Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540 - 559)



  Q540  Richard Ottaway: Admiral, following on from carriers to air defence, you made it pretty clear when it was announced that the FA2s were going to be phased out in 2006, that you were not happy about it and at that time you were under the impression that the Type 45s, the first lot, were going to arrive in 2007. Given that it is now not going to arrive until 2009, I imagine you are even more angry, but just what is your level of concern over the gap there and how do you propose to fill it?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: The answer is that this was always a risk, and there was a period when there was a gap and there was a risk and how long was that gap going to be. One has to put it in context in that when we go out to sea we find we have a layered air defence capability, and the fighters are the long-range ones and we have medium range missiles and we have  close range, things like Goalkeeper, Vulcan Phalanx, Sea Wolf, and then we also have soft kill capabilities which are very efficient against certain missiles as well. So it is a whole package of capabilities and this was one layer. When the decision was made we had to look at the amount of money we thought it was going to cost to re-engine and remove obsolescence from the FA2, and I believe the decision was the correct decision because it would have cost a lot of money, and I am not even convinced that we could have actually got a bigger engine into that FA2 air frame. I am sure some people say, yes, you can, but we are pretty scarred with people attempting things like that. So I think, because of obsolescence, because we could not get the bigger engine in it, which meant we would have real problems in operating in some of the areas of the world where we seem to operate more and more, I believe that was the right decision, especially because the real focus we wanted from this air carrier now was deep strike and close air support for when we make theatre entry. Therefore, the shift from FA2 to the GR7, or GR9 hopefully, I think was the right thing. I was paying off 800 squadron earlier this year—very sad; a very good squadron; they had actually shot down a number of the aeroplanes that were trying to attack me in the Falklands—but they were very bullish about where they were going, and in 2006 when 801 pays off 800 will stand up again, hopefully with all GR9s, but, GR7s, GR9s, it will not have the same anti-air warfare capability. It will not. Even when we get a data link in GR7s or GR9s will not have that same capability, because there is no doubt the FA2s have got a superb anti air warfare capability; but, bearing in mind the limited capability they will have, the layered defence we have, the fact of what it would have cost to try to keep those other things running, bearing in mind all the other pressures on defence, I think it was the right decision to make. We will still be taking risks in that gap period in certain types of operations, and I would not be too happy being in a very high air threat, let us take something like the Falklands operation, during that gap period. Unless there was someone there to help you, we would still do it because we do what we are told to do by the Government and we would still make a mess of the guys having a go at us, but we would much rather have them around.

  Q541  Richard Ottaway: Are you still standing by the statement you made that unless you actually had, in certain operations, some shore cover, you would actually tell the Government you could not do something?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: We do not like saying we cannot do it. The Navy never says it cannot do it; nor do our Armed Forces. What we would say is, "These are the risks there and these risks are extremely high." You have to make up some scenario where it would be, and if it was that sort of situation then one would have to say how high that risk was, and then one would start doing palliatives as to how you stop it. Is there a way of making sure they cannot use any of their airfields? Are we able to use special forces? Are we able to use TACTOMS, for instance? So you can get round these things, but in a general sense there is a gap, yes, and until we get the JSF there will be a gap, but I still think it was the right decision, on balance, for all those other reasons.

  Q542  Richard Ottaway: One of the reasons that you got sunk in the Falklands was due to fairly limited airborne early warning radar cover. What is the requirement or how do you expect to meet the requirement for AEW radar with the new CBS?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: It is MASC. All these bloody acronyms!

  Q543  Richard Ottaway: Maritime Airborne Surveillance Control?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: There we are. Even we get caught out with these bloody acronyms! MASC is the part of this whole package; and, the carrier package, everyone focuses very much on aircraft carriers, but it is a £12 billion package altogether. Most of the cost is the joint combat aircraft. There is also a MASC part of it and then £3 billion is the carrier. So it is actually a tiny amount compared with the totality of this, giving you huge flexibility, of course. MASC, which is this airborne early warning capability, at the moment the money and funding that is in there is really looking at something rather like the Sea King 7's capability, which is extremely good radar and a control type fit, and we are looking at a series of options. Should it still be a Sea King? I think they will be quite old by then. EH101? They are looking at a number of options. What will the options be? Should it be a UAV? Should it be an EH101? I do not know, but I imagine the costings that they are basing it on would be on an EH101 air frame with that same fit, I would think. That is what is being looked at the moment and there is lots of work going on there and no decisions have been made. The Sea King 7s, we have been very, very pleased with. Not only are they superb for airborne early warning, they also have this ability over land which we were quite unaware of until about a year before Telic, and, of course, in Telic they were controlling, they were able to spot tanks and APCs coming out of Basra and they were able to guide 847 Naval Air Squadron Lynxs onto these targets and destroy them, and 847 destroyed, I think, 50 tanks, APCs and various other vehicles coming out guided by the Sea Kings; so extremely good radar and very good airborne early warning.

