HL Deb 19 January 2004 vol 657 cc835-8

2.43 p.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether strategic communications networks functioned satisfactorily during the Iraq war.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, overall our communications equipment worked well in Operation TELIC, as outlined in the recent National Audit Office report. The Bowman personal role radio was a great success. However, the rigorous lessons process conducted by my department has identified that the very high level of information exchange requirements between the United Kingdom and the Gulf, coupled with the very dynamic operational situation, meant that there were occasions on which the maintenance of strategic communications links proved challenging. However, these difficulties did not significantly affect the overall outcome of operations.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he not agree that if the strategic tasks set out in Essay 2 of the last Defence White Paper are to be discharged, effective—indeed, perfect—strategic communications are essential? Can he now give an answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, in the recent defence debate? Will there be someone in the Ministry of Defence who is specifically charged with ownership—that is to say, responsibility—for communications between home and expeditionary forces?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, about the importance of strategic communications in a conflict such as this. It is important to realise what the NAO said. which was that, the majority of communications equipment worked well on the operation, although the force sometimes had difficulty maintaining strategic communications between United Kingdom and units in theatre". There was a difference between the Gulf conflict of 1991 and last year's conflict. The total information exchange requirement was increased by a factor of at least eight. It is not surprising that things did not go perfectly, but I repeat that, on balance, they went entirely satisfactorily and I can confirm that there will be a position in the Permanent Joint Headquarters that will be responsible for dealing with the issue of strategic communications.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, the Minister has said that the Bowman personal radio worked well. When are the Bowman's other functions going to come on line?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the personal role radio worked extraordinarily well. That, as the noble Lord knows, is for platoon level. It was a huge success; so much so that our American allies bought a large number for their own soldiers' use. The noble Lord refers to the Bowman tactical secure voice and data system and I am happy to say that, as I speak, the in-service date of 31 March this year will be met.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, although the NAO report is favourable, can the Minister say whether this is due mainly to the terrain in Iraq, which is extremely favourable to radio communications? If we were in an area such as the Balkans the Clansman would not have performed as well. What is being done to improve the range of the Clansman?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am not in a position to talk about terrain. I do not have the noble Lord's intimate knowledge of the difference of terrain between Bosnia and Iraq. All I can say is that communications worked well.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, will the Minister explain why there was no training and initially no cryptographic equipment accompanying the OSCA strategic communications system? What problems were encountered in fitting the strategic communications systems into the current communications structures?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as I understand it, there was training. A considerable amount of training was put into effect before the OSCA system began to be operated. Prior to deployment, personnel received training on all elements of OSCA, which as the noble Lord knows, is the operational and strategic communications architecture, which covered the strategic communications in this case. The training was conducted by a mixture of civilian and military courses and was supplemented by having subject matter experts available in theatre. As the noble Lord knows, we had some experience of using similar equipment in other theatres such as Bosnia and Afghanistan.

On the second part of the noble Lord's question, we are planning to introduce the Cormorant system from May 2004, which will provide, crucially, an in-theatre command and control information infrastructure, thus avoiding the need for what is described as flubbing in the United Kingdom.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Minister has emphasised the importance of strategic communications. Can he tell us the extent to which those communications are dependent on satellites that are neither owned nor controlled by the British Government? To what extent does that influence our strategic policy?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we do of course rely on satellite communications, and we have for many years. The satellite communications that we relied on in this case worked well, and their strategic links were enhanced by using a combination of military and commercial resources. We are content that we have as much control over these satellites as we require for military purposes.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the Minister said that strategic communications were multiplied by eight times compared with those for the previous Gulf War. Surely the one thing that commanders want is not people from Downing Street or the Ministry of Defence chattering up the lines; they want to get on with it. What possible use can there be in increasing communications eight times, except possibly looking for body armour?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I do not think that it was people chattering from Downing Street or wherever else the noble Earl said; I think it was commanders on the ground and commanders at headquarters in theatre wanting to talk to and exchange information with those who commanded the Armed Forces in this country. The reason why there is so much more communication now than before is that it is now so much easier. It is critically important, as I hope the noble Earl will agree, that at a time of expeditionary warfare, many thousands of miles away from the United Kingdom, we should be able to use all modern technology to enable commanders to talk to commanders.