Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report


Weapons of Mass Destruction and National Missile Defence System

68. The current most controversial area of defence and security policy is the new USA Administration's commitment to developing a national missile defence system (NMD)— sometimes referred to as "Son of Star Wars".[176] Neither of the documents addresses this issue directly. However, The Future Strategic Context for Defence reassuringly comments, in a section on weapons of mass destruction, that—

At present the UK remains out of the range of missiles and aircraft from proliferating states.

Nevertheless, it continues—

    At current rate of progress, it seems likely that, well before 2030, one or more of those states will have ballistic missiles capable of reaching the UK ... The risk of air-launched WMD attacks will remain very low. The possibility of terrorist use of WMD over the 30 year period is less easy to assess.[177]

But as the recent foot and mouth epidemic has demonstrated, controlling the spread of some viruses is very difficult, and they can wreak economic havoc, which may suggest that the threat of biological attack is more serious.

69. US proposals for a missile defence system increasingly mix defence against WMD with defence against conventional weapons carried on ballistic missiles. It seems possible that the new US Administration will opt for some form of layered Missile Defence (MD) system incorporating attempts at boost phase interception, mid-course interception, and terminal phase interception. The rationale for this is that such a system would provide protection for US and allied personnel deployed abroad in any theatres in which adversaries may have access to ballistic missiles, either armed with either conventional or WMD warheads. If this is the case, then a layered MD system will require the co-operation of America's allies and friends around the world for basing, over-flight rights and several elements of logistical support in a system that must be capable of being deployed globally in the face of a potential adversary.

70. For the United Kingdom, therefore, the question of defining more clearly its attitude to Washington's missile defence programme may come sooner rather than later, and certainly before any decision has to be taken about the upgrade of the Fylingdales radar station. In the event that the new US Administration opts to develop a layered system, the UK's attitude will be tested quickly and sharply. Furthermore, as the new Chief of the Defence Staff made clear to us in evidence on 1 March 2001, direct UK participation in the construction of any nationally-funded elements of an NMD system would be very expensive, and would require additional expenditure if the SDR's expeditionary strategy were not to be compromised.[178]

71. There is no doubt that the threats from WMD and the development of NMD, will be a matter of critical debate over the next few years. We hope our successors will tackle them and we recommend to them an early inquiry into weapons of mass destruction.

Strategic Nuclear Weapons

72. Neither document contains much that could be construed as a statement of the government's current nuclear policy. Defence Policy 2001 has one paragraph on the topic—

73. We sought, as far back as our inquiry on the SDR, a restatement of the government's strategic nuclear policy.[179] We have been offered some dribs and drabs, including a speech made by the former Secretary of State at Aberdeen University. We consider that the government, now rightly thinking (if not yet forming policy) for the period of 30 years ahead, needs to address this issue more squarely.

Asymmetric Threats

74. Both the strategic context paper and the defence policy paper mention the problem of asymmetric conflict, but very little elaboration is provided.[180] We discussed some of the issues in our report on defence research.[181] The government should spell out at the earliest opportunity its thinking on the challenges which asymmetric strategy and tactics pose to the UK and the exercise of its defence policy. Certainly, asymmetric tactic would require a highly 'joined up' governmental response. While the UK may be regarded as well geared up to deal with traditional terrorist threats in general, new forms of terrorism and other aspects of asymmetrical warfare such as the use of hostages, environmental degradation, cyberwar, black propaganda etc, may find us rather less well prepared.

The Documents as Part of the Reporting Cycle

75. We have not had the opportunity, in the time available, to consider all aspects of policy covered in these two documents. Indeed, since The Future Strategic Context for Defence warns that it—

This general approach is to be welcomed, as is the MoD's willingness to expose its thinking to a wider audience in this way. The trends this document points to, however, raise some major questions for defence policy which will have to be addressed in the medium- to near-term and which are not well-reflected in the other documents offered to us by the MoD.

