The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 259-301)

Air Chief Marshal (rtd) Lord Stirrup GCB, AFC

18 May 2011

Q259 Chair: Lord Stirrup, welcome back. You gave evidence to us in private about the events in Afghanistan and we were grateful to you for that. Thank you now for coming to give evidence on the Strategic Defence and Security Review. You are becoming a frequent visitor and you are welcome. What do you think of the National Security Council and how could its work be improved?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The NSC was a very helpful and timely innovation, not so much because of the people who were sitting around the Cabinet table discussing national security issues, because that happened before under previous Administrations, but because of the structure that it was given and in particular because of the appointment of a National Security Adviser. Again that is not because the National Security Adviser should be somebody who is whispering all the national security advice into the Prime Minister's ear, but because he is, certainly in the person of Sir Peter Ricketts, a person of sufficient expertise, experience and gravitas to be able to corral the issues, put the business together in an effective way and, importantly, corral the Permanent Secretaries of the various Departments across Whitehall, get them involved in the production of the business, present it to the NSC and follow through on the discussions to deliver outcomes.

  The machinery that was set in place as part of the NSC support structure was very important, but so were the personalities. We have had secretariats before for various Cabinet Sub-Committees, but in this case we had somebody running the business, as it were, who had the clout and the experience around Whitehall to get things done in an efficient way. That was a major step forward. You asked what could be done to improve it. Of course, I now speak on the basis of experience that is six months old, so I do not have any direct knowledge of where it has been in the interim. I think that my perception at the time I finished as Chief of the Defence Staff was that the NSC was still on a learning curve, as was to be expected. There was more learning that needed to be done about specific unstable areas of the world, in order for subsequent discussions to be truly productive. I hope that has happened in the interim.

Q260 Chair: Learning curve. There was a Ministry of Defence document that suggested that the complexity of defence issues inevitably meant that the NSC took some time to become familiar with them, and to begin to address the most pressing problems. Was there a sense that defence was not fully understood by the NSC?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Not so much defence, but the complex nature of the security challenges that faced the UK. The NSC spent a great deal of time in the early days focusing on Afghanistan—I would say quite rightly—and on gathering evidence from a variety of people and on developing its thoughts and understanding of the challenges of Afghanistan. That did not leave much time for other parts of the world, but of course one has to prioritise. An area that we then needed to turn to—and had done only partially by the end of my time—was Pakistan. That is a hugely complex issue and a very difficult area, but of great importance to our national security in the UK. There are many others besides.

  The NSC got to grips with the issues as quickly as it could, and prioritised them rightly. However, they are so many and so complex that it was inevitably going to take time.

Q261 Mr Havard: To follow that up, in the early stages of the preparation of the Security Strategy and the Defence and Security Review, which came out separately, do you think there was a sufficient foreign policy baseline for both of those things, for you in the military at the time, to develop the military strategy that came from them?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: There most certainly was a clear foreign policy baseline, which was developed with inputs from other Departments by the Foreign Office, and was set out by the Foreign Secretary. The problem that people have is that you can talk about a foreign policy baseline in terms of your aspirations for Britain in the world and in terms of different regions and countries, but that does not tell you much about what might happen in those and other regions that are unexpected. Equally, it does not tell you about how much and what kind of effort you should invest in different areas. Those are extremely difficult choices. My experience is that people are always looking in these exercises for some kind of magic algorithm, a formula that will allow them to put some numbers in at one end, turn the handle and out will come the answer. It doesn't work like that; the world is far too complex and unpredictable. We got foreign policy guidance, but did it constrain your options in the defence review, so that the answers fell out neatly? No, but it was never going to.

Q262 Mr Havard: What was your involvement in the development of the National Security Strategy? A security strategy is broader than simply defence. What was your involvement in the process?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I sat, along with the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence and representatives of other Departments across Whitehall, on the NSS and Defence Review Steering Group, which was chaired by the National Security Adviser, and that met on a weekly basis. That oversaw, at the steering group level, the preparation of business for both the NSS and the defence strategy to go to the NSC, so I was a member of that. Clearly, the work that was being prepared for that group was discussed internally within the Ministry of Defence as well. We saw drafts of various bits of the NSS so that we could see how they connected to our particular part of the business and what might flow from that in terms of a defence strategy.

