command both rotations. That will help us in terms of interoperability, it will expose a number of key lessons which we will incorporate into our processes and structures, so that is just one example of the way that we are improving our interoperability with the French and I could cite many more examples.

  Q95  Chairman: This is a quite difficult question and I will understand if you are not in a position to answer, Air Chief Marshal, but obviously on so many people's minds are future operations in Iraq. If you cannot answer, you cannot answer. Is it envisaged or theoretical if British forces move into an area under the control of the United States, and we know it is 650 Black Watch, does it mean that we provide air cover, support, rescue, whatever the back-up is should there be any problems or will this be a responsibility of the US Army and the US Air Force? Have you reached that stage? I do not want to ask any trick questions.

  Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup: I clearly cannot answer any questions about UK force deployments on current operations or indeed about current operational plans. What I can say in a broader sense is that the way we allocate air power in a campaign is from a central organisation. One of the key aspects of air power is that it should be central control, dispersed execution, delegated execution, so if anybody on the ground anywhere in an operation or theatre requires air support, then that air support will be allocated to them on a priority basis by the combined air operations centre and it could come from anywhere within the assets allocated to the combined air operations centre. Clearly there are advantages wherever it is possible in providing support from assets which are trained more frequently with those people who are on the ground, but the important thing is that they get the support they need when they need it and in order to achieve that, one must be flexible.

  Q96  Chairman: There were many occasions during the recent war in Iraq when the US Air Force supported British troops on the ground. Were there any lessons from that which would encourage you that there would be a limited number of problems of the US Air Force or Army providing that air cover? Would there be any insuperable problems because our Air Force are pretty close and flying times are not immense or in the event of a unit being under some form of attack and it might be the Royal Air Force or even the Army which would be able to provide the initial, first and swiftest response? I hope you do not think I am trying to get you to answer questions that are in advance of any decisions which at this stage we are told have not been made.

  Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup: No, I am talking purely in terms of general principle and not on specific issues. It may be that the Royal Air Force assets are best placed to respond swiftly with the right degree of support, but to an extent that would be a matter of chance. I would repeat that the issue is to get the ground forces the support they need when they need it. I have no difficulty whatsoever with that support coming from the United States Air Force or indeed the United States Marines or the United States Navy. We have practised together, we have common doctrine, we have common procedures, we have people on the ground who understand the interfaces with those other organisations. We are structured to make that work.

  Q97  Chairman: Well, that is very encouraging. We have already seen helicopters brought under a single joint command. Are there any other air assets which might be made similarly joint?

  Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup: I cannot think of any at the moment, but neither would I rule it out for the future. I would make a more general point which is that we are, all of us in all three services, committed to a joint approach to operations. A joint approach to operations and jointery is, as much as anything, an attitude of mind. Joint units can help contribute to that, but joint units on their own do not constitute jointery, so where it makes sense to bring assets together into a joint organisation, where it improves operational efficiency and effectiveness, then of course that is what we would seek to do, but it is not necessary to do that to have a joint approach to operations.

  Chairman: In parenthesis, the Committee have approved my suggestion that we would invite the Secretary of State to come and address the Committee after he has made any formal announcement, should a decision be made to deploy British forces out of area, so we will have the definitive statement when the decision is made.

  Q98  Mr Viggers: What longer-term air defence commitments do we have? I am thinking of the main headings of NATO, Quick Reaction Alert aircraft, and commitments such as the Falkland Islands?

  Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup: We clearly have our QRA commitments in the UK for the policing and protection of UK air space and wider assets within the United Kingdom. We retain the Quick Reaction commitment in the Falkland Islands. We are currently, along with other NATO partners, contributing to the Quick Reaction air defence assets for the Baltic States and that is part of the overall integrated NATO air defence system. That is a time-limited, temporary deployment. More widely, we need air defence assets for expeditionary operations. We need rather fewer of them today than we have done in the past for a variety of reasons. The scale of potential air threats to expeditionary operations has decreased, numbers have decreased. Capabilities have not decreased. There are still extremely capable aircraft being manufactured around the world and being exported, extremely capable weapons, and we have to be able to deal with those. We have to be able to deal with them much less today in the context of a specific and direct threat to the United Kingdom or indeed a specific and direct threat to our deployed forces, but, for example, we have a number of very high-value assets flying around the air battle space, E3Ds, tankers and so on, as do our allies and coalition partners and they are crucial to our operational effectiveness and must be protected, so there are a range of air defence tasks that will continue into the future on expeditionary operations against some potent potential threats, although the overall scale in terms of size of threat has reduced over the years.

  Q99  Mr Viggers: The disbandment of the Tornado F3 squadron in 2005 and the halving of the number of Rapier anti-aircraft missile launchers reflects what you have described as a reduced threat and of course these will in due course be supported by Typhoons. Are you satisfied that the phasing out of the Tornado and Rapier will not leave us with a capability gap until the Typhoons come into service?

  Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup: I am satisfied. The rationale goes something like this: that with the introduction of much more capable, multi-role aircraft, such as Typhoon, we were always clear that we would be able to achieve our tasks with lower numbers, but we expected to have to maintain those higher numbers until we got those systems like Typhoon into service and fully proved. It has now become clear, however, with the improvements that we have been making in stages over the years, for example, with the F3 by the introduction of JTIDS, with the introduction of the highly capable ASRAAM short-range missile and with the introduction of the highly capable AMRAAM radar-guided missile that we are seeing some of those efficiency improvements within specific capability areas in advance of new systems coming into service. What we are not getting of course is the flexibility we get from a true multi-role aircraft which we will achieve when Typhoon comes in, but what that means is that we have actually been able to advance the reduction in some of those numbers.

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