Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)


Rt Hon Adam Ingram MP, Lieutenant General Nick Houghton CBE and Dr Roger Hutton

  Q80  Chairman: Is it right that the explosive suppressant foam is being fitted only on to those aircraft that are being upgraded anyway?

  Mr Ingram: I do not know the answer to that in detail. If I can get that to you, I will give you that.[9] It will not go on to all the aircraft, that is for sure, and that is part of the original Down in the weeds assessment and it was not something which came on to my ministerial desk, this question, as far as I am aware. It was a judgment of: can it be delivered within a reasonable timeframe? Is it technically achievable in the way in which it has been required? Of course we are told that the Americans have done it and the Australians are doing it, but I do not know off the top of my head whether that is to do with a particular aircraft type, but these things are not just straightforward linear equations of, "There's a shortfall and here's how you fix it", because it may be the platforms themselves, it may be because of the age of the platforms and you may then have individual technical problems on individual aircraft, so there is not a standard fit and, therefore, that could put delay into the programme as well. However, we are on the case and we are trying to find the best solution and there is of course very heavy engagement by Lord Drayson who is keeping a very firm hand on the progress of all of this.

  Q81  Linda Gilroy: There is some perception that it is about cost and I wonder, therefore, if you are in a position to say something more about the time input that is required to fit the further defence states, the suppressant foam particularly, because I know in the past that one of the things I have learnt in having an association with procurement issues is just how very long and extensive some upgrades and refurbishments can take in terms of time. I have no idea what we are talking about and it would be very interesting to know just in a rough ballpark time term what we are talking about that would take the airframes out of use for a period.

  Mr Ingram: Obviously to get the fit, it would then have to be taken out of use. How quickly can we get them back? Meanwhile, if you then use the maintenance lines of marshalls who will do the job, this work may then impact upon other refits of that same platform and, therefore—

  Q82  Linda Gilroy: There are two bits to my question—

  Mr Ingram:— to get the balance between the regular and essential maintenance because aircraft would come out of the loop naturally and go into that repair loop, but if there is something sitting on that line getting a new fit for it, then that is delayed, so you then have two aircraft out of the loop or maybe, if it is a multiplicity of that, whatever the number is. In terms of the capacity of the industry to deliver, and that is where we are closely engaged with marshalls and they will be working very hard at it, but again we have to get best-negotiated price and relationships in all of this. I want to make this very clear to you, that we are on the case here, we have very close ministerial involvement through Lord Drayson in driving that programme through and when the answer comes back that it will take X amount of time, we will ask why and whether there is not a better way of doing all of this. We are negotiating the best answer in terms of those competing priorities of the new fit as against essential and regular maintenance.

  Q83  Mr Jones: The problem I have with this and especially the media attention on this is the fact that this is going to make this aircraft indestructible which, if you read some of the comments, is what is being put out there, so I have been listening very carefully to what you are saying. *** my reading of it is that if you have a major structural failure, *** you can have as much fire suppression, but it will still end up with the aircraft crashing. Secondly, we have now lost two Hercules, so what is being done now to replace those and is that creating any problems in terms of shortages?

  Mr Ingram: Well, no, or perhaps let me put this another way. It is possible that that is the case. However, all our fleet tend to have a number of extra aircraft and it is the crew that is a limiting factor, so you can only sustain a number of losses and others will then come into the cycle. It depends where they are in the repair cycle, and this is another point, that something may just be short of usability and it may well only be a matter of a few days short of usability, but it is not usable until it comes off that maintenance line and, therefore, it is down as a non-usable aircraft. It would be very unlikely that, with two coming out, it then means that the whole fleet is then completely destabilised, but again we will try and give you the best picture of that and the impact of those two losses and the fragility of that fleet overall.

  Q84  Chairman: Have you picked up in your conversations with the crews of Hercules aircraft any wish for improvement in the night vision goggles and any view amongst them that this would be comparatively quick, cheap, easy and with high payback?

  Mr Ingram: Honestly, no, I have not heard that. I cannot remember the last time I flew in a Hercules, but I have not had that comment made to me. In fact I was on one of the first flights going into Afghanistan where they were given night vision goggles and the story I tell was that they were saying, "All you are looking for are flares on the ground". All I could see were flares on the ground and it was very real, but then they said, "Those are fires. Those are not people firing at us", and I realised it was just as well that I was not in command of the aircraft. No, I have not picked up any worries about that. I am not saying there are not any, but just personally it has not been commented on.

  Q85  Robert Key: Minister, for more than a decade members of this Committee have been concerned about the use of soft-skinned Land Rovers and vehicles in very dangerous situations, cheap and cheerful options which have, by and large, done a good job, but we have moved on, and I know that the Army has moved on. I would like first of all to ask, when are the new Snatch 2 vehicles going to come on stream because that will make a difference?

  Lt General Houghton: All those vehicles which are deployed to Iraq are of the enhanced Snatch variety. Therefore, they do have enhanced protection, but—

  Q86  Chairman: They are still the Snatch 1s.