Q263 Mr Havard: So you were involved with the prioritisation of the risk, because out of it comes this prioritisation table, which, in a sense, might also suggest what you might need to carry out the priority tasks. Were you involved in that prioritisation?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I was involved in discussions within the steering group on what the prioritisation should be. Of course, it was not an easy discussion because, although some things were obvious, some views differed quite widely. I was in attendance at the NSC when it took the decisions on that prioritisation.

Q264 Mr Havard: Given all that, and the situation that has arisen since the review was published, what is your assessment now of the strategy and the structure's ability to cope with the combination of different risks, given that the Libya exercise now is presumably the medium, sustainable activity that was in the description of defence planning. What is your assessment of the ability to deal with these slightly unforeseen and perhaps foreseen combination risks?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The first thing to say is that a key choice that was made early on by the NSC was what should be the broad approach to our National Security Strategy and our defence. Should it be about homeland security? Should it be about trying to prevent crises by dealing with them upstream—capacity building and all the rest of it? Should we focus at one end of the spectrum? Should we focus at the other? The conclusion, as you know, was that we should do neither of those, but that we should be somewhere in the middle and adopt what was called a balanced posture. Some people would see that as trying to have it all ways, or failing to make bold and courageous decisions, but events since the SDSR have just underlined the point that was made frequently in discussions and that was reflected in the NSS, which is that things always come along that surprise us, and we have to be able to react to those things that we did not or could not foresee. It does not mean being able to do everything and deal with everything, because, quite patently, that is not possible, but it does mean retaining a balanced posture so that we can adapt sufficiently quickly and be agile enough to deal with those unforeseen events.

Q265 Mr Donaldson: The NSS mentions conflict prevention as one of the key objectives. In light of the SDSR, where do you see that fitting in now with the reduced Armed Forces? Have we got the capacity to engage in conflict prevention?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: That capacity is strictly limited at the moment. We had an interesting debate about conflict prevention, because people would say, "Wouldn't it be better—and, by the way, cheaper—to focus all your efforts on prevention rather than on cure?" That is rather like saying, "Shouldn't we put all the money that goes into the national health service into public health and prevention of disease?" Well, of course prevention of disease is extremely important, but people are still going to get sick and people are still going to die, so you are still going to need hospitals and doctors. Our argument was, of course, that you can build a greater degree of stability, hopefully, if you can contribute to conflict prevention, but conflict prevention does not mean that you will prevent all conflicts. They will still occur and you will have to deal with them. What is important is that the Armed Forces—the military—are there predominantly to deal with the consequences if things break down and armed conflict results. So, that should remain the focus of Armed Forces, but of course, where possible, you should use them upstream as much as possible so that the number of breakdowns is fewer. But you need that capacity, and when your capacity is heavily tied up in cases such as Afghanistan and Libya, it is not available elsewhere. It is an inevitable consequence of the balance between the overall size of the military and the level of commitment of the military that our scope for upstream work has been for a number of years, and will be for a number of years to come, limited.

Q266 Mr Donaldson: So it is an admirable objective, but perhaps something that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development have to concentrate on, because you are saying that there is not the capacity at the moment, if there are a number of operational deployments taking place, for the Armed Forces to be proactive in conflict prevention.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: It is, of course, a key task for the FCO and for DFID—they work at it—but the military does have a role to play in capacity-building, as we have seen. Mentoring and training teams have had a real strategic impact over the years in different parts of the world. It still goes on to a degree. We would like to be able to do more of it, but we will only be able to do more of it once we have less in the way of operational tempo. I come back to my central point, which is that you do not have Armed Forces to do primarily conflict prevention; you have them to deal with the consequences when conflict prevention does not work. Where you can, you use them upstream as much as possible.

