Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


11 JULY 2006

  Q40  Mr Havard: So it is an additional resource. They are not being drawn as in out of 800 people you have got to find 100 of them to do that?

  Des Browne: I announced yesterday that I was deploying additional staff both to Helmand and to the Regional Army Headquarters to do this.

  Q41  Mr Havard: If you can give us some information on that it would be helpful.

  Des Browne: I will endeavour to give you specific information on that.[3]

  Chairman: One final question on this before we move on to vehicles, Adam Holloway.

  Q42  Mr Holloway: Your commanders and diplomats again complained that it is pretty unhelpful when they are trying to generate goodwill in a province to find American units or other departments and agencies operating. For example, last week there was a bombing of a compound in a village that the British were trying to win over where a number of civilians were killed. Is this helpful, and what can you do to stop the Americans doing their own thing in what should be our back yard?

  Des Browne: I think the answer to that is that the commanders on the ground and through the command control structures need to work as closely together so that their activities are consistent and supportive of each other. I am not in a position to express any views specifically in relation to the conversation that you had, and I do not know the detail of that particular concern, but it is undoubtedly the case that we are looking forward to being able to move to stage four for the very reason that we will then have that synergy and that control through NATO of all of Afghanistan.

  Q43  Mr Holloway: So you are saying that in stage four the Americans will not still reserve the right to go themselves for high value targets straight out of CENTCOM and not through you?

  Des Browne: No, I am not saying that; I am suggesting that that will improve our ability to be able to do that.

  Chairman: Vehicles—Mike Hancock.

  Q44  Mr Hancock: Secretary of State, you promised an urgent review of the use of Snatch Land Rovers. What are the terms of reference that you set out for that review? When is it expected to be completed and when will you be prepared to announce the findings? As a supplementary to that, in response to a point put to you on June 12 you said, "It is open to commanders to deploy vehicles that have heavier protection than the Snatch Land Rover. Other vehicles are available to them; there is a choice." Do you still stand by that statement that in the deployments we have where our troops are in harm's way, seriously, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, that commanders really do have a serious choice here?

  Des Browne: Yes, I do stand by the fact that commanders have a choice. Commanders have a choice of whether they travel on the ground at all in the first place in certain circumstances and in some cases the commanders' choice will be to send out forces walking in relation to the particular task that they have charged them with, and these decisions need to be made by commander. I said that because the decision as to how to deploy troops, whether in a particular vehicle, whether by air or whether by walking is a matter of assessment by the commanders against circumstances where force protection in terms of travel is only part of the nature of the vehicle and quite substantially about tactics, about intelligence and about related issues, which are within the knowledge of the commanders to make those decisions. Turning to the particular review that I have requested, that is ongoing. I have accepted in the House and repeat today that the development of improvised explosive devices has generated a set of circumstances where, in my view, we need to look at whether there is a need for something between, in Iraq, Snatch Land Rovers as a form of land transport and the Warrior, and I have accepted in principle that there is a need to look at that to see if we can identify resources that can be procured and deployed in the timescale that would provide that level of protection while we wait for other armoured options becoming available such as, for Afghanistan, the Vector, which will enter service in 2007; and the fact, of course, that we have already upgraded the Armor and the Warrior and the Saxon and the CVR(T) and that we are upgrading FV430 vehicles. That essentially is what I have asked our officials to do, to review the availability of such resource to be procured and an appropriate timescale to do that, and I am awaiting a response to that imminently. I am not in a position to say, just now, when I will be able to report that, but I will keep the Committee and indeed the House of Commons updated on any developments.

  Q45  Chairman: You say imminently?

  Des Browne: Yes.

  Mr Hancock: I think it is better that we do not pursue that in the interests of what you said earlier.

  Chairman: Kevan Jones.

  Q46  Mr Jones: The next issue, Secretary of State, is in terms of FRES. What progress is being made on FRES and when will the first variant of FRES actually enter service?

  Mr Gould: We cannot give a date for FRES entering service because we have not actually started the main procurement programme for FRES, and one of the things that we have learnt over the years to our cost is not to make predictions when we do not actually understand why we are making the predictions. FRES, however, in those timescales will not contribute to the immediate problem that we face in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the things that the Secretary of State has talked about are the things that can be done quickly to overcome that. The FRES programme is currently undergoing a series of technology-demonstrator programmes to try and work out where the correct trade-off lies between time and capability and cost and what can be done with technology that is relatively mature now but not completely mature; so it cannot contribute to the immediate problem but it could contribute to solving problems in four or five years' time. But until we really understand those technology trade-offs it would be foolish to give a firm date for the first variants entering into service. We are now looking at the trade-offs really between time and the maturation of technology, which can give an answer to this problem of how do you get the level of protection that you currently get through a very heavy vehicle, like Warrior, into something which is easier to deploy and lighter, and that is a very hard task to do. But we do hope to come forward with proposals for our approvals process pretty soon now.

