Yesterday the House of Commons Defence Select Committee took evidence about the future of the Type 26 program and the problems with the Type 45 destroyers, specifically their power train and electrical generation capabilities.
The meeting was notable for two main reasons. Firstly, the committee performed pretty well, asking good questions and forcing some uneasy answers out of the witnesses. I suspect a damning report will come from this. The only thing that disappointed me is I felt they could have gone after the witnesses a little more aggressively at times, though I appreciate that the House has certain rules about proper decorum which likely exclude such actions as chucking your shoes at people and choke holds.
Secondly, some of the stunning admissions that were made by the witnesses. This was especially the case when BAE and Rolls-Royce were questioned about operating environments and it was revealed that the Royal Navy had - allegedly (I still have difficulty believing it) - not specified that the Type 45 would need to operate in areas of high ambient temperature, for example the middle east. The revelations became even more absurd when the committee pressed the panel for an answer as to why they didn't think to point this out to the MoD and the Royal Navy and warn them that there would be problems in these conditions, to which they just got a bunch of glum looks, a few shurgs of the shoulder and some half muted comments about "well, it wasn't in the specification". It's at this point that I personally would have been shoeless and on my way to getting arrested, so I commend the committee for its restraint.
So for something a little different today I've laid out some hypothetical questions for the committee to ask in a hypothetical second meeting, generated from notes and thoughts that I made as I watched the proceedings. Some are serious, some a little more tongue in cheek...
Q1. I would like to start by asking Lord West whether on not you feel that the comments you made at the last session, such as making extraordinary claims about the level of risk posed by an Argentine invasion of the Falklands Islands when you know full well that is a highly unlikely scenario given the material state of the Argentine armed forces, risks creating a 'Credibility Deficit' in the MoD, the Royal Navy and the office of the first sea lord? Do you not see that there is a danger here of becoming "the boy that cried wolf", which could cause problems for future Naval chiefs - and indeed other defence chiefs - who could find themselves being ignored or derided for scaremongering in their pursuit of extra funding when in fact they may be trying to warn the government about a genuinely serious threat or crisis?
Q2. To Lord West and Sir Mark Stanhope - particularly Sir Mark as this happened while you were First Sea Lord - I'd like to ask why it is that the carriers were not better protected if it was seen as a core business area of the Navy? You've both explained the merits of carriers and their capabilities, and you've both warned about the danger posed by gapping the carrier capability, so why did you not fight harder to protect it? More pertinently perhaps, why did you not find room elsewhere to accomodate the carriers? I find it astounding that you would allow a capability that you truly felt was critical to the Navy to be gapped. I can't think of another organisation, private or public, that would allow such a core element of what it does to fade away in such a manner. Imagine a supermarket without tills or a motorway petrol station without pumps, it's just absurd. So I would put it to you then that either the carriers were not as important to the Navy as you claim, or you were simply just so poor at managing your budgets and prioritising your assets that you ended up gapping a critical asset in order to maintain face saving numbers. So which is it?
Q3. Coming back to Lord West, I'd like to ask you about a discrepancy between your evidence and that of Peter Roberts from RUSI. Mr. Roberts mentioned a study conducted in 2008 that suggested that a carrier group or amphibious group would need four Type 45 destroyers as air warfare escorts in order to fight against a peer level enemy, yet you said two would be needed and that was to go into the South China Sea and fight against the Chinese. That's quite a disparity of opinion, with Mr. Roberts suggesting twice as many ships for a scenario against a much less capable enemy than the one you put forth. So who's is right? Were you simply not aware of this study? How can two people very knowledgeable in the art of naval warfare have such dramatically different opinions on what is adequate protection for a carrier? And considering the study mentioned by Mr. Roberts presumed that a Cooperative Engagment Capability would be in place, does this mean that without it the UK is in effect unable to protect a carrier group or amphibious group adequately in its current state?
Q4. I'd like to ask the two former admirals why was the subject of integrated escort platforms, both ASW and AAW capable, dodged? It's true that trying to build a ship that is truly capable of both to a high level is expensive and not an easy undertaking, but as was pointed out by Mr. Roberts the US have attempted this to a degree in order to save money, and other services such as the RAF and British army have made strides in trying to make their platforms multi-purpose. Why then were you so adamant that the two ship types be separate?
Q5. I'd now like to turn briefly to members of the committee itself for a moment and ask them whether or not they have been briefed about the dangers of holding their phones in such a way that not only the gallery at the back but also the TV cameras can see what's on their phones, and the possible security implications of such?
Q6. During the last session it became clear that the answer to almost every question posed was "it's not our fault, it's all the MoD and the Treasury m'lud". So does the panel seriously expect the committee to believe that the Royal Navy had no hand in its own failings and that this was all the fault of civil service designs on the budget? Does the Royal Navy really not accept any kind of blame for the management of its budget and its priorities over the last decade or more, and its own hand in causing problems for its own programs?
