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The UK could focus on being a world-leader in niche industries, the Defence Select Committee were told today.
As part of its inquiry into Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), the Committee took evidence from the following witnesses:
- John Brookes, President, Northrop Grumman International
- Graham Thornton, Managing Director, Northrop Grumman in UK
- Ed Walby, Director of Business Development, Northrop Grumman
Chairman of the Committee James Arbuthnot noted that use of UAVs in the US was widespread and he asked whether the MoD had been 'a bit late' in focusing on this issue.
Responding, Mr Brookes stated that the US had benefited from greater investment and timescales in order to be able to field some of the advancements that had been put in place. The UK essentially had the capability to capitalise on such investments given the close relationship with the US, he reasoned.
There must be a gap in the spending of the US and the UK in this area, Mr Arbuthnot reasoned, and he asked whether this was widening. It was important to focus instead on the different levels of technology and the missions that were required. The US were focused on high-level missions and invested on this basis to match, and the UK could reasonably invest on the basis of capitalising on this investment, he argued.
Moving on, the panel were asked what benefit the global hawk programme could provide.
This was a land-based system and could take advantage of the huge capability of global hawk, which would be capable of surveying a region equivalent to all of England and Wales in one mission, he stressed.
Mr Walby stated that the global hawk could image every square inch of this territory, not simply survey it. The navy's requirement had been to take surveillance further than the military, calling for a 360 degree continuous presence for sensors, resulting in a 360 degree EO, IR system that could ensure continuous tracking of vessels.
Asked whether the MoDs lack of a marine target for UAVs was surprising, Mr Brooks explained that the US global hawk programme had received interest from other nations after the incredible capability of the programme had been made clear. Further dialogue would only continue with those involved in a strong relationship of trust, Mr Brooks added.
The US navy had an existing requirement allowing for sensors to be projected over the horizon, which was being extended across a range of ships.
Asked how big Fire Scout was, Mr Brooks stated that it was a highly adapted version of a small two-person helicopter. It could fit in the middle of the room, he assured.
Asked whether a 'sovereign' system akin to Watchkeeper could have been provided to the UK for less money than it had cost, Mr Thornton felt that it could have been, as similar sovereign systems had been provided in the past.
There were several classes of air vehicle, he agreed, and different needs were in place for different missions, but he reiterated that such a system could be provided without trouble.
Asked about the need for a maritime system, Mr Thornton stressed his wish that Fire Scout be recognised, and he hailed its flexibility and its ability to provide ship-based operations without pilots on a 350kg payload.
There was a need for maritime surveillance and for forward looking sensing, he declared, and Fire Scout could fit 'into a very small box on the stern of most British ships.'
Northrop Grumman were very used to the requirement of the need for total awareness of what was happening in surrounding airspace and would not consider any solution that did not take this into account. He predicted that there would be increased focus on the seas and for improved surveillance in this area.
Mr Arbuthnot expressed his astonishment that there remained problems across the Mexican border and that pilots could go missing in Nevada and not be found.
Asked why this was, Mr Brooks suggested that the US was still coming to grips with questions of sovereignty and the appropriateness of deploying tools in particular areas. The question was not whether such tools existed but whether they could be appropriately deployed in line with civil liberties, he noted.
Some of the US' borders were very long and would require high-end capability, while other borders may seek sustained, full-motion video on specific areas.
The basic technologies existed, but networks to bring these issues together were problematic.
Mr Walby noted that discussion had taken place on whether Global Hawk could be deployed across the Canadian border, also providing training for the military in this alternative environment.
Moving on, Mr Holloway noted BAE's suggestion that autonomy was the future and asked whether this was agreed by Northrop Grumman.
Mr Brooks stated that he did agree with this.
Global Hawk had a computer system on board which provided taxi capability, through a mouse and click-buttons. Control was not a joystick, but communication with computers on board. In his time as a pilot, Mr Walby explained, importance had been on ensuring that a plane kept flying, with far less focus on a mission.
