Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 501 - 519)



  Q501  Chairman: Welcome, Admiral. Would you like to make any opening statement? You have been sick, I understand?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: First of all, I would say that all my experts tell me that I am not contagious, but I got up out of my sickbed at lunchtime to come here, and I am delighted to do that. I am also told it is not SARS, you will be glad to hear, although I have just got back from China—it is just ordinary flu! I am delighted to do that because I enjoy the sessions with the House of Commons Defence Committee because it is nice to talk to people who have a true interest in defence. One of the things that I find unfortunate now, I am afraid, across the UK—I think partly  because our Armed Forces have been so successful—is that there is not that deep interest in defence. So I always find these sessions useful and it is good to talk to people who are interested in defence.

  Q502  Chairman: And you got your retaliation in first so if there is a question you are not prepared to answer you will be engulfed in a cough and we will have to suspend it!

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Cough and fall over—an easy way out! The books I have given you, one is on the Royal Navy and I find that very useful myself—the little book—and it does give great detail of our equipment in the Navy and our people. I think one has to say, when you look at that, notwithstanding the pressures and everything else, that anyone in Britain would be proud about that. The other book is the fact that I think across the board in the UK people do not have an understanding of the interaction between the three Services, this joint effect, and the book is about Telic, what I call kicking open the door into Iraq, where I think that if you ask the average man on the street somewhere in Middle England he would think it was the Army who did all this, did they not? Understandably, because of what you see on the television. The reality is that all three Services were fully involved and this book actually shows what the maritime did ranging through from TLAM, guarding the right flank to allow the Americans to go in and then of course Seventh Armoured followed those in. It is a coffee table type book—nothing very heavy—but it does give a flavour of the huge involvement and the fact that without the maritime—for example 95% of every bit of equipment used by the Air Force and Army out there came by sea—it could not have happened, and I think that is worth doing to show that all three Services are vital for joint type operations. I think I have said enough already.

  Q503  Chairman: Thank you very much. I sincerely hope that most of the ships or all of them depicted in this book will be around in five years. Certainly we will do our best to try to ensure that. Question number one please, Peter Viggers.