  Q544  Richard Ottaway: So the least you will have is the Sea Kings?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: That would be the absolute least, and in terms of timing, again I do not think one can get too excited over a year here or a year there or a year later, because Sea Kings are adequate to do the AEW initially. A year here or there does not really matter. There seems to be a place for it at some stage.

  Q545  Richard Ottaway: Looking at your artist's impression in your handbook of the Type 45, the aerial is quite high up there. I suppose to a limited degree the Type 45 cover without the Sea King?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Yes, it gives a very good cover, but not as good as AEW. You are getting your radar right up there and it means, with the Link and things, you can stop transmitting on anything else so all you have got maybe transmitting is that thing up in the sky, so people cannot find you; but, yes, part of the reason the ship is so large was to get that aerial, that five ton aerial that rotates, or whatever it is, and I cannot remember the exact height, above the sea, and that was quite a thing for the ship designers.

  Q546  Richard Ottaway: Going back quickly to a point we made about the gap, the FA2s, if you are doing this type of operation which we were discussing, and you would have to tell the Government what the risk was, would it affect your decision-making? It is a fairly obvious question really. Would the availability of shore bases and perhaps the United States help you with that? How dependent do you have to be on it?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I think if one looks at large and medium scale, we find it quite difficult to conceive of an operation where the Americans would not be with us. Therefore in terms of, for example, the CVF, I have talked with the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) in America. He is very keen for us to get these because he sees us slotting in with his carrier groups.

  Q547  Richard Ottaway: You are providing cover for him?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I think, although they might seem to have all sorts everything, they have not. For example, in Afghanistan last year they had to call on the French to bail them out with their carrier. He really wants us to have these, but he wants us to have same sort of clout as one of their carriers, which is this figure at 36. He would find that very useful, and really we would mix and match with that. It is always dangerous, as I say, because the thing you can guarantee is the war you are involved in will not be the one anyone has predicted, but I would find it difficult to conceive of a bigger operation where we would not have the Americans with us, where we are doing something completely without the Americans.

  Q548  Mr Crausby: You are on record as a big supporter of nuclear powered attack submarines, as I am. How concerned are you about the loss of the capability as a result of the reductions in the SSN fleet?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I think I am on record as saying that I am concerned. It comes back, of course, to the amount of money you have got to do all these things. One of my concerns on the SSNs is we have now got an ageing fleet, and one thing that we just will not do is take any risk with nuclear safety. We are so safety conscious on it that it does cause us problems sometimes because—it is quite correct—we would just absolutely not take a risk. It would be different if there were a world war going on, but when there is not we are unwilling to take a risk. Therefore, as they get older, inevitably little things might crop and you say, "Hang on, we want to look at this more carefully." I think the figure from SDR was 10 SSNs. We went from 12 to 10. From that ten, how many of those, on average, am I able to guarantee running? The figure is probably about six. My worry with going down to eight was: how many of those can I guarantee running? As I say, they are getting older and how can I be sure that I will have the numbers I need for the sorts of operations that are laid down in the Defence Planning Guide, and that requires actually six SSNs, five or six, depending on the circumstances, and with eight of these old ageing ones I am concerned. Can I actually provide that? When I have got the Astutes, then, with eight, I will be able to do all the things that I need to do, because they are newer, they have got a different core, all of these sort of benefits. We are working with the Americans about exchanging thoughts and things on their capability—we work very closely with them—and therefore I think I will be happier, but that was really my concern, having gone down to this number of eight, because we just refuse to take a risk. When I took over as Commander in Chief, because of a number complexities -pintle welds and hydrogen cracking—it does not matter what they are—there were things that we were concerned about and having to look at very carefully. After a huge amount of work, we found this was not such a big deal but then I had one SSN, I think, when I took over as Commander in Chief. We had nine running recently, but that is why I am concerned. There is a lot of loose talk about, "If we did not have a nuclear deterrent we would not need nuclear submarines". The first nuclear submarine we got was before we got a nuclear deterrent, and we had been running a deterrent. I think, Resolution went on patrol on 14 June 1968 and since then we have done continuous at sea deterrence, but we had SSNs before that, because SSNs are the only true submarine still, even allowing for air independent propulsion, and I could deploy them at huge speed at long ranges around the world. They do carry TACTOMs. They frighten other navies. Most navies in the world, if they want to fight you, will not to go sea if you have got and SNS there. The only navies who will go sea are the Americans, ourselves, the French to a limited extent, possibly the Russians if they really had to. Other navies will not to go sea, because they would be dead. The only thing I can guarantee to kill a major surface combatant is an SSN. They are able to do a SIGINT without anyone knowing, they are able to go places and no-one knows they have been there and come away and they give me huge capabilities, and that is why I like them.