Q267 Mr Donaldson: Surely, with a reduced Armed Forces, it becomes more necessary to prevent conflict, because your capacity to deploy into those situations is diminished. Is there a role for the reserve forces in taking on some responsibility for conflict prevention, which cannot carried out by their full-time counterparts?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: There is most certainly a role for the Reserve Forces in this, which I know the Ministry of Defence is looking at currently.

Q268 Ms Stuart: In a previous evidence session, we had the Chiefs of the three services in front of us, and we asked them a straightforward question, which was whether, when looking at our capability now and ahead up to 2015, they would describe us as having full spectrum capability. What would you have answered?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: It depends what you mean by "spectrum". I am not trying to dodge the question. There are military capabilities that the UK has not had nationally for a very long time.

Q269 Ms Stuart: All three of them said no, if that helps.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes, but my point is, did we have full spectrum capability two years ago? On many definitions, the answer to that is no. The fundamental point is that the defence review started off with certain preconditions and certain pegs in the ground. One of those was that the budgeted expenditure had to be reduced by a minimum of 10%, with an aspiration for 20%. It had to be reduced quickly. We could not touch anything that was being used for Afghanistan. When those are the starting conditions, your options are pretty limited. There is no way you can achieve those ends without reducing capability.

  We were in the business of reducing our overall defence capability in the years ahead. Our approach was to look a bit further and say, "Okay, by 2015 we do not think we will have what we would consider to be a balanced, coherent set of capabilities across the spectrum, but we could get back to them by 2020." That became our aiming point, hence the Future Force 2020, but we were very clear—the Prime Minister himself acknowledged it in his statement to the House last year—that that would be achievable only on the basis of real-terms increase in the defence budget beyond 2015. The answer to your question is that, whether or not we had a full spectrum capability to start with, it was certainly going to get worse by 2015. We were, however, aiming to recover it by 2020.

Q270 Ms Stuart: I think we will return to that point of 2020. If you had to describe what our capability is, what would you define as the major bits that we currently cannot do, and which therefore mean we are not at full spectrum capability, other than the aircraft carrier?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Carrier strike is one. Anti-submarine warfare is another. Along with others, I made it clear in the defence review that if we went ahead with the decision to get rid of maritime patrol aircraft, in the circumstances of a resurgent submarine threat we would not be able to send a naval taskforce to sea unless someone else provided that capability. It was not a case of taking a bit more risk; we simply would not be able to do it, should that particular threat level rematerialise. Nobody is saying that it will or that it won't, but we would have to look for somebody else to provide that capability. That is another fairly stark example.

Q271 Ms Stuart: Your successor said to us, "The National Security Strategy document is not a bad objective in terms of our ends, but I would say that the ways and means are an area of weakness." Do you agree, and if so, how could it be improved?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The NSS talks about priorities, but it does not say that you have to be able to deal with every one of those priorities to the same degree. Clearly, the amount of effort you put into the priorities depends on circumstances at the time. It depends on the international situation, but it also depends on how much you have to invest. If you have less to invest, you can cover fewer of the bets. I do not think they became disconnected; there was never a sense, going back to my earlier answer, that the NSS was going to provide you with a set answer that was going to cost a set amount and that if you did not provide that money you could not have the answer. It is scalable to a very large extent, but the significant reduction in the budget meant that the sliding scale was going to be downwards rather than upwards.

Q272 Ms Stuart: As you looked at those priorities, where would the centre of gravity have been during the review?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: In the NSS? Do you mean the centre of gravity for the decision making or internationally?

Q273 Ms Stuart: For the decision making.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The centre of gravity was in the NSC. That is where those issues were debated. In all those discussions, one must remember that although people have charged that the SDSR was not strategic, it most certainly was strategic but the strategy was to eliminate the deficit. Frankly, even from a security and defence point of view, I would have to say that that must be the right objective. Without a strong economy, without growth and without sound finances we are not going to have secure defences. It is just not possible, and that has been proved time and again throughout history. One can argue about the tactics that are employed to repair the economy and the finances—that is a separate issue—but strategically it surely must be the right top-level objective. In all our considerations, the requirement to do that and, therefore, the requirement to reduce expenditure overrode just about everything else.