  Q504  Mr Viggers: The Defence White Paper in December 2003 described the priority for the Navy as being "increasingly on delivering effect from the sea onto the land, which includes a land attack capability, supporting forces ashore and on securing access to the theatre of operations and protecting the crucial sea lines of communication from the home base." Increasingly the switch is from blue water and towards littoral operations, yet we are withdrawing three Type 42 destroyers, three Type 23 frigates, one Trafalgar class nuclear submarine, one Swiftsure class nuclear submarine and three mine hunters. Are you confident that the decision to focus naval capabilities on delivering effect on to land, which reflects the current security environment, will stand the test of time over the longer term, particularly given the expected service life of the vessels concerned, which is 25 years for frigates and 50 years for carriers? And will you have enough ships?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Certainly the versatile Maritime Force, which is what we are aiming for in the Navy, will be able to provide that capability, but it seems that there is something more behind your question there, which is something to do with reduction in numbers and that sort of thing. I think the first thing to say is that, bearing in mind the status of the United Kingdom, the fact that we are a member of the P5, I consider us still a great power; the fact that we have huge investments all around the world, that it is important that we are involved in commitments worldwide. To do that costs a certain amount of money—to have military forces able to do that. Being a military man I would always want to have more money, and it is just as well that there are people like you in the House to make sure that one cannot go on demanding more and more. My own personal view is I think it would be rather nice if there was a little bit more money for defence, but that is a political decision. Within the constraints of the amount of money that has been devoted for defence, and bearing in mind that the Chancellor did actually give a considerable increase last year and has given other considerable increases, the package that we came back with in terms of the adjustments to our force levels is, I think, the best we could do. We have to take into account all three Services. It is important, for example, that the Army could start implementing the Future Army Structure. I think that is a very sensible move and I think General Jackson has been very brave in implementing that. I have not talked to a single junior Army Officer who does not believe it is the right thing to do, and indeed it actually provides more units capable of use and will give stability to their people. That, of course, cost a certain amount of money, and when one looked across all of defence money had to come from places to pay for that. Would I like to have more destroyers and frigates? I expected to pay off three Type 42s—the oldest is about 30 years old, one is 29 and one is 27, something like that—but they are still a sad loss; they are extremely capable ships but it made sense, when I looked at the overall balance within the maritime of what were the most important things. The loss of the three 23s, much younger ships, again I would prefer not to lose those. My own personal assessment, if I had a carte blanche and the money was available—and it is not—I would like to have about 30 destroyers and frigates, and I have said that in public before. But you have to cut your cloth according to the amount of money that is around, and I had higher priorities in the maritime and there were higher priorities across defence that had to be taken into account, and bearing all of those in mind I think the balance we came to was about right. I do have a personal sadness that, for example, there has been a huge amount in the media about the regimental system, the loss of some regiments, which will happen at some stage in the future, and I understand all the emotion involved there. But as I say, actually at the end of the day I think the Future Army Structure will be a much better structure, which will allow a greater usage of our soldiers. There has not been very much about the real loss of my ships and those have started happening already. This is not something in the future; already Newcastle has gone into port for the last time, and from my perspective these are regiments. Similarly, Glasgow; she had her last visit up to Glasgow and she is paid off. Tomorrow HMS Norfolk pays off. Two of my MCMVs have paid off, but they are not quite at the same level as a regiment. Again, it goes back to this knowledge across Britain of defence, it is rather sad because I feel that some of my people, who are working hard in these ships, feel that they are not being as appreciated as much as they might, and actually they do extremely good work around the world. Going a little bit further in terms of destroyer figure numbers, yes, we need to spend money on network-enabled capability, that is absolutely the right thing to do. It will enable us to use the Forces we have more effectively; it gets you more bangs for your buck; it enables you to cut casualties on your own side and on the enemy's side; it enables you at very high speed to have effect and hit the centre of gravity and actually win. But very often a destroyer or a frigate is a singleton, it will be somewhere in the world—and I said I have just been to China, for example, and HMS Exeter was up there. This had huge impact on the Chinese. I am sure that her visit this year, after Liverpool's last year during the SARS epidemic, resulted in us getting some huge contracts at the airport there in Shanghai. They were able to talk to me and said how wonderful it was that we had a ship. This defence diplomacy issue is often a singleton type ship, and if you have one of something it does not matter how network enabled you make it because if you have not got it you have not got it. That is my worry sometimes about numbers. But going back to where we came from, with the amount of money I had, I had higher priorities in the maritime and there were higher priorities in the defence, and I am sure that in that budget constraint that the answer we came up with is the right answer or I would not have signed up to it, which I did with the other Chiefs of Staff.

  Q505  Mr Viggers: Do you think the new emphasis on offensive roles is at the expense of more traditional defensive roles and do you think that there are gaps left there?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Sorry, I am not quite clear?

  Q506  Mr Viggers: The new focus on offensive roles and the long projection of force from the sea means that Forces have been switched to that role from the traditional North Atlantic and other defensive roles. Do you feel that there are gaps left there?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I think looking at the world environment and to the best of our ability to predict it—and you have to be very careful with predictions because the one thing you can guarantee is the next war will not be one that we have predicted, so one always has to be very careful—I believe it is correct to have shifted from that deep blue water protection of convoys, sea lines and communication, and make that shift towards work within the littoral projection ashore, assured entry, enabling the Air Force and the Army to get to where they need to get to in the world, to do the business they need to do for the   United Kingdom. I am sure that is correct. Sometimes in operational analysis, when people feed in information and it goes through the old machine to come out with an answer of how many ships you lose, I believe they underestimate how many ships might be needed, for example, to protect choke points, even against terrorist attack, and people sometimes draw incorrect assumptions about how many allies will help us on these occasions. I think we saw during Telic, in Iraq, a number of nations that we might have expected to have said, "Yes, here is a ship," but did not, and sometimes those figures are difficult. But having said all of that we are not in an ideal world and I am certain that the priorities we have set are the right priorities within the constraints that we have.

  Q507  Mr Viggers: You mentioned Telic, that 95% of the equipment going to Telic went by sea, and yet when it went beyond the Suez Canal we had to rely on allies to escort ships.

  Admiral Sir Alan West: That is fine, as long as you have the allies there to do it, but my point is that in some of the places there were not any. So we had to send someone, for example, to the Straits of Gibraltar to assist there.