  Q549  Mr Crausby: There are some that would argue that they are hugely expensive, and you have already discussed the question of working within the budget. There is a huge diversity of tasks that it faces. They are only of any real use in war-fighting situations. How would you answer that, and how confident are you that the next batch of Astute will be ordered. Will the pressure not come on enormously to block the next three orders?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: In answer to your question about war-fighting, in war-fighting they are absolutely, they are the tops really, they are fantastic, ranging from their TACTOMs, which Block IV, when we have got those, for a 1,500 mile range, can re-programme in the air, are more accurate than the current ones that are much cheaper and I can swap them over with the Americans and they help me out on them anyway; but actually in peace-time, in limited peace-time, they can carry special forces, they can insert them and no-one ever knows they have been there and get them back again, they can carry out SIGINTs in places where people have not a clue that is going on, and we have some really good coups in terms of anti-terrorist stuff because of that; so they are able to do other things as well. The only thing is that they are exceptionally expensive, I agree with you, but for those capabilities, particularly in war-time and the other, I believe they are worth it. We clearly cannot have lots of them, because they do cost a lot of money. There is certainly a requirement for them to protect our deterrent boats should there be a threat to our deterrent boats. If we take all of that together, I am convinced we need to keep them, and I believe we need to keep building the Astutes, because once I have got those my worry about the ageing fleet and my worry about having availability will go. Three ordered; long lead for the fourth. I have seen nothing at all at the moment that makes me think that there is an intention not to go and order the remainder. There will be an interesting debate about the future deterrent within this country which will have to happen. I would be surprised if it did not happen in the next Parliament, after the election, because when one looks at time-lines for replacing, as was said in the SDR, we expected the current deterrent, the Trident Force, to last 30 years—that takes you up to the mid 2020s. If you think about the timescales to replace that, then people have got to start talking about that in the next Parliament. In the context of that, I am sure people will also talk about what protection is needed. First of all, there has got to be a decision made, an absolutely political decision: do we want to keep nuclear weapons? Then, what is the best way of doing it, and then on from there. So that is all going to have to happen in the future, and that will all have an impact, I am sure, on nuclear submarine numbers.

  Q550  Mr Crausby: There have obviously been problems with BAE and Barrow. Are you satisfied that things are on track now and to what extent will that have an effect on further orders?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: The answer is that there have been problems. I think it is firmly back on track now, I think they have really gripped it, and some of the things like the welding practices there and the levels—almost no re-weld required at all—and the quality of that sort of thing; they have started to master the computer-assisted design, which was a much bigger issue than anyone thought it would be, and I am very impressed that they are getting to grips with it, but they had not initially, and there were lots of things wrong and that is very unfortunate. I think British industry at times has been its own worst enemy and I am glad now that people in the ship building area seem to be getting their act together, which is great.

  Q551  Mike Gapes: Following on from one of your earlier answers about the reduction in the number of vessels, the mine counter-measure vessels, one has been paid off, two more are to go in the near future, and, because of the situation improving in Northern Ireland, three patrol vessels are due to go in the next two years or so?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: In fact two of the MCMVs have gone already. That is my point. These things have been going. I am sorry, this is me having a little moan about this. I am losing regiments and things like this and the great British public do not seem to care. I am very sad, and my sailors are very sad as well.