Q274 Chair: May I break in for a moment? The NSS says at one stage, "The National Security Council has reached a clear conclusion that Britain's national interest requires us to reject any notion of the shrinkage of our influence." At a time when we are reducing defence spending as much as we are, and when we are scrabbling around for an extra billion, that is really nonsense, isn't it?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: That sentence was debated, as you might imagine, quite a lot—

  Chair: I would, yes.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: —both in the steering group and in the NSC itself. The arguments that were advanced in support of it were, "Well, okay, yes, you are reducing the amount that you are doing in defence, but you can make up for that in foreign policy terms, in diplomacy and in other areas."

Q275 Chair: While you are cutting the foreign policy budget.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Personally, I did not buy it, and my view is that if the priority is to eliminate the deficit over the course of a Parliament, the rather drastic action that will be necessary means a period of strategic shrinkage. That is my personal view, but that was not the view that prevailed in the production of the document. As I said, what we sought to do was reverse that strategic shrinkage over the second half of the decade, but that is still an open question.

  Chair: I share your view, and I do not share the view of the Foreign Secretary. I put it to him that the denial of shrinkage of influence was a little unrealistic—mostly because I would have had to call myself to order if I had used the words that I actually thought of.

Q276 Bob Stewart: I want to ask about the ASW capability. It is not just the surface fleet that would be affected by the removal of Nimrod; it is also our submarine operations, isn't it? You didn't say that, but I think you implied it.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Anti-submarine warfare is one of the most difficult military tasks that the Armed Forces carry out. It is very complex and requires a layered approach. That has been demonstrated clearly over the years, and wide area surveillance is a very important element within that.

Q277 Bob Stewart: Which we have now lost.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: We have now lost that. In the light of current threats, it is a not a critical weakness, but should the threat re-emerge—it could well re-emerge—it would become an important weakness.

Q278 Ms Stuart: To take you back to the sequence of decision making when reducing the financial debt became a security priority, do you think that the sequence in which the various documents were published and came out was right? Shouldn't the SDSR have come after the publication of the strategy and the spending review?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: No, I don't agree with that. Again the common charge is that this was rushed and we should have taken rather longer about it. There was certainly going to be no extension in the time scale of the spending review. Had we taken longer about the defence review, it seems to me almost inevitable that we would have started with a baseline that was at least 10% lower than the one we originally had. In doing the defence review at the same time as the spending review, we were able to bring the two issues together—the requirements and the resources—and say quite starkly, "Well, we have managed to get down to x% reductions"—about 7% to 7.5% depending on how you measure it. "If you want us to go further than this, these are the kinds of things that we will have to do." In the end, that proved to be a step too far for the NSC and as a consequence we wound up with a reduction in the budget that was less than the minimum that was put to us at the beginning of the exercise. I don't think we would have achieved that had we taken longer over the defence review, so I think it was a good thing for defence to do it at the same pace as the spending review.

Q279 Ms Stuart: Right. So you agree with the Defence Secretary that opening the strategic review is the same as opening the Comprehensive Spending Review?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Of course. Absolutely. It must be, otherwise you are just shuffling deckchairs around.

Q280 Ms Stuart: Which some might say we are doing now. Final question: do you feel that your expertise and that of people at your level had sufficient input to the review and that it was sufficiently utilised to arrive at that decision?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes, I do. I know that you have had evidence from the Service Chiefs on this, but they were all involved, along with the Vice Chief and me, in the Defence Strategy Group within the Ministry of Defence. I was, as I say, present at the steering group meetings and the NSC itself. The Single Service Chiefs had the opportunity to present their own cases, not just in the Defence Strategy Group, but personally to the Prime Minister on a couple of occasions, and indeed to the full NSC, so there was plenty of input. It did not mean that all their views were accepted—that was never going to be possible—but certainly the expertise was well utilised.