76. The general picture which emerges from The Future Strategic Context for Defence is one in which 'No conventional military threats to the UK are likely to emerge over the period to 2030',[183] but in which there are increasing stresses in the general security environment, caused by environmental, demographic and economic trends.[184] Against this, fewer significant resources are likely to be available, in real terms, for defence purposes over the next thirty years and pressures on personnel, quality training, equipment modernisation and operating environments are likely to increase.[185] The report is forced to deduce that UK defence policy will in the future have to be prepared to be far more flexible in the way it organises its research and procurement programmes,[186] be prepared to develop 'new doctrine and concepts of operation',[187] and 'adjust the balance of capabilities over time to exploit new methods of operating'.[188] Not least, the report deduces that the UK must tread some very fine political lines, such as the need to maintain maximum access to US military technologies[189] while bringing 'greater cohesion to the European defence research and technology programme'.[190] It will need to 'encourage more serious consideration of role sharing and specialisation amongst allies',[191] and help maintain a balance of interests and capabilities between a NATO which 'continues to adapt its role and capabilities' and new arrangements for European Defence, around a European Union which 'we might expect¼to have well over 30 members' by 2030.[192]

77. These issues are merely examples, and the MoD has gone out of its way to stress that this document is not a 'statement of Government policy'. Nevertheless, they are, to say the least, challenging long-term problems, some of which the government is already addressing incrementally, whether it likes it or not, by decisions being taken now. There is little in the other documents we are examining which acknowledges the importance of current decisions in terms of such longer term challenges. This is not surprising, given the difference in focus between these various documents. However, one of the distinct disadvantages of the way the MoD now approaches the reporting cycle is the missed opportunity to place a far-sighted (though discomforting) essay such as The Future Strategic Context for Defence into a more general statement of policy and resources. Producing separate documents to be read in conjunction is not as useful a policy exercise, either for the MoD or Parliament, as producing a single document which integrates different issues and timescales.

78. We now return to the question of the Secretary of State's invitation to us to comment on whether we would find regular publication of a document like Defence Policy 2001 welcome. Our answer is yes, but qualified. We are concerned to ensure that the proliferation of documents both within and outwith the formal annual reporting cycle should not put at risk the ability of Parliament and others to get a firm grip on the state of the MoD's thinking, which is essential for effective accountability. We remarked above on some of the shortcomings of the Expenditure Plans report.[193] We consider there would be value in combining something like the policy essay of Defence Policy 2001, and indeed elements of the broader picture painted in The Future Strategic Context for Defence, with the Expenditure Plans, and recasting the format of that document to link resources allocated to key policy areas more clearly. That would bring the challenge of linking policy and resources applied more into focus, and would increase both the usefulness and the readability of the Expenditure Plans report, which in its present form makes only a modest contribution to accountability and transparency.

79. If there is to be only one Defence White Paper each Parliament, there is also a case for reconsidering its format. In our Report last year on the annual reporting cycle we recommended that the government consider—

    ... replacing the Annual Defence White Paper with a broader, cross-cutting publication, placing security policy in the wider context, reflecting the ways in which [the UK] seeks to influence events 'as a force for good', and how [it] seek[s] to protect the UK and its interests and stabilise the wider international security environment.[194]

The Future Strategic Context for Defence goes a considerable way towards meeting this request. It is a good foundation on which to build. But it is not a policy document. We would see merit in a White Paper, once a Parliament at least, which carries the signature of at least the Secretaries of State for Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development, and that of the Prime Minister, showing how the 'joined up' policies of conflict prevention, crisis management and the maintenance of peace and security are operating, and are co-ordinated, across the whole of government activity.

176  Recently the subject of Prime Minister's Questions: HC Deb, 2 May 2001, cc 845-846 Back

177  The Future Strategic Context for Defence, para 89 Back

178  HC(2000-01) 298-i, QQ 20-23 Back

179  Eighth Report, Session 1997-98, op cit, para 152 Back

180  Defence Policy 2001, para 31; The Future Strategic Context for Defence, paras 86-7 Back

181  Ninth Report, Session 1998-99, Defence Research, HC 616, paras 22 to 30 Back

182  op cit, para 5 Back

183  The Future Strategic Context for Defence, para 64 Back

184  ibid, paras 11-20, 33-39, 100 Back

185  ibid, paras 39, 18, 28, 32, 51 Back

186  ibid, para 32 Back

187  ibid, para 28 Back

188  ibid, para 97 Back

189  ibid, para 30 Back

190  ibid, para 32 Back

191  ibid, para 39 Back

192  ibid, paras 54, 56-57 Back

193  See paragraph 9 et seq Back

194  Second Report, Session 1999-2000, op cit, para 15 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 9 May 2001