  Q508  Mr Viggers: One has to be ready for asymmetrical warfare and I would have thought that the classical asymmetrical weapon is a mine, which can be used by comparatively unsophisticated countries or groups, and yet we are scrapping three minehunters. Is that a wise decision?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Again, one is always loath to lose "platforms", even though that phrase is used in a rather derisive way sometimes. I think the figure of 16 is okay; I have less difficulty with that figure, even though we have a niche capability in mine warfare, which I think is probably the best in the world and we saw that out in the Gulf. I think that figure of 16 is appropriate, and we are looking very hard, looking to the future at how we are going to maintain that fantastic capability we have of mine hunting. One of the problems with that number is ensuring that they are deployed in time because you have to guarantee that they are there in time to do the initial entry, and all this sort of thing. There is an element of "Drake's mirror" there, where good Admirals over the years in this country—and we have had a lot—are able to look in their Drake's mirror and see what might be happening in the world and can start moving things. For example, when I was Commander in Chief, although we did not know anything was going to happen in the Gulf, one's feeling was that actually it was an area that was pretty dicey, and I therefore deployed a group out there to work with local nations. Therefore it was there some six months later when things started happening. So you can get round those, and of course the joy of maritime, the joy of things at sea is that territorial seas are territorial seas. Once you get out in them most nations are totally unaware of what is there, and certainly most terrorists are unaware once it is clearer littoral waters. You can send a whole force, it can sit there and it can come back, as in 1997 I sat with the whole battle group off Hong Kong outside territorial waters, well out in the sea, and that was a non-issue really. That is one of the joys of maritime forces.

  Q509  Mr Viggers: I suppose summarising my concern, it is that the Defence White Paper talks about projecting force to different areas. Specific mention is made of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Would we have the surface ships to back up such a projection?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I think one has to be very careful about undertaking commitments until you look at exactly what you have to cover them. In Africa at the moment in terms of ships, regularly APT South and sometimes APT North—the Atlantic Patrol Task North and South ships—go to West Africa to show a presence. We used the Amphibious Task Group there of course in Sierra Leone, with great effect. So the flexibility of our units, so long as they are not tied up somewhere else, is huge. Basically, any Naval unit can travel about 600 miles a day in any direction with no one stopping them; so they can move to another theatre if need be. But of course you can only undertake a certain number of commitments. As far as South East Asia or Indonesia and all that area goes, the thing that struck me when I was in China was that we are the biggest investor of any EU nation in China, biggest in Malaya, biggest in Singapore, biggest in Indonesia, biggest in Australia. This is an area which is important for the wealth of this country and therefore stability is important. How much better having the odd ship there, which helps the stability and defence diplomacy, rather than waiting until it becomes somewhere like the Middle East.

  Mr Viggers: Absolutely. Thank you very much.

  Q510  Mr Crausby: Can you tell us, Admiral, what was the justification for ending the UK's commitment of one ship to NATO's Standing Naval Task Force, and indeed what the response was from other NATO members?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: The reason for the reduction, and this was taking the ship out of the Standing NATO Force Atlantic, was because of the number of hulls we had available to do it, and there were not enough to do that. There were seven of these permanent tasks at this stage and effectively you need about 3.7 ships to do a permanent committed task like that—1.3 for a smaller task around the UK. Because of the reductions we have had we were not able to do that task. Once these latest rounds of reductions are done—and at the moment we are having to review what will happen about the other permanent task—you have look at how they can be done because clearly once we go to 25 destroyers and frigates there is a limit to the number that you can do. So that Standing NATO Force Task was done purely because we did not have enough ships to do it. There are two Standing NATO Forces for destroyers and frigates, one of which is Standing NATO Force Atlantic, one of which is Standing NATO Force Mediterranean. Both groups tended to be used recently on Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean, which is an operation—it is still an Article 5 operation—that started after 9/11 to intercept ships in, primarily, the Eastern Mediterranean to stop movement of terrorists, ammunition, explosives, all these sorts of things, and those two forces have been involved in that. We have seen that the Standing Naval Force Mediterranean was more significant and left our ship there, and as the changes in NATO take place and we are moving towards the NRF (the NATO Reaction Force) the Standing Force Mediterranean will probably transform into part of the NRF, but that has not been finally decided, that is being debated at the moment. But that will be one of the standard tasks that we will have to look at in conjunction with the other standing task to see which one we intend to fill, because if you take away the Standing NATO Force Atlantic you go from seven to six tasks. They effectively are fleet ready escort around the UK, the Atlantic Patrol Task North—that is the Caribbean and all that sort of thing, and all the good work that Richmond has done after the various hurricanes and things; Atlantic Patrol Task South, which is down in the Falkland Islands and the work done on West Africa and that sort of thing; the ship that is up in the Gulf—and I think some of you on this Committee visited the ship right up at the northern end of the Gulf, looking after those two oil platforms to ensure the safety of that oil flow and stability out there. And then one out in the Indian Ocean involved an Operation Enduring Freedom—this is looking for terrorists in the Indian Ocean, where we have taken command of that group quite often. So those are the tasks that are there, and we will only be able to do four of them because we have reduced our number of ships. That is a decision that will have to be made, which one is seen as most important, and I think the Secretary of State said when he was here, "Yes, there are Standing Tasks but times change and maybe some are less important than they were, therefore they will have to be dropped," and that is a decision that will have to be made over the next few months as we draw down to this new level of ships.

