Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560 - 579)



  Q560  Mr Roy: Admiral, the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability project MARS, as it is known, in February last year the Minister for the Armed Forces said that the first element of the MARS programme is expected by the end of the decade. The PPA website now says that the first MARS ship is expected to enter service early in the next decade. What are the operational consequences of these delays?[2]

  Admiral Sir Alan West: If I can answer it in a round-about way, part of the reasoning for this, you remember I mentioned maritime coherency work, and this was looking at the amounts of money available for all these various things and, in terms of the maritime, stretching this out to make it affordable over a period. That is why MARS has slipped. What is the impact of this? The bit of MARS that is required for CVF—that is not such a problem. Where my problem lies in the short-term is in the tanker gap. We have some very old tankers, and a number of those are single hulled. Rules come in, I think it is 2010—I will have to confirm that with you—where basically all tankers have to be double hulled. Our new ones, the Waves, both are double hulled. That does not apply until 2010. Government for military shipping, you do not have to abide—there is a let-out clause—but generally in the UK we do not like doing that sort of thing and there is a real issue that some countries might say, "I am sorry, I am not having you coming here", so there is an issue there, plus some of our Oilers are getting extremely old and therefore they are costing more and more to run and maintain, and we are actively looking at the moment at this tanker issue. Is there some way of us replacing the tankers in the shorter term, some of the tankers, to enable us to get round this problem? That has not been resolved yet and it is part of some of this maritime coherency work. The actual deep MARS part of it, this is the support for the CVFV, the afloat logistic support for expeditionary warfare, or that bit of it, all of that has been slipped, as you rightly say, as part of this maritime coherency work and those timescales are still acceptable on that basis.

  Q561  Mr Roy: Why is that timescale between the end of the decade and early in the next decade?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I do not think there is a final date on that yet. I do not think they have a final date. That is what is going on with this work at the moment. The other parts of it are the casualty replacement ship. At the moment we use Argusu with a fitting there. Again there is an issue over funding for that, and we might have to look at options of maybe running Argusu longer. Always when you run things, of course, your running costs get higher. That is always a problem. So there is that and that is being looked at as part of this work. No final decision has been made. The other thing is Diligence. We have just had a refit, not a refit but a lot of work done to her, but again we have to think about replacing her. I think the acronym for that is OMAR, which I am damned if I know what OMAR is. Anyway, basically Diligence is there to repair ships at sea and is invaluable.

  Q562  Mr Roy: Why do not you give things the proper name so we all know what we are talking about?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Someone invents these, I think. The basic repair ship was invaluable during Telic. We found it invaluable there, so we will need to replace that, and again there is no funding at the moment for that. This is all being looked at in terms of maritime coherency. That is why I think we need to speak to the industry and look at this building, because there is a lot of stuff that is needed there. If we string it out and get the money and as long as we are getting the right value for money and things to time and cost, if we can manage to get that right, we can have a good steady drum beat of work which I would have thought must be a good thing for everybody.

  Q563  Mr Roy: All things being equal?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Absolutely.