  Q552  Mike Gapes: We are giving you the opportunity today to raise the profile a bit! I understand that there has been no agreement yet, or discussion in detail, with the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the question of fishery protection vessels in future. I would like you to tell us whether you are confident that there will be enough of the smaller vessels available, particularly given the complex range of tasks that they might have to be engaged in. You have already mentioned in an earlier answer the fact that we have to have oil rig protection, or things of that kind, which we saw in the Gulf. Frankly, we have got oil facilities around the UK. I would be interested to know whether you feel we have enough of the smaller vessels to do the jobs that we need?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: In terms of DEFRA and fishery protection, I am sure there will be on-going work there, but I would be surprised if we did not keep the role of fishery protection working for them with our three river class and occasionally using some of the MCMVs looking to the future, but I think the contract for the three rivers, for example, runs out in 2005, I think—I would have to come back with the exact figure—something like that, and that will have to be renegotiated, because, as you know, they were bought and constructed on a new scheme, effectively, where the company built them and we effectively rent them and have contracted logistic support for them and we would have to renew their contract, but I think that will continue.

  Q553  Mike Gapes: That is three vessels to replace— There used to be five?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Yes. Those are the three Rivers, and a huge success they have been. They are much bigger, they are faster. They caught our clever fishermen out initially because fishermen are not silly and they worked out what the speed of the old ships was so they knew that if they saw one how long it would take to get to the guy who was cheating. Initially we had great success, because, of course, it goes about five knots faster. I think they have now twigged with the speed, but they have been a great success and it is useful to have them and the MCMVs around UK waters, because, like you, I do believe we need to have grey ships around the UK. We have the fleet ready escort, we have the very worked up mechanism for maritime counter-terrorism. I do not know if you remember the MV Nisha incident. I think that showed how well that works, which involves special forces, which involved the fleet ready escort, which involves helicopters and everything, and it worked very well. There might have been some issues as to exactly which bit of the police were responsible because the Home Secretary is responsible in this country for our territorial seas, but that worked well. We have ships working up at places like Plymouth; so there are other ships around at varying degrees of worked up status, some of them pretty worked up, some not, so they are available to deploy in UK waters. I think the loss of the three Northern Ireland patrol craft, which was one on station at any one time, makes sense in the Northern Ireland context, but when one looks at UK waters I think we will have to look at how we deploy some of our units to make sure we have got coverage. We are doing a lot more work now with all the various Government departments, Sir David Omand and his team talking about maritime security, looking in intelligence terms at what is the maritime risk, and that is good because I think when one looks back to 9/11 we were not well joined up at all, I think very badly, and I think that has come on hugely. Looking to the future, are we going to need to set aside ships specifically on top of the fleet ready escort, for example, for this task? I think that is still open for further work. I think that is something we have to look at, do some more exercises practising it and perhaps we might find we would like some more. Instinctively one feels it would be nice to have more grey ships around, but at the moment probably around UK waters on any given day we have enough around to be called on if necessary. We also, of course, have the OD Teams, the Royal Marine Group based in Faslane, which can go places, and other Fleet diving teams; so there are other groups of maritime who are available to help in these sorts of instances.

  Q554  Mike Gapes: Were you concerned that the reduction in the number of vessels overall will have an impact in personnel in terms of opportunities for younger officers to have an early experience in their career of the command of a vessel?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Absolutely. Mr Hancock raised that issue and it is absolutely right. It is a wonderful opportunity for a young officer to learn his trade, to make mistakes which are not going to be too devastating and to learn things that will let him go on and become a much better officer in the future. So, as I said before, we are looking hard at how we can adjust things to make allowance for the fact that we have got reduced opportunities there.

  Q555  Mike Gapes: But it is a real issue?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: It is an issue, yes, absolutely.

  Q556  Rachel Squire: Admiral, can I come back, surprise surprise, to the consequences for industry. You said just a little bit earlier that British industry can be its own worst enemy and needs to get its act together, and you have referred to these talks that are now taking place between the MoD and ship builders to identify ways to arrest industrial decline and ensure the UK industry can manage the Navy's ship building programme over the next 15 years. I am interested in whether the Navy has any direct representation on such discussions. For instance, I gather there was a meeting held and another one at the beginning of this week, but also you seem to be thinking that this is a positive thing that has happened, whereas what I am hearing is that it is developing into yet another vague talking shop which may not, in fact, facilitate and achieve progress. I am interested in any further comment you want to make?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I have to be careful because I could fall back on CDPs role, but I refuse to, as I  am Chief of Staff in the Navy and I think that  everything to do with maritime I have a responsibility directly through the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister for the fighting capability and morale of the Navy, and I think that takes every single line whether it is to do with procurement, or whatever. So I am probably going beyond my remit in some ways, but that has never stopped me in the past. Yes, there are naval officers who are involved in it, for example, the Controller who works for CDP, Admiral Cheadle, is one of the driving forces. So there are naval officers there, but clearly he works within the DPA and for CDP, and not directly for me. I had not heard this had become a talking shop. I would be rather sad if that were the case. I do not know because I do not keep very close alongside it, but I will certainly ask the question when I go back there, and I think that will be sad because I think there is an opportunity there, and, looking at the programme we hope to have in terms of building, we do need this sort of discussion if we are to smooth it out properly and not have these huge peaks and troughs and all the problems that that causes. So, I hope that that is not the case and I hope it will go on. Discussions like this are always terribly difficult, are they not, because people are talking about profits and goodness knows what. So I imagine it is very difficult at times. Of course from our perspective and the MoD perspective we want to get the best value for money, and there is only time and cost—quality, time and cost—and I am sure that is what the CDP is demanding. As I say, I hope it does not become a non-event, because I see that with the maritime coherence work as rather important.

