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Armed Forces: Battlefield Identification System

Volume 692: debated on Monday 11 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have for the operational implementation of the battlefield identification system following its prototype test in 2001.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Rodney Wilson, who was killed on operations in Iraq last Thursday, and of Lance Corporal Paul Sandford and Guardsman Neil Downes, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan last Wednesday and Saturday respectively.

Following the US decision last year to proceed with the NATO standard STANAG 4579 on battlefield target identification devices, the UK battlefield target identification system is progressing to field a compatible system at the same time as the United States.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am sure that he will agree with me that this has been a very long and draining resource on our forces for many years. In the present hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have so far lost, as a result of what I think is now called brotherly fire, eight dead and 30 seriously injured out of a total of 151 deaths. In Afghanistan, there is one suspected death in that way. In the first Gulf War, we lost nine out of a total of 16 deaths in the whole war as a result of friendly fire. Incidentally, at the same time, the USA lost 35 out of 148, so it was not showing favouritism to us. In the Falklands, we lost eight out of 22, due entirely to ourselves. As we are now apparently looking towards Raytheon and Thales for alternative methods of dealing with this problem, is there a serious lack of confidence in the Bowman system, on which we have already spent so much money?

My Lords, there is a misunderstanding of the difference between situational awareness and battlefield target identification. The Bowman system is intended to give situational awareness of our forces on operations. It does not tell our forces whether they are friends or foe, as an IFF system would with an aircraft. Therefore, it is not the Bowman system but the fielding of the battlefield target identification system—a different system—that is key here. With regard to the statistics that the noble Lord quoted, again, I believe that he is confusing cases of fratricide, in which there is a failure to identify the enemy properly, and deaths caused by soldiers moving into the line of fire or a ricochet. No cases of fratricide—wrong targeting—have been suffered or perpetrated by United Kingdom forces since March 2003.

My Lords, perhaps I may refer to the Answer that the Minister gave at the beginning of this Question, when he mentioned that the United States has now agreed to the NATO specification. Is it not the case that there was a six-year delay before that position was reached? That being the case, does he not accept that, although the MoD has appointed an individual who is responsible for championing the combat identification programme in the department, it is rather a hollow exercise when that individual has no budgetary control, no line-management powers and no direct authority at all? What action are the Government taking to address what appears to be a shortfall in leadership and oversight within the MoD to tackle these unacceptable delays, which apparently have been going on for six years?

My Lords, I am quite happy to address delays caused by poor management of a project in the Ministry of Defence but I do not think that that is the case here. There is a difference between identifying as friend or foe a civilian, a military aircraft or a ship at sea and identifying a friend or foe on land. As the House will recognise, the land is a cluttered environment with very many more targets and there are often obstructions with ground being hidden. Putting an IFF system into a land environment is a major technological challenge and there have therefore been delays in reaching international agreement on the standards. However, such a system will work only if all coalition partners buy into a common standard. The noble Lord is correct: it took a considerable time for the United States to make a decision. It decided last year to adopt the NATO standard, and we now have a programme that can exploit that agreement. I do not believe that the SRO lacks the necessary controls or influence over the project. He has the necessary controls. I discussed a project with him this morning and he feels that he has everything that he needs to manage this project effectively.

My Lords, from these Benches we join the Minister in sending condolences to the families of the two corporals and the guardsman whom he mentioned. In the light of the Minister’s last response and the criticism from the Public Accounts Committee in the Commons, will the Government consider an interim programme for the battlefield target identification system?

No, my Lords. We often operate in coalition with the United States and, on such operations, the US provides more than 90 per cent of the air cover to forces on the ground. The system would be useless without the inclusion of the US. Therefore, a system developed uniquely for UK forces would have no real utility and would be a waste of money.

My Lords, is it proposed that the future system will be fitted to all our land platforms, or just selected ones, such as headquarters vehicles?