However, it was noted that pilots had become more central to missions since then, given their strategic position. From take-off to landing, however, the system was designed to be completely hands-off if need be.
Focus was not on 'how to do it', Mr Brooks argued, but on the value of what a mission was designed to accomplish. Planes could fly themselves and could even fix problems independent of others.
Asked whether Northrop Grumman were involved in the UK's consideration of its military needs in the next 20 years, Mr Brooks assured that Northrop Grumman had, for some years, maintained a continuing dialogue with the RAF on advanced capabilities, and with the Chief of Air Staff, who was assessing whether US technologies would have application in the UK in years to come.
Mr Thornton stated that a comprehensive exercise had been conducted in Salisbury Plain the year before, where an exercise was conducted that he reasoned was similar to the future role of Watchkeeper. This exercise had been set up in a matter of weeks and the MoD and RAF had been engaged in work to consider engagement of this technology in Afghanistan.
Given the persistence and endurance of UAVs, the panel were asked whether anyone had considered deploying nuclear weapons on them.
Some of Northrop Grumman's UAVs had weapons on them, Mr Brooks responded, and he stated that this became a policy decision ultimately, as there was nothing to stop UAVs from holding such weapons in a technical capacity.
David Hamilton asked about direction processing and disseminating, and whether similar problems existed in the US as in the UK.
Mr Brooks agreed that this was a problem in the US. Capabilities for acquiring and disseminating information had to improve in tandem, he felt, given the increased demands on exploitation and disseminating systems in existing combat fields.
That said, he felt this should not 'level down' progress in either field.
Global Hawk would not be appropriately used for facial recognition, Mr Walby stated, and he added that Global Hawk would be used for transferring information about missions onto related and necessary groups. Mr Brooks expressed reluctance to discuss this issue further.
Moving on, Mr Thornton stated that Northrop Grumman were not interested in changing information, but focus was on archiving and tagging information in a manner that could allow for Northrop Grumman to be agnostic about what platform was being used.
David Borrow asked about industrial issues and noted the Defence Technology Strategy of 2006. He asked whether the UK was regarded by the US industry in a similar fashion as that suggested in the Government document.
Refusing to be drawn on specifics, Mr Brooks felt that nobody had a monopoly on the best capabilities and that forces and national security were served best in order to capitalise and work together between the best capabilities available between the UK and US. There were some areas were UK technology was as good as any, he added.
On whether the UK's industrial base was robust, deteriorating or under threat, Mr Brooks admitted his lack of expertise in this area but offered that there were areas where there was substantial investment, including for Watchkeeper, where the UK could capitalise on the information of sovereign and allied systems.
The issue was one of affordability, Mr Thornton asserted, and he stated that most of the UK's chips for this technology came for Malaysia, which was hardly sovereign. The quality of education and innovation was well-known across the world, but he felt there was a need to map out what was needed and to what extent the UK could be the best. He felt there was a possibility for the UK to become world-leaders in various niche areas.
Asked whether the UK should focus on the areas highlighted by the Defence Technology Strategy, Mr Thornton stated that this would be a useful starting point.
There were pockets around the UK of developments and innovation and a list of areas to focus on could be created on the basis of what technology was being exported elsewhere already.
Focus was often on technologies of collection, Mr Brooks stated, but all that was collected was most useful when it became 'actionable' and a way of capitalising on ISTAR would represent 'value-added'. A great deal of focus was on providing specific information for troops at a specific time, but more advanced threats may arise in future and Mr Brooks noted that one Global Hawk airframe could take in almost half of the Iraqi forces, which represented a significant advantage.
Moving on, Mr Arbuthnot asked about bandwidth. Mr Brooks agreed that recent advancements were of substantial significance. The current approach called for bandwidth to be significantly increased, and he used the analogy of the internet, which was not contained within a computer's hard drive until appropriate information was retrieved, as the underlying basis for efficient use of bandwidth in future.