Q7. Does the panel really consider it credible to argue that the MoD should keep infinitely having to pull money out of its arse to fund various problems in the Navy, as opposed to the Navy actually taking responsbility for its own failings and its own budget problems? Is the Navy, and perhaps they would like to comment on the other arms of the services as well, is the Navy institutionally incapable of managing a budget?
Q8. I'd just like to ask Mr. Roberts quickly whether or not he's aware that the word 'Proven' is pronounced "proo-ven" and not "pro-van".
Q9. Does the panel accept the perfectly valid point made by Mr. Roberts that not everything on a British warship necessarily needs to be British and that, providing future access and export issues are resolved before hand, it is not the end of the world for a warship to have say American engines on board, especially ones that are of a proven design? And should it not be the responsbility of the Navy staff, and indeed the staffs of the other services, to fight more vigorously against decisions which are clearly industrial based at the expense of the services, given that it is the job of the staffs to represent the interests of their services, including resigning if needs be. I'm reminded for example of Admiral Band who threatened to resign as First Sea Lord if both carriers were not committed to be brought into service, and who I'm sure is now watching these proceedings with great interest, perhaps from the offices of Lockheed Martin UK whose parent company makes the F-35 and where he is now a non-executive director. Oops did I say that last bit out loud, can we strike that from the record please?
Q10. Before we move on I'd like to answer one of our own questions from the last hearing, that being why it is that these procurement projects take so long and seem to cost so much. The answer being that we as a nation are fundamentally incompetent when it comes to procurement.
Q11. Turning back to the former admirals now, I'd like to ask them why it is that Mr. Roberts, a civilian working for RUSI, seems to know more about all these subjects than the pair of you together? He gives much clearer answers and with greater detail, generally seeming to be more "on the ball". Do they feel perhaps that this is a sign that in future old fuddy duddies should be removed from procurement decision making chains, and that a combination of dedicated civil service procurement staff and young, capable and current officers should take over? Does this suggest that perhaps in future the more capable of the younger staff should be accelerated through the chain of command into senior positions, perhaps through an open application process as opposed to a staged chain of promotion?
Q12. Do the panel, particularly Adms. Stanhope and West, not see the hypocrisy of accusing the Treasury of being short sighted on budget matters, saving money in the short term but adding cost overall, only to then say that it was inappropriate to have too much on shore testing because of cost grounds?
Q13. Moving on now to the private sector representatives from Rolls-Royce, BAE, Northrop Grumman and General Electric, can I just ask why do you bother coming? If you're not going to give even half decent answers then why bother showing up at all? Or perhaps you are the runts of the litter, the people that get sent to these things because if you say something stupid then you make a good fall guy? Do your companies actually employ anyone that speaks English and that can understand it, as many of you seemed to actually and genuinely not understand some of the simple questions that were asked, presuambly because they went over your head?
Q14. Are you seriously telling us that neither the MoD nor yourselves considered the possibility of the Type 45 being sent to operate in the gulf? Did you seriously not think about this possibility and how it might affect the engines and the power systems? If you did, yet then opted not to tell the Navy about it and in doing so put the sailors onboard at serious risk in order to protect your contracts and profit margin, does this mean that you're either a) incredibly stupid or b) utterly unsuitable as contractors to government? It has to be one or the other. And can you give me a suitable reason why I shouldn't just throw my shoes at you right now and then choke the remainder of you out cold? Sorry did I say that last bit out loud? Strike that from the record please.
Q15. Turning specifically to Mr. Hudson for a second, how is it that you as a managing director of BAE were not able to answer a question about when the Type 26 program might actually start, yet the trade union convenor from Unite was able to give us an approximate starting date based on what he and his members had been told by your company?
Q16. Sticking with Mr. Hudson, why is the so-called 'Frigate Factory' plan for Scotstoun not going forward, especially as this was a key part of the rationale for losing the Portsmouth yard and was an important part of the business case for Type 26 exports? Mr. McPhee from Unite said he wasn't sure, but it had something to do with investment. If that's the case, why as a private company do you constantly insist on the government providing investment for you, instead of using your own money? Do you not think there is a risk that if you maintain this attitude going forward then one day a sensible government is going to turn around and force you into a batch based, fixed price contract which will make you wish you had spent some of your own money? And if the Frigate Factory really did promise the savings you envisioned, then why haven't you paid for it yourself, unless of course you were trying to string the MoD along in order to get them to fund upgrades on your behalf?
And that will bring the session to a close. Order, order.
Though perhaps just one last question, this time aimed at nobody in particular. I'd like someone to explain to me how it is that the Business select committee can be described as 'must see of late' by the BBC because they've been digging into what Sports Direct and BHS are getting up to, yet the quite scandalous and embarassing (alleged) omission by the Navy and the MoD to specify middle eastern operation for the Type 45 hasn't even made the website as far as I can tell. I often hear people in the defence community wonder why the public doesn't seem more concerned and I suspect this is the answer right here, because these things have become so routine now that they're not even treated like the national level scandals they should be. This level of incompetence, if proven, should be ending a flurry of careers left, right and centre. Instead it's business as usual for defence.
A sorry state of affairs indeed.