  Clearly, there are other areas of expertise: there is the wider public view and there is academia, and had we had the opportunity for a more leisurely exercise, they could have been involved more, although we should remember that they were involved quite extensively in the preparation of the Green Paper before the election. One of the reasons for doing that was that we knew we would be very short of time after the election because of the pace at which the spending review needed to be conducted. So, we wanted to get as much of that preparatory work out of the way as possible. Inevitably, there is a little bit of disconnect between the rather theoretical Green Paper and the practical exercise when you are in the heat of the kitchen. That work was valuable, but given the time scale in which we had to do it, I think the expertise was involved as much as it could have been.

Q281 Sandra Osborne: Looking at the Force 2020 goals, are they based on sufficiently robust thinking from the Armed Forces and are they reflected in the defence planning assumptions, or could they easily be undermined by the pressure of events?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: They reflect a robust military thinking on what balance of capability, given that we have a balanced approach to this as a strategy baseline, can be afforded within the defence budget that we are envisaging in the 2020 time frame. Now those defence budgets are bigger in real terms than the budget will be in 2015. On that basis, it is as good an estimate as we can come up with at this stage. Of course, 2020 is still some time away, and that will have to be refined as we go through the years, and as the unexpected happens. We will have to react to that and there will be both new threats and new opportunities emerging. At this remove, however, it is as good as we can do.

  Your question about defence planning assumptions and whether they will be under threat refers, I assume, to unexpected circumstances, meaning that we have to do more than was assumed in the defence planning assumptions, which is clearly always possible. However, the amount of national wealth that is devoted to defence is essentially a political decision. Once that has been decided—at whatever level it is, and for whatever reason—you then have to be clear that you must restrict your ambitions to within the resources that are available. That has not commonly happened over recent years, and I think that there must be rather better discipline in that regard.

  I say that because there are potential circumstances that could arise that would, in my view, be very serious—the consequences for the national security of this country would be very serious. They have not arisen, but we need to keep something, in terms of contingency, in reserve to deal with such very serious threats, should they materialise. So, I get very concerned not only about exceeding the defence planning assumptions, but about committing everything we have to continuing operations. This is not about keeping everything in reserve, just in case something comes up; that clearly does not make any sense. However, it is about keeping sufficient contingency to deal with the unexpected when it is very close to home in terms of our interests.

Q282 Sandra Osborne: What kind of serious threat are you thinking about?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: If there was a third-party attack on Iran and its nuclear programme, for example—this is entirely speculative—Iran could react against us. I suspect Iran would be inclined to blame us in such circumstances and after all, let's be fair, Britain has some form in that part of the world, in its history. Iran could do things with regard to, for example, the Strait of Hormuz, that we would regard as a casus belli. We could not fail to respond, because the consequences to this country would be so dire. We would not, of course, be responding to them on our own—far from it—but we need to be able to respond in such circumstances.

  There are also other issues that occupied quite a lot of our thinking when I was Chief of the Defence Staff, because we were so short of contingency. We wanted to be clear in our minds how we could and would respond to such circumstances.

Q283 Sandra Osborne: Given that the Government have prioritised the reduction of national debt over the NSS and the SDSR, what are the risks, and what plans are in place to mitigate them—for example, the regeneration of capability gaps?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: As I say, the plan is all based around recovering from 2015 onwards. On the regeneration of specific capabilities—for example, we talked about wide area surveillance—at the moment, some general thinking has been going on about how unmanned air vehicles could contribute in this area. There are currently no specific plans or projects on that, because the thinking is not sufficiently advanced, nor, I dare say, is the technology. A lot of thought is going into that, however.

  So, I cannot tell you, "This is the plan for regenerating wide area surveillance." You know what the plan is for regenerating carrier strike, and you know that it creates significant challenges for the Royal Navy in terms of the production of sufficient pilots, engineers and all the rest of it, but Royal Navy and the Air Force are working on such plans. There is a lot of thinking and planning going on, but it all depends on money. The key question is, "What plans are there to guarantee that whoever forms a Government in the second half of this decade will ensure that there is a real-terms increase in defence spending over that period?" That question is rather more for you than for me.