  Q47  Mr Jones: Mr Gould, I am surprised you have actually got to the level you have in the MoD for the honesty of your reply because every time I have actually asked this question I have had various dates, and I finally wheedled out a date from General Jackson. Everyone who has come before this Committee has said it was 2009 and General Jackson then said 2010 and now you are saying exactly what we all thought a long, long time ago, that there was never going to be any in-service date. So can I thank you very much for your honesty? I am not sure I can say it will do you much good in the MoD. Can I ask in terms of what you said—and I accept that this is a vehicle which is through a concept phase in actually trying to find out FRES is going to be—where does that leave us with the question of replacing some of the very old kit that we have, things like Saxon and others which, if you cannot give us a date, are going to be coming to the end of their life possibly before FRES is going to come into being. I have to say that getting FRES right is important, but also making sure of old equipment, which is old technology and vulnerable for our men and women in the Armed Forces, is also an added pressure on you as well.

  Mr Gould: The combination of things that the Secretary of State has already referred to can help with that. Some old equipment actually performs extremely well and the upgrading that is going on of the FV430 at the moment will contribute directly to improving the position in Iraq certainly, and quite quickly. There are other things that are in the inventory which can be deployed and built on; there is the Viking vehicle that the Royal Marines use, which is a very capable vehicle—not again in the class of a Warrior or something like that, but it is still very capable. We have the Vector programme, which the Secretary of State referred to, which will actually provide not a great deal more in terms of protection than Snatch but much more mobility and load carrying, so very, very suitable for the kind of terrain we meet in Afghanistan. But I come back to my point that there is no perfect answer to FRES. There is no single solution to FRES, in my view—there will not just be one vehicle, there will be, hopefully, a fairly short family of vehicles—but a number of things to meet the capability, and one has to make the trade-off between time and capability because putting immature technology into something does not actually help the problem, and going for a quick solution which then does not prevent the long-term problem is not an answer either. So I do not want to have another Saxon on my hands, is the short answer to that.

  Q48  Mr Jones: I accept that, but clearly this is going to keep MoD civil servants in work for many years and obviously that is going to be welcomed by the people down at Abbey Wood, but this is not going to help our men and women who we are asking to go into very dangerous situations with old kit. I accept what you say about some old kit being serviceable, but is it not the case—because this has been said before this Committee before—that we may have to buy a stop-gap to fill in some of this capability gap, because clearly in terms of Snatch Land Rovers the Secretary of State says it needs reviewing, with which I agree, but also as this kit becomes older we are going to have a capability gap because if we are still sat here in 2025 and our friends in Abbey Wood are still looking at their naval about what FRES should be then that is not going to help people going around in very, very old vehicles.

  Mr Gould: If I may say so, Mr Jones, our friends in Abbey Wood are more anxious than anybody to get the answer to this right and get it done as quickly as can sensibly be done. But we do need to get the answer right. In the meantime there are a range of things that can be done; there are a range of vehicles coming into the Army, there is the Panther vehicle coming into the Army, hopefully starting out fairly soon next year. There is the range of vehicles that the Secretary of State referred to and there are a range of upgrades that can be done to the current in-service vehicles. Do we have to have an interim? Yes, we do have to look at the trade-off between time and capability. If the answer is that we need to do something early then we have to be realistic about the capability increment that the early answer will give you, but we need to understand and be prepared to make that trade-off.

  Q49  Mr Jones: Are things like the Panther a capability which would be deployable in Afghanistan and Iraq?

  Mr Gould: It is a command liaison vehicle; it is mobility on the battlefield. It will not answer all the problems we referred to earlier and it is probably not the answer to the particular patrol vehicle problem—it certainly is not the answer to that in the short-term; it is not the role of the vehicle to do that.

  Chairman: We will now move off Afghanistan, Iraq and vehicles on to the Trident issue. David Crausby.

  Q50  Mr Crausby: On the question of replacing Trident the Prime Minister told the House that there would be a decision by the end of the year, and yet your department under the previous Secretary of State declined to engage with our first inquiry into the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent on the basis that he had nothing more to say at that time. Considering that the decision will be made by the end of the year, has that moved on? Is there anything more to say? And can you give us a clearer idea of exactly where the decision-making process is?