  Lt General Houghton: I will have to go back and check that.

  Q87  Chairman: Well, they were there. We saw them.

  Lt General Houghton: ***

  Q88  Robert Key: I know that the Panther command and liaison vehicle is due for an in-service date of 2007. Something that really concerns me is that we have constant criticism of the Royal Military Police and yet, when it comes to battle, they are right at the front. They are always forward and they are marking routes for armoured vehicles, so they are fine behind them in their armoured vehicles, but out in the front there it is the Royal Military Police. Then in the peacekeeping role, as we now see, the Royal Military Police are also there and they have taken, I think, more casualties than any other unit out in Iraq at the moment and they still are in their soft-skinned Land Rovers in very, very dangerous circumstances. Can you tell us whether the new Panther CLV is actually going to be rolled out to the Royal Military Police because there was a time, and in fact it was post-1991/92, when it was recommended that the RMP be scaled for the future command and liaison vehicle and the deficiency was noted on the land critical equipment deficiency list and that was as recently as 2001, since then it has all gone very quiet and they do not know whether or not they are going to get the new vehicle. Can you help?

  Lt General Houghton: You are asking me a technical problem about a fielding of equipment to the Army, into the field Army and its priority, and off the top of my head I could not tell you. We can certainly go away and research what the fielding plan is. I do not know that the RMP are being offered a priority or early in the fielding or are planned for it.[10]

  Q89  Robert Key: But the British Army website told me on the 18th of this month, just last week, that the Household Cavalry and the Royal Armoured Corps would get them and so would the Royal Air Force regiment, but no mention of the RMP.

  Mr Ingram: The point is made and we will find the answer.

  Robert Key: Thank you. I am very grateful.

  Q90  Mr Havard: At one level there is a concern about the Snatch Land Rovers in the sense that we were told that certain people were not confident to travel in them. The Iraqi Special Forces, for example, would refuse to go in them because they saw them as a vulnerable vehicle that was now known to be vulnerable and, therefore, it was exceptionally targeted as a consequence of being seen to be vulnerable, and I think that the concern is around that. Now, I did not get any of that from our personnel, but this is what we were told. I understand that it is very difficult to armour this thing. It is a Land Rover at the end of the day and it is already seven and a half tonnes and it is straining the chassis and all the rest of it and it is not going to last, so there is a reliability problem, they are breaking down, and we saw them being towed in convoys and the heat does not help. There is a problem here and all I am doing is identifying the problem rather than helping with a solution, but I think that this was the level of concern in terms of what can be said to address that. *** which had made an enormous difference to their confidence then in travelling in Snatch Land Rovers.

  Mr Ingram: The Snatch, and we will find out whether there is still Snatch 1 there in theatre, but it has a particular utility. It is a question which I would ask, and I know it is asked by our military people as well, whether there is something off the shelf which could replace it, and the answer is no to that, which would give the all-round protection that we would seek with the same utility and manoeuvrability. Again it goes back to this point that there is a balance of risk in all of this which has to be taken. Leaving aside the vulnerability, and I understand the point that is made about that, but a balance of risk has to be taken here and again, since there is nothing else that can have that utility with all armoury which would be required, then we have to continue to do that to deliver on the key parts of the mission that we are seeking to deliver on. Meanwhile, we are up-armouring the FV430 and we are purchasing new armoured equipment which is scheduled and planned to go to Afghanistan because that is where we believe it has best utility. The point I am making here is that we are very conscious of where the threats are coming from, but we do not necessarily have every capacity to deal with those threats, and this is one of those issues which would probably be blanked out in the evidence session, that we have vulnerabilities. The Americans have vulnerabilities. Every armed force has a vulnerability or vulnerabilities.

  Q91  Mr Holloway: Frankly, I think you are in a completely impossible position with Snatch vehicles. One of the things that was pointed out to us was *** It was just a thought that one major raised as to whether it would be possible to have a group of people at the gate and every time these vehicles would go out, they would get experts, technicians, to check that the guys had set them properly?

  Lt General Houghton: I do not know what is actively being done at the moment on that specific initiative of a sort of guardian at the gate. ***

  Mr Holloway: ***

  Q92  Chairman: Although that would have its own drawbacks itself because it would take individual responsibility away from the soldiers whose job it is to make sure they are running the equipment properly.

  Lt General Houghton: The field Army is charged with producing the optimum training regime and monitoring regime for these things. I am always happy to carry back any initiative, but there will be pros and cons.

  Robert Key: Minister, there have been reports that doctors are saying there will be deaths from high temperatures in Warriors and other armoured vehicles if air conditioning is not installed swiftly now. Is there any prospect of such air conditioning being installed in those vehicles? I was not in Iraq with my colleagues, but they have experienced it and I think Linda Gilroy may have something to add.

  Q93  Linda Gilroy: It was hot!