  Q511  Mr Crausby: You said in an interview with Jane's Defence Weekly that you think there will have to be another reduction, at the time. Are you now saying there will have to be two more reductions in Standing Tasks?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Yes, two more Standing Tasks will have to go; we will go from six to four. We were at seven.

  Q512  Mr Crausby: So we went from seven, we have already reduced to six and now we have to lose two more.

  Admiral Sir Alan West: That was the Standing NATO Force Atlantic, and I have to say that although it is maybe not the best message to NATO because, after all, we are, I believe, the pre-eminent maritime power in Europe, for very good historical and other reasons, and it was a bad message, I think. But still, I agree that was probably the least important of those tasks and I can easily live with that. I think now we are looking at tasks which I thought were quite important and someone will have to make an assessment whether they are or not. That does not mean we will not have ships going to any of those areas, and what I have the Commander in Chief and people looking at very closely is how can we somehow get some sort of coverage because I think it is very important for the UK to have coverage in these areas because it helps stability. Again, part of the reason that we are wealthy and affluent and doing very well at the moment is that there is this stability and prosperity in the world, and the fact that we have investment abroad, the fact that there is a free flow of trade, the fact that insurance rates are low, it always helps if you have a grey funnel line ship around. We know that from where there has been trouble in places like the Gulf, for example, where insurance rates started going up before Telic, and we sent our Royal Naval Reserve Team out to Dubai and sent 22 ships out there, we were able to drive that insurance rate back down. All of that helps and so it is important, and so we are looking at how can we get ships out into these areas in some other way of doing it.

  Q513  Mr Crausby: So are all of those Standing Tasks at threat? The one that protects the Falkland Islands, for instance, is that at threat? Is that one you would be considering?

   Admiral Sir Alan West: All of those Tasks will have to be looked at and a decision will have to be made which ones will not be filled.

  Q514  Mr Crausby: There are no decisions made?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: No decisions will be made and this will be reviewed and looked at and I imagine that a decision will be made on that probably by the third quarter or something of next year because that is when, with these timelines, we will have to be making that sort of decision.

  Q515  Mr Crausby: So what about the NATO Rapid Response Force? What contribution do you expect to be able to make to the naval element of the NATO Rapid Response Force?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: There has been quite a good story to tell on that already. The Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for the NRF was delivered during the exercise Destined Glory in the Mediterranean earlier this year, and I am very pleased that the Royal Navy and Commander in Chief and my UK maritime battle staff did a lot of driving of that because my battle staff are actually commanding the maritime element of that NRF at the moment—this rotates between nations and we are doing that—and the IOC was proved in that with this operation Destined Glory. In terms of the ships involved there is debate still: should there be a standing element to this? That goes back to the one I talked about, Active Endeavour, Standard Force Mediterranean, should that become a standing element or should it not? That is still being debated. And the units that are allocated for this task are normally double earmarked, sometimes triple earmarked, and one identifies units that can be available for the NRF. So, for example, in this period, just because of the way it has worked, we had a dearth of amphibious assets available from within Europe for this force. But generally we see this as we will be able to earmark units as necessary to make up a sensible maritime part of the total NRF, which of course includes air and land.