  Des Browne: Can I just first of all welcome the Committee's recent report about the future of the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent? I think it has made a contribution to the debate in informing people of the significant number of the issues and I understand that the Committee will be moving on to look at other aspects of this, and I look forward to working with the Committee and offering cooperation to enable the Committee to do that as part of the process of generating a level of knowledge in the public to enable the debate to take place. Can I just say one point—and I want to make this point at the outset—that it does seem to me that the constant commentary that every time a minister mentions this issue that they are closing down debate is unhelpful. There needs to be, in my view, a public debate on this issue. Your report will assess that and that public debate needs to take place in as open and transparent a way as possible. But it certainly cannot take place if the only people who are not allowed to express an opinion are government ministers, and if a government minister seeks to express, as the Chancellor did, his personal view, then it is unhelpful to the encouragement of debate for commentators to say, "In that event there is not going to be any debate." It is going to be a very odd debate in public if the government are the only people who are not allowed a view. Secondly, can I say to you that while commending you on the report I actually regret the criticisms that are in the report of my predecessor and of the Department's engagement with the Committee for the following reasons, and I will just explain them to you very quickly? The timing of the inquiry, of course, was a matter entirely for the Committee and that was exactly within the province of the Committee to decide when they were going to do that, but they did that at a stage when the analysis that officials were carrying out to inform government and to further inform the debate was at a very immature stage. That was the fact, and in fact none of that work of analysis had come to ministers in the Department, and it would have been very strange if the government had permitted those officials to come before the Committee to give evidence and be questioned when in fact the analysis had not come to ministers. But I have, in preparation for this appearance before your Committee, read the evidence of John Reid before your Committee on 1 November 2005 and it did not seem to me that he was reluctant to offer detailed thoughts in response to the questions that were asked of him then on this issue, and was quite expansive in what he said to the Committee, and I think it bears re-reading if the Committee thinks that John Reid was not prepared to engage and discuss to the extent that he was able to on the issues. He also set out the background, as I understand it, in a memorandum that was published in January.[4] So to the extent that the Department, the government was able to engage with your inquiry it did so and, consequently, with a mild hint of regret I regret that that was not recognised in the report; but it does not devalue the importance of the report or its ability to be able to identify a number of issues. The position is still that we are aiming for the end of this year. By the way, in relation to the report I have asked our officials to prepare for me a draft response in time to be able to publish that before the recess.

  Q51 Chairman: That is very helpful.

  Des Browne: And I hope that we will be able to do that. I have to say that the draft which I have seen is in an advanced stage and I am confident we will be able to publish our response to your report before the recess—not just for the Committee but for others who take a keen interest in these matters. It remains the case that the government has not yet taken a decision either in principle or in detail on whether to replace Trident. Decisions will be made by the end of this year, after which the government will publish a White Paper. I know and I clearly understand the Committee's desire and wish would have been for that paper to have been Green, but in my view there is a responsibility on the government to take a collective view in terms of this debate and to put that view into the public domain, and it would be entirely appropriate to do that in a White Paper. In the meantime, further work by officials is underway to assess the risks, the threats, the options and the costs to inform that decision which will be put into the public domain to inform the debate in the context of a White Paper. I hope that answers the questions that you have asked, Mr Crausby.

  Q52  Mr Crausby: I think it is important that we move on and I think it is welcome that you tell us that you intend to cooperate with future inquiries. If you have some concerns about our comments in the report you should have seen the draft report initially! We did tone it down to some extent and I thought in the end that it was a reasonably balanced comment in the circumstances; but I accept that we should move on, particularly with the second stage of the report which we consider should deal with manufacturing and skills, and work which must clearly have been done by now at both Aldermaston and Barrow as to the prospects of the capability of being able to produce what is necessary and in the protection of the skills base. So can we be assured that you will cooperate particularly on the question of skills and manufacturing?

  Des Browne: What I have said to the Committee I do not demur from. To the extent that we are able to facilitate the Committee in these further tasks that it has set itself then you will find that the MoD will be cooperative. For example, I understand that the Committee may wish to visit some of these establishments and, as far as I am concerned, you will be free to do so and we will facilitate those visits.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Q53  Mr Crausby: Can I say that I think it is absolutely right that Cabinet Ministers should express a view—I think that is plainly correct—and the Chancellor, in my opinion, is perfectly entitled to his. I could not personally see what he said that was particularly new. It is clear that it is Labour Party policy to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent but I think that what the public really want to get engaged in is the shape and the size of that deterrent. That is the debate that most of us want to involve in and I think that this Committee can do an important job in that, and that is why it seems to me that a Green Paper would have been so much better than a White Paper if we are going to have a real debate rather than a fait accompli.