  Q564  Mr Hancock: Can I ask you about the future of the Royal Marines and how you see them fitting in? Does it annoy you, as the head of the Senior Service and very much the head of the Royal Marines as well, that they are sometimes seen as part of the Army more than they are of the Navy?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I think, again, we go back to this thing, the average man in the street, when they see someone in a camouflage suit, assumes he is a soldier, do they not? Actually, when one looks at Telic, the whole of the right flank was taken by the Royal Marines, who, having done that, stopped any pollution going into the Gulf and enabled the Americans then to strike into Iraq followed by the 7 Armoured Brigade, but, you know, the man in the street would have assumed that was all soldiers. So you are absolutely right about that perception. I think within defence that is not an issue. We all understand quite clearly about the Royal Marines, and they have this very specialist amphibious skill, and that is something that takes a lot of training and a lot of work. They are one of the R2 brigades—so they are ready for quick deployment—but it is that amphibious focus and skill that is so important, and they in that sense form the lead echelon to enable us to have assured access, to get theatre entry and then enable more of the Army to come moving on through. We have spent money on their shipping, and I think one of the great success stories over the last few years is replacing amphibious shipping, and the HMS Ocean is a super ship. I do not know whether you have managed to visit her. She is a wonderful platform. I would love to have two of them, as you would imagine. She is a wonderful platform, very capable and an amazing price. No-one else in the world could have got an LPH at that price. The two landing platform docks: Albion and Bulwark, Albion now fully at R2: she has done all her work-up exercises in north Norway, and off the Americas, an amazing command and control capability; her ISTAR set up there, her intelligence officers, they have really set up a network enabling capability for running major operations. Again, there are hiccups and problems getting it dragged out of build late and this sort of thing, but at the end of the day, for the amount we paid for it, it is amazing. It is an amazing ship. We should be very proud that was knocked up and Britain built and is there. The same sort of platform, the LPD17 in America, I think is almost twice as much, to give the flavour. So we have done well on the amphibious shipping. The Marines, we restructured them in Commando 21 to enable them to have a bit more punch within the group that they have got. We have given them, effectively, covered type protection with the Viking vehicles, which is a bit like FRES in a sense; it gives that sort of same capability. We have not really reduced their size. They are still at the same sort of size. The Fleet Protection Group do a wonderful job in terms of nuclear protection. We have focused a lot on that, because when I took over as Commander in Chief, before I did this job, I was concerned, when I became First I was even more concerned. We have now focused on that and they do a very good job there and I am much reassured. They are very good in terms of their embarkation of ships and boarding and this sort of thing. We see a very clear role for them. What of the future? It would be quite nice, possibly, to look at maybe enhancing to a square type brigade format. This will all depend on the future Army and how that all goes, but we very clearly need a separate organisation to be specialist at amphibious and littoral warfare, which is a very specialist thing. We have learnt from bitter experience in two world wars and elsewhere that if you do not have people who are specialist in it then you become unstuck.

  Q565  Mr Hancock: You are right about Ocean and the work on Albion. You have talked glowingly about them. The real issue for the future is the replacement of helicopters, and that surely is going to come. Do you see that as something that is going to be on the new horizon, the replacement of the Sea King and Lynx in a way in which it is going to enable them to become even more deployable, more usable?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: There is a lot of work going on at the moment looking across all of defence where we go with our helicopters, because quite a lot of them are getting quite old now, and that relates particularly to the support helicopter fleet but also to some of the lighter helicopters like Lynx. That work is going flat out at the moment to see where we go in the future, to see exactly what should be done. From my perspective in the Navy I am very pleased to have 42 Merlins. It is, without a doubt, the best ASW helicopter in the world. I have no doubt about that. It is due to have a CSP, which is a sort of update that is due to come along. That update has to be looked at as part of this total package for what we do with all our helicopters. There are issues over the air frame life for my Lynx helicopters, and in the Army case it is the same, and they need to look at where we are going to go on this. Are we going to replace this? How is that going to be done? All of that is part of the big package of work at the moment.

  Q566  Mr Hancock: Taking Rachel Squire's point about British capability, is there a replacement for those helicopters that you see readily available from within the UK or on the horizon from within the UK manufacturing base?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: It is almost too complex. I think the answer is, if you are saying, "Can Augusta Westland build them?", I think there are ones they can. It depends on what the final package is of what we want. There is no doubt that I would like all helicopters marinised, but that costs money, and I do not think we could afford that. For example, things like Chinooks, to go for something like a rotorfold and for us to be the only people in the world doing it, I think, is too great a risk. We cannot afford to take risks like that. All of these things will have to be part of the equation. I have to say, I do not know where that will go. I am sure that Augusta Westland and what they can produce will be a very key part of any decision-making, and, almost inevitably, there will be a political aspect to it as well as a military aspect, I am sure.

  Q567  Mr Hancock: Is there a real struggle within the Naval Corp to keep the Marines at their current size?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: No, I think what we have looked at is the right numbers to meet the commitment we think we have. In the old days when there was a naval target heading, that meant other things had to be adjusted to allow for that. Now that those do not exist, it is across all defence, I think it is not really a problem. In terms of recruiting I think there is an interest in terms of what you raise. I think, strangely at the moment, we are not recruiting as many Royal Marines as we would like to. I think that is because about 18 months ago we stopped all those massive adverts saying "99 point whatever% of you need not apply", or whatever it was, those ones, and when you stop ads it is amazing, that sort of advertising does actually get people in. So I do not think there is any more fundamental issue than that. I am sure we will get recruiting back up, and that number is the number we need to have, the brigade plus the Fleet Protection Group.