  Q516  Mr Crausby: Finally, Chairman. Will the Royal Navy's commitment to defence diplomacy be reduced in the future as a result of all of these cuts?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I think the answer has to be yes, that it will be reduced because with less destroyers and frigates there is less opportunity for going and doing this. There are six less, we have gone from 31 to 25. Other assets do it as well, of course; you can do it with your carrier and all of that, but we have less to do it with, and the classic way of doing it is with the destroyer frigate which has all this range of capabilities. It is the smallest unit that operates completely autonomously with the capabilities of its own aircraft, missiles, guns, all of the things that you need in one little package. They roam all over the world—I am sure a number of you have been to ports and have visited them there—and I think they do a huge amount of good. So there will be a reduction. Having said all of that, within the constraints of the money we have I am absolutely certain that concentrating on other areas of maritime programme was where money had to be concentrated within the resources we had available.

  Q517  Mr Hancock: Good afternoon, Admiral. Having fewer ships, I agree with you, is like losing a great friend, and coming from a city like Portsmouth I think people do feel the loss of a ship is important. It is not just the availability of that vessel but it is the opportunity it offers the Navy for training. Having fewer ships you have less sea time, less capability and manpower resources. How do you cope with that when a quarter of the Navy is reduced, and you yourself have said that for every ship deployed you need at least three, possibly four ships there in the game plan for that deployment? So how do you cope with that, giving your seamen adequate training and opportunity for sea time?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: It is a very valid point you  make, ranging from command opportunities, Executive Officer type opportunities, charge opportunities for the engineers, the supply people, ships flights—of course there is a reduction in the number of helicopters. So you are absolutely right. Of course it is six out of 31 destroyers and frigates, but of course we still have three carriers and two LPDs, an LPH, so it is not 25% but it is still an issue. And losing similarly MCMVs and the three Northern Ireland patrol craft once things are fully stabilised in Northern Ireland—

  Q518  Mr Hancock: Two out of three carriers are therefore tied up at any one time.

  Admiral Sir Alan West: To be fair, normally it is one that is really tied up and the other two will operate after a fashion. But it does have an impact and that is a worry and the Second Sea Lord and the Board have identified this. The Second Sea Lord is looking at this, and we are looking really in terms of structure, how can we allow for this change? It is difficult. I think we can identify a way around it. But, yes, every time, particularly actually the smaller ones, because there is a wonderful way of training your officers, giving them the responsibility and all of the things that we drive into a young man so that when he does then become a Commander or particularly a Captain of a big ship you have turned him into the man you want to be representing the UK abroad and taking some of those very key decisions at crucial moments. So it is an absolutely relevant point. What we have to do is to make sure that we can make it work even though that has happened, and I believe we can, and that is what we are focusing on doing.

  Q519  Mr Hancock: Will it mean that the rotation of commands will speed up, so there will be less command time so that more sailors can have the opportunity of being either Executive Officers or in command of their own ships? I think it does pose some real problems to retaining the young committed naval officer who saw himself possibly as a future Admiral even, and losing that opportunity if they do not put in the sea time and do not get the command experience?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: First of all I hasten to add that actually there are lots and lots of opportunities, so I would not want people to think that there are not. The length of time in command has always been a very knotty one. For some years we have had a reducing number of ships, and there is a balance to be struck between getting through the maximum number of people who are capable and doing that job, which they see as very attractive and a lot of people join the Navy to do that—but they obviously have to be capable of doing it—and giving them long enough doing it to check that they are fully able to do it and to get the maximum benefit, and that has always been a terribly difficult balance. It ends up as about 18 months. Very often one will want to leave them longer and sometimes people do less, sometimes people only do about 12 or 13 months. But it is always a very difficult balance; it still will be and it is something that will have to be juggled in the context of the work we are looking at, and structures and things like that. Similarly there is a case for engineers, even down to Charge Chief level, all this sort of thing. So it is something that we have to look at across the board. Of course, if you reduce the number of platforms, the number of ships then it causes more of a problem, and we have to tackle that and we are tackling that because we are looking at it because the new ships coming along give us much greater opportunity to use them at sea. They can stay at sea for much, much longer because of the way they are designed because of the support and everything. We are already looking at, as you know, squad manning for the ships' companies; we are looking at restructuring the various branches to allow this greater utility out of the platform, and I think in the context of that we will solve some of these problems and allow people this opportunity to command—maybe two commanding officers for a ship, something like that. That is what we will be looking at.

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