  Des Browne: I have made my position clear in relation to this and that is entirely consistent with the government's position and I do not think there will be anybody in this Committee or anybody listening to my evidence that will have understood the position to be otherwise. It is the government's intention to deal with the issues of principle and the nature of the consequences of that and any further development in the one document, and that would need to be a White Paper.

  Q54  Mr Hamilton: Could I ask a question in relation to that? At the very beginning you indicated that the public debate needs to take place in openness and transparency. I assume from that that you would support a vote at the end of this open and transparent debate?

  Des Browne: I do not necessarily think that the one follows the other, I have to say. I think from where I am at the moment, with the preliminary work in relation to the aspects of this very important decision ongoing and the analysis not yet complete, while sitting here I could speculate—but that would be speculation—as to the nature of the decisions that would need to be made. I think we need to wait to see what is the nature of those decisions, to see whether there is the necessity of a vote in Parliament. I consistently say, as do my colleagues in government, that there needs to be an open debate, and it seems to me that that debate is already going on, and it is entirely healthy that it should be going on and a significant amount of the information that needs to be known to the public in terms of the issues of principle is already known to the public, but I will endeavour to ensure that everybody who needs to take part in that debate gets the information that I can provide to them to allow them to do so, to make these very important decisions.

  Q55  Chairman: But Secretary of State, do you really think that a decision of such importance and size could be taken without a vote in the House of Commons?

  Des Browne: My position, Mr Chairman, will just be exactly the same as it was to Mr Hamilton at this stage; I am not yet in a position to be able to identify what those decisions will be, and until I know the nature of those decisions then I will not express any opinion as to whether or not there will need to be a vote in Parliament.

  Chairman: There are some questions I would like to ask you about the Defence Industrial Strategy, but before I get on to that I would like to go on to the issue of the Joint Strike Fighter and technology transfer. David Borrow.

  Q56  Mr Borrow: Minister, the Committee went to the United States in May and one of the issues that we discussed was the issue of technology transfer in relation to the JSF and we were reassured by the Deputy US Defence Secretary that discussions were at an advanced stage and he was optimistic that there would be an agreement that would be satisfactory both to the UK and to the US. Where are we up to now in relation to those discussions?

  Des Browne: Can I just say that the new aircraft carriers and the aircraft that we will deploy will represent a significant step in relation to our ability to be able to deliver a force package to the specific requirements of each mission from land and from sea, and consequently the Joint Strike Fighter is an important element of that. Much has been made of the technology transfer issue. We in the UK require operational sovereignty of the aircraft and we have made that clear to the United States, that we will not be able to buy the Joint Strike Fighter without the necessary transfer of technology and the information to give, as I say, operational sovereignty. Whenever we source equipment it is crucial that we are able to operate and maintain that equipment and the transfer of this information is important to that. We are presently continuing to work closely with the United States. As you have advised us, your own Committee here, what progress was being made when you visited the United States we are presently optimistic that these discussions will be successful, but I am not in a position here publicly to put a time limit on when they will be successful, but we are confident that they will be successful.

  Q57  Mr Borrow: Certainly Lord Drayson has been very robust in his discussions with the Committee on this issue and the one thing we have not really been able to explore is that if we are not able to reach satisfactory agreement in line with the comments of both yourself and Lord Drayson in the past, is there a plan B and, if so, what is the plan B?

  Des Browne: Can I just say to the Committee with some confidence that we are not anticipating we will not be able to resolve this. We have made it clear to the United States, who are of course our ally, that we will not be able to buy these fighters without the necessary transfer of technology and information to give us the operational sovereignty that we need. It may be that Mr Gould would want to add to that?

  Mr Gould: No, we made it quite clear to the US both at a high level and at a very detailed level what we mean by operational sovereignty, and this is not industrial sovereignty, this is our ability to operate the aircraft safely for our pilots and aircrew; to maintain, repair and upgrade and to integrate into the UK operating environment some of the systems of communications so that the enhancements you have to do for each operational deployment and each mission plan can be done, as we would for other aircraft in the Royal Air Force and in the Royal Navy, and we are very encouraged both at the general level—the Prime Minister and the US President, the US President made it quite clear he wants this to happen—and that the confidential talks that have been going on between ourselves between the DoD and the Joint Project Office are encouraging. The Secretary of State said that we cannot give a date right now but we will need to resolve this before we move to the next stage of the programme.

  Q58  Mr Borrow: Is there agreement between the MoD and the main company in the UK involved in this project on the technologies that need to be transferred?

  Mr Gould: To fulfil the operational sovereignty role?

  Q59  Mr Borrow: Yes.

  Mr Gould: Yes, at a detailed level there is that agreement.

3   Note: See Ev 22 Back

4   Defence Committee, Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Defence, The Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent, Session 2005-06, HC 835. Back

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