  Q568  Mike Gapes: Can I ask you some questions about personnel. You told this Committee eight months ago that, although the overall manning levels shortfall was not too worrying, there were some serious gaps. What progress have you made so far in filling those gaps?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: We are getting better in some areas, but there are still pinch points that are worrying. Sadly, one of the ways we have resolved some of them, for example, 909 maintainers are not half helped when we have three less ships, in other words six less 909s. That is not the way I always like to do it, but it does make a difference. The business of nuclear panel watch-keepers and people like that, the money that was thrown at the FRI for that has helped there because of the bonuses and extra money they get, but we still do have shortages. For example, leading OMs, LOMs, and things like that, there are shortfalls there. There are a number of areas where we got have problems. We are addressing them. We are working at them. Overall we are in an even better position than we were before in terms of manpower. We are well within our line. We have to lose, I think, about 1,250 by 2008. We will manage that. I think at the moment something like 37,500 people trained strength, the untrained strength takes us up to about 40, and we will be coming down to about 39, including the untrained strength, by 2008 with the reduction because our numbers tie exactly to, of course, platforms. We are very, very taut in the Navy in terms of numbers, and it relates directly. So if you pay off six destroyers or frigates, three MCMVs, three Northern Ireland patrol vessels, that line of numbers go out and that is how you end up with a smaller number.

  Q569  Mike Gapes: Is there a problem, however, if you get a new vessel in and it is available for a longer period of time, which means that people are away from home for a longer time and there are fewer surer jobs than there were because of civilianisation, the use of contractors, and so on, and so you are in a situation where the pressures upon the people that you have got are greater than they were in the past. Is that a problem?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: It is, but I think often it is more apparent than real. For example, in terms of squad manning, focusing people on a particular base, the various initiatives we have done—the Navy Board Personnel Initiative—we are helping to resolve a lot of those problems. Basically we are meeting our commitment for 660 over three; in other words no more than 660 days away over three years, which is quite a lot more than the Army and the Air Force, I have to say, but then historically we have been expeditionary and deployable. To make us expeditionary is not difficult because we have always been expeditionary, and that is the sort of figure work we work to. We do not break that. I think there was something like 5% that had done more than 220 in one year was the last figure I looked at last week; so we actually are managing that, and the business of squad manning, trying to get everyone into a certain naval base area to be there, enhancing their quality of life, treating people as individuals, waterfront manning offices where a sailor can walk up and say, "I am getting married in August next year. Is it possible to adjust my leave?" All of those things are beginning to pay off. That does not mean everyone is absolutely happy as Larry, but things like premature voluntary release figures are down for officers and down for ratings, and that is a very good way of gauging that things are working[3]. I would not want to be complacent—that would be very dangerous—because people are working hard. I quite like them working hard, but not too hard, and I think at the moment we have got the balance about right. Looking to the future with ships can that stay away longer, we might have to look at ways of operating more enhanced sort of batch type manning. For example, the Scott, which is a survey ship, I think, last year she spent something like 340 days away at sea, but, of course, she has got 60 in her ship's company of whom 45 are on board at any given time, and, as she goes through the year, people rotate and go home, and some of them rather like that, because they have a whack of time at home to do courses, have leave, and then come out to rejoin the ship and someone else goes home.

  Q570  Mike Gapes: Is there a case to move towards the American model of rotation of crews to keep the ship at sea for a longer period of time? We have actually had, in effect, a change of crew throughout that period?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: In a sense I think in Scott that happens. We have not got there yet with the more complex ships. Of course extra people cost money as well, so it is a very fine balance between how much you pay for the extra people to keep it out that long compared to the cost of the ship itself. Even in the old days, I remember in 1966 when I went to join my mine sweeper in Bahrain, it was me and the ship's company of 34 arrived, and we arrived on board and there were a couple of other officers, and the 35 who were there all said, "Tough luck, mate, we are off", and then climbed into an aeroplane and flew home. There was a drop in operational capability, I have to admit, while we tried to find our way around, and I do not think we will ever go back to that.

