Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 1-19)



  Chairman: Welcome, Secretary of State. I thought initially of giving you an opportunity of making a statement on foot-and-mouth disease in the north of England, but perhaps I shall refrain from asking, unless you wish to tell us something

  Mr Hoon: Could I simply apologise to you and other members of the Committee for my late arrival. I am sure that if members of the Committee do want to ask about the situation in Cumbria I could give them a first-hand report, but no doubt you would prefer to stick to the advertised subject.

  Chairman: That is a matter of debate. I am sure somebody will frame a question along the lines of whether the European Army can come to our assistance in putting down a hundred thousand sheep.

  Mr Hoon: I am delighted to be able to report that the British Army do not need any assistance.

  1. Thank you very much. We took evidence from you on 16 February last year, Secretary of State, on the changes taking place in the rapidly developing area of European security and defence. We published our report on the topic in May last year. That report focused on two key issues of what has come to be known as the European Security and Defence Policy, ESDP. The first was the "Helsinki Headline Goal" of a European Rapid Reaction Force to be ready for deployment by the end of 2002. The second was the transfer of functions for the political and strategic direction of this proposed force from the WEU to the EU. In the past 12 months these areas have developed rapidly—we have had two European Councils and the ERRF Capabilities Commitment Conference, and the EU's High Representative for the CFSP, Mr Solana, has been building the institutional structures within the EU. Our report of last year was greeted with a deafening silence. Since then, however, the topic has become one of intense party-political controversy. No doubt strong views on each side on the principle of the policy are held by individual members of this Committee, but we have not assembled here today to debate on party-political lines—that is the job of the Chamber, not the Select Committees. Without either implicitly endorsing or rejecting the principle of the ESDP, I hope we can today examine the practicalities of its implementation so that our evidence can be used to make the party-political debate, which can quite rightly and properly be pursued elsewhere, better informed. Is there anything you would like to say by way of introduction?
  (Mr Hoon) I look forward to the debate that follows from your injunction.

  2. We all do but, with the agreement of the Committee, it has been decided we will be drawing stumps in an hour and a half, for which I am very grateful to the Committee. I am sure you will be as well. May I just ask, are we on target to achieve the Helsinki Headline Goal in full by the end of next year?
  (Mr Hoon) The Helsinki Headline Goal is not expressed as being to be achieved by the end of next year. What we are looking for is the year 2003 as being the timetable and whilst there is still a good deal of work to be done I am confident that we will be able to achieve that in the timescale specified.

  3. Will the others be able to do so as well, do you think?
  (Mr Hoon) Yes, I think that there is a very strong commitment to achieving this "tightly defined target", which is how I would describe it. There are certain areas where clearly we do need to do some further work, but nevertheless I think we have made a very good start and we need to maintain the momentum. I might mention for the benefit of the Committee that we have, together with France, proposed that there should be a second Capabilities Conference and that that should take place probably towards the end of this year specifically to identify those areas of shortfall that we are working on, those areas where, after the first Capabilities Conference, we judged that there is more still to be done and to find ways in which we can rectify those gaps. That seems to me to be a very useful step forward. Obviously it will require perhaps a rather more difficult process than the one that has been undertaken so far in the sense that so far we have been able to identify resources that we readily have available. It is rather more difficult to identify which countries will be able to fill the shortfall gaps and therefore it is a slightly more difficult process that we have set in train but nevertheless an extremely important and valuable one because again it does demonstrate our commitment to improving capabilities, which is what we judge European defence is all about.

  4. Thank you for that. The only reason I said at the end of 2002 was that the Headline Goals were for the beginning of 2003 so there is not much difference between the two.
  (Mr Hoon) No, there is not. I am perfectly happy to have this checked but 2003 is the date and my assumption was always that it was by the end of 2003 rather than by the beginning.

  Chairman: We will have to have a little bet on it afterwards.

