HL Deb 06 April 2000 vol 611 cc1411-3
Earl Attlee

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What radio is fitted to the Army's FV432 armoured ambulance.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, as I have advised previously, on 23rd February 2000, the radio fitted to the Army's FV432 armoured ambulance is the Clansman VRC353.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she recall declining to answer my Written Question about the range of the radio on the grounds of national security, even though this equipment can be purchased privately? Is she aware that the range of the radio is given in the Army's staff officers' handbook? Does she recall her Written Answer of 22nd March to my noble friend Lord Stewartby, when she stated that the staff officers' handbook is not a classified document—presumably because there is nothing classified in it—although it includes the range of the radio? Will the Minister review her decision to withhold this information—or is the answer too embarrassing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the answer is not embarrassing at all. From his extensive experience in the military, I am sure that the noble Earl is aware that, when answering such questions, Ministers take into account not only the information they are giving in response to individual questions but the sum total of the information that is being put into the public domain at any one time. These matters are monitored very closely in the Ministry of Defence. So it is not only individual questions that are looked at but the full range of information. In withholding any information from any of your Lordships, I always take proper advice from those who understand the security implications of that is being asked.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, can the Minister reassure me about the rumours that troops in Kosovo sometimes had to rely on mobile telephones rather than supplied equipment?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the shortcomings of the Clansman radio did not jeopardise the lives of our troops in Kosovo. Procedures were in place to ensure sufficient levels of availability and security. But the Clansman radio is not as effective as we should like for a modern, war-fighting army. That is why we are making plans to replace it with the Bowman radio system, which is a complete digitised system. I am not talking about individual radios but about a complete digitised communications system which we hope will be introduced towards the end of 2003/beginning of 2004. In the meantime, we have advanced to next year the introduction of the personalised radio element of the system.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, will the noble Baroness be good enough to answer my noble friend's question about mobile phones? We all remember the repercussions of an interception of a radio phone message concerning the right honourable gentleman Richard Needham.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am not sure that there were those who had mobile phones during the encounter in Kosovo. I can assure the noble Lord that the utmost care is taken over the security of all communications, particularly when the lives of our servicemen and servicewomen are at risk. Those who have been lucky enough to see some of the presentations about the lessons learnt from Kosovo will know the very high store that was put on security of communications. It is because we have been so concerned about that matter that the Government, under SMART procurement, are bringing forward the personalised element of the radio system. It is also the reason for introducing the Polygon secure radio system, which is currently being used for communications in Kosovo.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, can the Minister say whether, when communicating with the present Clansman system, operators have to engage in a manual encryption system to send secure messages? If so, can she assure the House that Bowman will be fully digitised and capable of encrypting digitally as well as in other respects?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as far as I am aware, the encryption system is a manual one. If there were other systems used, I shall tell the noble Lord about them if I am able to do so under the advice that I am given on security of systems and the information that may be put into the public domain. As I made clear to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, it is certainly no part of my job to withhold information that can properly be in the public domain. Information is withheld only when it is proper that it should be. As to Bowman, that will be a fully digitised system. We are still working on important security elements of the system and on what will be the encryption procedures. It is not yet fully developed but, as soon as we are able to say anything that can be put into the public domain, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that we shall do so.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that this ineffective radio is fitted to the Mark II Challenger tank, our main battle tank, and that it is used in that capacity?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is not an ineffective radio; it is not as good as we would wish it to be. I am sorry to say to the noble Lord that the plans for replacing this radio were some 75 months behind programme when this Government entered office. When we talk about the defects of the radio and the defects that were apparent in Kosovo, it must be remembered that we would not have to say such unhappy things about the effects in Kosovo had effective action been taken by the previous administration.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in these days of open government and freedom of information, does the Minister realise the happiness and pleasure it gives when she states that she does withhold some information? There are certain aspects of information which many of us think ought to be retained by the Government as secrets of government. In no way do we wish to see such secrets divulged any more than they should be.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Therefore, my Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl will be very relieved to see that there is no intention on the part of the Government to put any information into the public domain which would in any way compromise the security of Her Majesty's Armed Forces.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, our servicemen work alongside the servicemen of other NATO nations. When Bowman is introduced, can the Minister assure the House that communications between our servicemen, using Bowman, and the NATO forces working alongside them, will be secure and readily available?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, is as aware as I am about the importance of inter-operability in current military situations, where we almost always work alongside the forces of allies. I assure the noble and gallant Lord that, in developing the Bowman system, we are looking not only at ways of communicating within Her Majesty's Armed Forces but also at ways of communicating effectively and securely with our allies. That is enormously important.

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