  Mr Ingram: Yes, I have heard about it, but remember, our soldiers get a lot of pre-conditioning so that they are acclimatised to that, but that of itself does not mean to say that they can cope effectively with the heat extremes. As I understand it, the specific answer to your question is no, but what they are looking at are particular coolant packs that soldiers can wear around their body armour, but we do get to the point of how much more encumbrance can we put on them in that sense, but we are very conscious of this. The temperatures have not got worse over the last three years, this is a repeat mechanism, but heat exhaustion is a real debilitation and we have got a lot of people who suffer from it both in and out of vehicles. Again I would make this commitment, that if there is a solution, it will be found because we recognise the importance of that, and it can be done under UORs, but again if you are going to do it, and I do not know the technical aspect of this and why it is not going to be integrated into the vehicles, but probably because it is maybe technically difficult. It may just be to do with that.

  Robert Key: I think it is probably of air, not ice. I have been in Warriors in hot countries and if only there was a proper fan, even if the air was moving faster, but not a chance.

  Q94  Chairman: When they take the covers off and air floods in at 50 degrees centigrade and you think, "Thank God! That's cool!", then it suggests that the temperature inside the Warrior has become really quite high.

  Mr Ingram: It sounds as if they have given you a really hard time on your visit.

  Q95  Mr Havard: The question of the vehicles is one thing, but there is then the question of what I would, as a layman, describe as "decompression" so that you are in these very hot environments and then how can you recover? There is a recovery period before you go back into them again. I was talking to the doctors about that so that they have an alleviation so that they can cool their body temperature down and this sort of thing, and I accept that there are complications with keeping acclimatised, but nevertheless it is that alleviation period. We saw some really difficult situations in the Palace in Basra where then the domestic air conditioning was not working, so, having been out in the heat, they then come back to the heat and they are never out of the heat. That was not because of the military, but apparently this is done by contractors and so on, so there was concern that they were not given that alleviation period because other people were providing the air conditioning facilities in which they could recover before they go out and do their next shift or whatever. I think that was the area of concern that I had, that they do not get a break from it so that they can recover and go back into it.

  Mr Ingram: I do not know all the factors to that, but I do know that the commanders or the COs or whatever, they are very conscious of what is required by personnel and I do not think the whole bag is that someone is letting the boys down basically. If a contractor has failed, I am sure someone will be on the case to say, "We won't repeat that".

  Q96  Mr Havard: There was also a difficult situation obviously with the cooks and the kitchens. It is how the individuals are managed for the periods of time in which they are in the extreme conditions and unable to recover from these extreme conditions.

  Mr Ingram: I do not know how the cooks survive in those kitchens doing what they are doing and when the demand is for chips. It is not for salads, but it is more hot food.

  Q97  Linda Gilroy: On the positive side, and I think it was at the hospital, we did have a briefing on the heat management issues which showed that they had managed to get a better direction of trend in terms of people suffering from heat exhaustion. On the other hand, I did wonder at Basra Palace, and I was very concerned, because that relief from 50 degrees centigrade carrying these enormously heavy body armour things, because they are, and the more it is right to be concerned about the balance there between protection and what that can do in terms of heat exhaustion. These guys were getting, if they were lucky, two to three hours sleep because there was no air conditioning and, I have to say, it had been going on far longer than it should have been. I am not going to put on record how long, but what I would ask the Minister to do is to look at how contracts like that are reviewed and managed, particularly for air conditioning equipment, because there are definite health issues, in my view, there.

  Mr Ingram: Well, I have said we will do that. The Secretary of State is visiting Basra and in fact he may even be there now. I am sure that, if you have been given that message, someone will give him the same message.

  Q98  Linda Gilroy: It was not easy to get the message. One of the things that I admired in the guys out there was that they did not whinge easily and it was actually like drawing teeth to get some of the information from them and that was one bit of information.

  Mr Ingram: That is actually a reflection of the quality of our people, but it is also, I think, a reflection of the quality of the kit that they have, and that was not the case four or five years ago in terms of early deployments because I would have been getting it more in stereo about the failure of the kit and about the inadequacy of the accommodation, but we do not get those complaints now.

  Linda Gilroy: Can I, on the positive side, Chairman, say that where we were staying at Basra air station, several people said to us that they had never had better accommodation.

  Q99  Chairman: And the good comments we were getting about all sorts of things about the food and about the quality of leadership that people had out there were themselves very encouraging. Minister, you said that, if there is a solution to this air conditioning problem in the Warrior, then you would look at it immediately. It is one of the trials of the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee that one gets proposals for procurement most days and I will hand to you one that involves fuel cells, which I understand is a commercially off-the-shelf available solution which could bring the temperature in Warriors down to 21 degrees centigrade. That is my understanding and I will pass it to you for what it is worth and I hope you will consider it in the normal way.

  Mr Ingram: At a reasonable price, one would hope.

9   See Ev 21 Back

10   See Ev 21 Back

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