  Q557  Rachel Squire: The points that have been made about the importance of maintaining short and medium term ship building skills for the future planned naval programme, some of the concerns about the impact that it will have as much on the Navy potentially as well as actually on the yards themselves. Also it almost leads me to say that, if we ended up not maintaining those skills, would you ever see an admiral advocating that work should in fact be taken out of Britain if we no longer have the skills available here because of the talking shop rather than the actual action?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: If within the UK it was impossible to build the equipment that was required, then I am sure that a First Sea Lord would say, "We will have to go to wherever we can get it", because if that is the requirement it has got to be done. I personally think that would be extremely unfortunate. That is my own view. There are some people who say it does not really matter in this global world what way you go. I do not believe that. That is my personal view. I am not saying that as the First Sea Lord of the MoD.

  Q558  Mr Hancock: May I ask you a supplementary? I share Rachel's view on the ship building capability, which is important, but I am also concerned about the ship repair and maintenance facilities. With only two ships due for major work next year, three yards, all of them desperate to have at least a share of that work, poses some real problems for the Navy. I would be interested to know what the thinking is about how that is going to work out, because it is a grave consequence to one or other of those yards who are not going to have a Royal Naval major ship refit underway, and that is potentially going to put a lot of people out of work very quickly?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: This is another part of this package in terms of looking at industrial capabilities. It is not just builders; it is also that as well. I know that the Defence Logistics Organisation in particular, what is the Warship Support Agency, but which will be changing from agency status, is looking very carefully at that, because we have to balance that also with base porting where our ships are and where our people are, and that is very, very important to us. Again, it becomes part of this total package. I would quite to like see the build, repair and all of this become one, where we are looking carefully at that whole balance, looking at the yards there are and the work there is around to keep numbers of skilled workers and to meet our requirement, as I say, to time and cost and all those things, and also helping the yard, because otherwise, if you have these great peaks and troughs and things dropping away, at the end of day, if you have got huge overheads, people will charge you for those overheads anyway. You have to be quite careful about that. What we have managed to achieve over the last few years is to really drive down the costs of how much it costs to get these repair periods done, and that has been a huge success. Having done that, I think we need to get a nice balance across the piece so that we can get a sensible balance of work in the various yards still delivering the efficiencies and the value for money that we require in defence.

  Q559  Mr Hancock: Do you see a time coming where one or other of those yards are going to be so under stress: because (you are right) the price has been driven down so competitively that there is a suggestion that some yards might take a loss just to keep work, and that is great for the Navy and the MoD but hideously bad for the future of the yard if it has to do that? There is a very real crisis about to hit the yard. One or other of them is not going to get a job, and there is not much on the horizon. I would be interested to know what the internal thinking within the Navy is. If you want to maintain a strategy of having three base ports for ships, then you have to have a policy where the facility is maintained there, and that will not be done through the largess of the companies that operate them; it will only be done if they can see that they are going to get enough income out of looking after war ships in their port?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: There is an over capacity, which is effectively what you are saying, in terms of warship repair in the UK. That is why it is important to tie this altogether with the build aspects as well. I would have thought that it was not beyond the wit of man to achieve something there, which is what I had hoped might come out of some of this work that is going on. You are quite right, there is more ship repair capacity than there is warship work, and it is impossible to get other work to fill the void, although some of the yards have tried very hard on that and have done quite well on bits and pieces, but it is not enough to cover them. So it is an issue that we are well aware of, it is one that we are concerned about and I hope that in discussions we can come up with an answer. I think the answer to that is to actually get it as part of the package with build as well, and I think something could be done; and that is what I hope Admiral Cheadle and people are talking about as they move forward.

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