  Chair: May I just bring in John Glen at this point and then I'll come back to you, Sandra?

Q284 John Glen: It would be helpful to have your perspective on what the implications would be if that were not achieved after 2015, because that is the key thing that we want to know. We have heard all the warm words of aspiration, but what would the reality be?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The reality is that Future Force 2020 would be completely unaffordable and the Armed Forces would have to be substantially smaller than is currently planned. You would have to have another SDSR in 2015.

Q285 John Glen: Could the capability be recovered?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Capability would have to be reduced further.

Q286 Chair: Isn't there going to be another SDSR in 2015 anyway?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: There is, you are quite right—thank you for correcting me. What I meant was that there would have to be an SDSR with the character of the previous one, rather than with a character of rebuilding.

Q287 Chair: You say that with an element of dread in your voice.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I do. All this depends on meaningful real-terms growth in the second half of the decade, and I cannot give you a figure for that. Well, I could give you a figure, but I do not mean 0.2% a year in real terms; I mean something substantially more than that. When the Prime Minister announced the defence review in the House last October, he said that it was his personal view that that would be required for Future Force 2020 to be affordable. But he is, of course, unable to commit a future Government, so it is still very much an area of uncertainty. It would be enormously welcome if there were a degree of cross-party support for that particular proposition. I do not think that there necessarily is such support at the moment, not least because the Ministry of Defence has to plan now for certain aspects of the force structure beyond 2015. It can only plan on what it knows, so at the moment it is planning on the basis of a flat real budget from 2015 onwards. At the moment, the Ministry of Defence is planning not to achieve Future Force 2020.

Q288 Chair: Could you look at what the Prime Minister said to the Liaison Committee towards the end of last year? He denied that this was a problem for the Ministry of Defence. Did he get it wrong?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Well, I certainly think it is a challenge for the Ministry of Defence.

  Chair: I thought he got it wrong.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: You cannot plan for 2016-17 in 2015. Certain things have longer lead times than that.

Q289 Chair: So because the Treasury insists on spending being on the basis of flat budgets, rather than projected growth, it is not policy.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The Treasury tells the MoD that it can plan on what it likes, but that it cannot count on the Treasury providing any more money than it is getting at the moment. The ball is thrown back into the MoD's court, and what is the MoD then to do?

  Chair: I am sorry, but we now have a vote. Under the programme Order, there will be a series of votes at four o'clock. I shall suspend the sitting for seven minutes.

  Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

  On resuming—

  Chair: We have a quorum, and seven minutes have elapsed.

Q290 Sandra Osborne: You have referred to the cancellation of Nimrod and the 10-year gap for the carriers. Surely, there is also an issue to do with the skills base training. What problems do you foresee for that in meeting the 2020 goals?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: There is a significant challenge for the Royal Navy in regenerating carrier strike capability. That was always clear. Indeed, it was the key argument against removing Harrier from the inventory. It is not an insuperable problem; it is a considerable challenge. The First Sea Lord, when he gave evidence to you, will have talked about sending pilots on exchange tours to the United States navy and working on a plan with the Air Force for ensuring that it can rebuild numbers of fixed-wing pilots within the Navy as quickly as possible, but it will take time. One has to remember that, given the starting point of the review and the reductions in expenditure that were going to have to be made, there were no options that were not going to cause pain and difficulty. The issue was to try to find that combination of measures that caused the least pain and difficulty—least is a comparative term that was always going to be a lot—and from which one could recover. It was clear that that was an area from which one would recover, although it would take time and effort and, as I have said before, money.

  The maritime patrol aircraft side is a different story. It would be very difficult to recover from because it is a very specialised field. It requires a great deal of expertise and quite a lot of experience. I cannot give a specific answer on a plan to recover a wider surveillance capability for anti-submarine warfare, because it is not yet clear how it is to be done. I suspect that inevitably it will involve bringing in help from allies, who have retained their capability and building upon that, and slowly rebuilding the UK's own seed corn.