  Q571  Mike Gapes: You have mentioned network enabling capabilities, and so on. Are you confident that we have got the necessary people with skills to deal with that as it comes through, and have you identified the specific skills which we need?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: The answer is there are very specific skill sets. We are looking at restructuring within the Navy, having new branches. So, for example, rather than communicators, actually what are our communicators now that we are all working digitally on a sort of intranet, internet type things? You are actually data managers, and these people now are really data managers and they need special skill sets. There are shortages of these people, but we do get high quality people and our training is exceptionally good. As with other areas, when you train people very highly in these areas it is a concern, because people elsewhere are willing to pay more money, but I am glad to say very often for the people who join the Services money is not the sole driving factor or they would not join the Service, but it is always a balance. So the answer is, yes, there are shortages. I think more widely, and it is an interesting point, in the Ministry of Defence, for example, I think we have a shortage, for example, of financial staff and people with the skills for change management across MoD. I have noticed this because in the Navy we have been at the forefront of driving down overheads. We have "Fleet First" where we completely re-organise the Fleet headquarters. We are now pushing together Second Sea Lord and Fleet and making huge savings, but the financial staff with the qualities to be able to make this happen quickly, it is quite difficult to hold and train those. So your point about certain areas where we are short of the right quality of people is absolutely valid, and we have to keep a very close eye on that.

  Q572  Mike Gapes: You are talking about reducing the total amount of manpower from 37,500 to 36,000 by April 2008, if I have got the figure right?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I did say that. You have got it absolutely right, apart from the 128—36,128.

  Q573  Mike Gapes: Okay. Do you think that will require any compulsory redundancies?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: No, not in the Navy.

  Q574  Mike Gapes: Not at all?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: No.

  Q575  Mike Gapes: A couple of questions related to the question of pilots and air crew. Once the Sea Harrier has been withdrawn, I understand that there are not going to be any more fixed wing naval pilots?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Not at all. Absolutely not true, no. Basically, our people will go and man two of the squadrons of, as I say, GR7s, or, hopefully, they will be GR9s, two of the STOVL squadrons. There will be two which will be light blue heavy, and two which will be dark blue heavy. So 800 squadron I paid off earlier this year—and I went to their paying off day—in 2006, when 801 squadron pays off, they will form, as part of the Joint Force Harrier, with the new aircraft, the GR9s. These are primarily focused on land attack with a bigger engine, bigger wing and all those capabilities, and we will have, in fact, more fixed wing pilots than we used to have.

  Q576  Mike Gapes: Will these pilots not then be converting to fly RAF Harriers?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: There is complete cross-training between the two. We have RAF chaps flying from our carriers and we have our chaps— One of the first guys going into the western desert in Iraq was a Lieutenant Commander flying the GR7s with the RAF in the fighting during Telic. There is complete interchange between the two, and, I have to say I think the Joint Force Harrier has been a huge success story, it has worked really well, and the joy of this is that these aircraft will deploy on the carrier and it means that the Airforce and the Navy pilots will be able to get to where the action is, and that has to be good news.

  Q577  Mike Gapes: Do you foresee a time when you will actually have RAF officers in charge of flight deck operations on the new carriers?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: I would not rule out anything. I think it depends on skill sets and this sort of thing. I could envisage that the flight deck officer or the chap running the sights and landing aids and everything might well be. I think we are completely flexible on this. What I will say, however, is that we do need maritime aviation skills, and that is why we need dark blue officers involved in flying. We must not make the mistake that was made before the Second World War where we lost those aviation skills, which is why we were up a very steep climb throughout the Second World War with lots of losses involved to try and catch up with it, and I think everyone is aware of that, and I know the Chief of the Air Staff agrees with that; so we need that maritime capability. There is no reason at all why an RAF officer cannot command a  squadron and do this—these guys are interchangeable—and the youngsters are very excited about it. When I have gone up there they have been very excited.

  Q578  Mike Gapes: The Royal Navy will continue in recruiting fast track officers?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: Absolutely right.

  Q579  Mike Gapes: Can I ask about ground crews who service the Harriers? What is going to happen to them? Are they going to be absorbed into the RAF?

  Admiral Sir Alan West: No, exactly the same, exactly the same routine. They will be split. So two squadrons will be dark blue heavy and two will be light blue heavy and there will be a mix in the sort of OCU and that area. Indeed, at the moment, I have to say, we have been helped dramatically by the Air Force because they had an overbearing of numbers of maintenance staff and we had an under bearing, and what is the great joy of Joint Force Harrier is that we are able to move people across and do this. We are actually in the process of rationalising our air engineer training, cutting what used to be a rather large number of skills down into a smaller number. That is going on at the moment as well and about to be fully introduced.

2   Ev 168 Back

3   Note from witness: Although Premature Voluntary Retirement (PVR) figures have decreased for Officers, there was a small increase of less than half of one percent for ratings over the period between June 2002 and June 2004. Back

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