Q291 Sandra Osborne: We do not know the results of Planning Round 11, as yet, but there are reports of further cuts in personnel and equipment. What do you believe the impact would be of that on the Armed Forces?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: They have, of course, only just embarked on the cuts that are consequent upon the defence review. The initial tranche of redundancies will go on for some considerable time. I do not know if there will have to be further reductions. I—as you do—see reports of the budgetary difficulties within the Ministry of Defence and that it is now engaged on an exercise over the next three months to see how they are to be resolved. I speak now as an outsider. If there are to be further personnel reductions, I can only envisage further reductions in capability as a consequence and it will, of course, mean that the uncertainty to which service personnel are exposed as a result of the current reductions will be extended.

Q292 Sandra Osborne: If there were one area of the SDSR you could revisit, what would it be?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: The money. That is not a facile answer. Unless you revisit money, there is no point in revisiting anything else.

Q293 Chair: Well, let's give you a wider question. If you could open both the SDSR and the Comprehensive Spending Review, what would be the first thing you would address?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Sorry, Chair. To be clear, you are saying that, if more money were to be made available—

  Chair: If more money were made available—

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I think probably the whole area of intelligence surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance. It was an area that we wanted to protect in the SDSR. It was set out as a clear policy decision not only to protect it but, if possible, to improve it. That was not possible, given the financial constraints. So we have reduced in those areas, and I suspect that my first area of concern would be to reverse some of those reductions.

Q294 Chair: Would that include the maritime patrol aircraft, or would it not?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: It might include some of the capability. I am not clear at the moment what stage they have reached in the examination of the ability of unmanned vehicles to help in this area. As you know, we have expanded the number of unmanned aero vehicles over recent years in this area in particular. They are so valuable predominantly because of their endurance, and the fact that they can stay up for so long. They have been critical to current operations, and they will be critical to other operations as well. It would not necessarily be a reversal of the Nimrod decision, not that I think that that is feasible since they have been cut up, but it might be putting some of that capability into the unmanned arena.

Q295 Mr Havard: One of the things about the capability that we have lost was its ability not only to see, but to hear. Unmanned vehicles can see a lot, and surely being able to hear is a crucial part of any recovery of a capability.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: It is, and they cannot do it at the moment to the extent that manned aircraft can, which is why there is a programme to replace that particular capability of the Nimrod, as you may be aware. But that does not mean to say that, in five years' time, they will not be able to do it. For all the reasons that I have stated, we do need to keep pushing as hard as possible into this unmanned area because of the advantages that it brings. It will not supersede everything in the manned arena, but it will take on more and more of the business as time goes by.

Q296 Chair: Can I just ask you a couple of questions about the aircraft carriers? What was the point of having an aircraft carrier that was interoperable with the French?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Well, the point of interoperability is that if one is operating alongside one's friends and allies, it provides you with greater flexibility. I think we have to be clear what we are talking about in terms of interoperability. We are not talking about French aircraft flying and fighting from our carriers or vice versa, because it is not simply a matter of aircraft landing on and taking off from carriers. They have to be refuelled, rearmed and repaired. You need the spares, the weapons, the engineers, and you can't provide all those for different kinds of aircraft. It would be easier to interoperate in a fighting sense with other nations that were using the same kind of aircraft and weapons.

Q297 Chair: So if it is not flying and fighting from an aircraft carrier, what is the point?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: It can land on, be turned around, be refuelled and sent off again back to its own carrier, and that increases your overall level of flexibility.

Q298 Chair: And is the Charles de Gaulle long enough to take an F-35?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I would have to refer you to an expert on that. I can't answer that question.

Q299 John Glen: I would just like to get Lord Stirrup's reaction to a leaked document from the MoD. We have to be careful with leaked documents, but sometimes they reveal true feelings. There is one from the SDSR, which says: "It was clear that none of the three services had developed meaningful internal thinking on how to deliver a 10-20% reduction in their resource baseline. An earlier understanding may have generated more radical alternative ideas." What is your reaction to that, given that we have just had a long discussion about the constraints and the challenges going forward, and the fact that we need real-terms increases after 2015? How do you react to that concern about the capability to look at how to make radical changes?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: If the proposition is that a year or 18 months ago it was not clear to each of the Single Services that, come the defence review, there was almost certainly going to be a reduction in the funding available and there were going to have to be cuts, that just is not true. Of course they recognised that. They didn't know what the scale would be. They hoped that we could present sufficiently powerful arguments to minimise the reductions, but everyone was very clear. And of course, even without reductions, as everyone is well aware, the plan, as it existed before the election, far outstripped the ability of even the existing budget to pay for it. Indeed, within the Ministry of Defence, Service Chiefs on the Defence Board had been arguing for fairly drastic action to deal with that before we came to a defence review. It did not happen. So everyone knew what was around the corner.

  There can be no question about that, but had the services come up with their own individual plan saying, "Here's what we are going to do to save 10%, 20% or whatever within the Navy or the Air Force", I don't know that that would have been proper, because what we are trying to look at is defence capability. We try not to—I should use the past tense—we tried not to do things in stovepipes, so it was an issue for all of defence and for the Services collectively to address. Had they developed their thinking—if they were going to have to take cuts—on which areas they would target first? Absolutely, they had. For example, it would be fair to say that the Air Force was in no doubt that it was going to have a reduced number of fast-jet aircraft at the end of this exercise.

  I think the Navy was in no doubt that the total number of ships that were planned was not going to be sustainable and therefore that number would have to be reduced. The real question was going to be what balance should be struck in that reduction, and of course that was a very important debate in the SDSR. The conclusion that pretty much everyone came to was that we should be focusing on destroyers and frigates, because they are what are needed in the contemporary security environment and in future years. The initial propositions, which would have reduced the number of destroyers and frigates substantially, were rejected, because most of us felt that was the wrong route to take and we needed to balance it in a different way.

  Thinking had gone on, so it is important not to read too much into that comment. I am not sure that I entirely agree with it, because it suggests, as I say, that the services should have been doing things in stovepipes.

Q300 John Glen: But do you think there was sufficient appetite to look at some radical changes, such as altering the balance between regulars and reserves, which has frequently been mentioned? That would be quite a change, but it would bring us more into line with Canada or the US. What I am trying to get at is that there was a sense of optimism, with people thinking, "It won't quite happen. We'll be able to fight this off." In the end, it became a bit of a battle, between the different Services, of who would lose fewest.

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: I can assure you that there was not that kind of optimism—there is no question about that. Clearly, people had particular programmes and capabilities about which they felt strongly and for which they were fighting powerfully. They did not want to lose those, but there is no question that all the Service Chiefs knew that they were going to lose capability. There was absolutely no sense of people thinking, "Let's just stick our heads in the sand and maybe the problem will go away."

Q301 John Glen: And is your contention that consideration was sufficiently joined up in looking at the overall defence interests of the country rather than the individual service interest?

  Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup: Yes. Of course, the leaders of the individual services feel passionately about the capabilities their services provide, and so they should. Of course, there were areas of disagreement, around the defence strategy group table, for example. Disagreement was not just between different Service Chiefs, but between other members of the group, too. At times there were some very heated discussions, as is right and proper and as you would expect in such a serious and important exercise.

  In my view, what was most striking was the degree of collegiality around the table, the extent of the corporate approach and the very great efforts that everyone made to see the other person's point of view and to try to do everything in that context. That does not mean to say that they did not argue very strongly for the things they believed in. But the Service Chiefs were not at one another's throats, as was sometimes characterised at the time; nothing could be further from the truth.

  Chair: Thank you very much indeed. We are most grateful and that session has been helpful in leading us to some interesting conclusions.

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 3 August 2011