Mr Viggers

  5. At the Conference in November 2000, the Capabilities Commitment Conference, the so-called Force Catalogue was drawn up listing the commitments made by Member States to achieving the Helsinki goals. The Force Catalogue revealed a number of serious deficiencies. I wonder if you would let us know what you think are the most glaring deficiencies and what progress is being made to put them right.
  (Mr Hoon) As the Committee will be aware, the biggest single weakness is in the area of heavy lift capability. That should not be at all surprising to the Committee because that of course is an area of weakness that this country identified in the process leading to the Strategic Defence Review. It is an area where Kosovo in particular demonstrated a degree of weakness in that we did not have available to us the ability to move forces and equipment quickly into theatres and areas of conflict. That of course is why we have undertaken to purchase, to lease, six ro-ro ferries as well as the very substantial commitment to aircraft that we have made: 25 A400Ms and the leasing of four C-17s, the first of which will become available in May of this year. I was in the United States last week and had the opportunity of seeing one of these aircraft, which will be a very considerable addition to the RAF's capability. I did not deal with the second part of your question. It is still a little early to say who will be doing what. Obviously we will be making this contribution, as will other countries, in relation to strategic air lift because, as you will be aware, a number of other countries have also signed up for the A400M. That will be a slightly longer term development of what we need. Part of the work that we are currently engaged on, leading to the second Capabilities Conference, is to examine the areas of weakness and find ways in which to remedy them. I am not avoiding your question. It is just that we still have the work to do leading to the second Capabilities Conference. I suspect even then we will not be able to tick all the boxes because some of these, obviously, like new aircraft, are longer term issues.

  6. Following through the issue of new aircraft, one of the biggest projects of all of course is the joint strike fighter which will serve in our aircraft carriers. How closely are we integrated with the United States in developing the joint strike fighter?
  (Mr Hoon) It has not quite been developed in the way that you suggest. Again in the United States last week I was privileged to be able to see one of the prototypes and the process being undertaken is a competitive one between two consortia that have funded so far the development of the prototypes and will submit those for examination by both the United States Government and the British Government. We have committed ourselves to an eight per cent share in the aircraft although we believe that as a result of that commitment, where we will be a full partner in the project, the opportunities available for British industry will almost certainly produce more than eight per cent of the share of the work that results. This is a very competitive process and when the time comes for making the selection as between the two quite different aircraft, which is going to be quite an interesting process to determine how choices are made between the two solutions to the problem that have been advanced by the two different industrial consortia, obviously we will be fully involved in that.

  7. So we are closely involved with the Americans; we will effectively be developing with them, as a minority partner but with them, a joint fighter which will obviously have a significance in terms of having carriers which are similar to theirs?
  (Mr Hoon) The reason it is described as joint, as I am sure you are aware, is that the idea is to produce an aircraft that can fulfil a number of different roles for different services in the United States as well as for us. There will be different variants of the aircraft according to the function that is required. Essentially the framework within which those variations sit will be common.

  8. So we are working in harmony with our American partners to develop this aircraft?
  (Mr Hoon) What I am trying to get across is that this is very much at the moment an industrial process. Obviously there is close consultation with the Department of Defence and with the Ministry of Defence here. Indeed, I saw the aircraft at a USAF air base. Certainly we are heavily engaged but until the point comes where there is what the Americans call a down selection, where they actually choose which aircraft to take forward, much of the financial responsibility at any rate is placed firmly on the contractors.

  9. It is evident to us the aircraft carrier itself is just a tin box on which you land the aeroplane. The aeroplane is the key to the development.
  (Mr Hoon) It is, but there are still some decisions to be taken as to the precise variant that we might decide upon and consequential decisions for the design of the aircraft carrier.

  10. Now tell us about the Anglo-French Carrier Force.
  (Mr Hoon) There are discussions under way between us and France about co-operation as far as our carriers are concerned but there are no formal proposals that I am aware of to develop a joint force along the lines that your question might suggest.

  11. I quote the Commander-in-Chief of the French Navy surface fleet, Admiral Henri-Francois Pile. He said: "We are having tightly focussed discussions with the Royal Navy". "Tres e«troit" was the expression he used. The French Naval Attache« said during a broadcast on 3 November on the Today Programme: "We are having discussions with the British as to whether we can produce a common aircraft programme or a programme with the majority of the systems and armaments in common".
  (Mr Hoon) There are a variety of different discussions that we are having with partners and Allies and I have mentioned them previously to this Committee. I am very committed to working with our partners and Allies to develop a common approach. I suspect that the quotation that you have cited rather overstates the degree of development that has so far been achieved. We are certainly having discussions and we are having discussions with quite a considerable number of partners in order to improve the way in which we work together. As I have mentioned to the Committee on a previous occasion, in the area of naval co-operation the Memorandum of Understanding goes back to 1996 and there is a good deal of work done in common, but as far as the development of any specific ship in common is concerned, that is not something which is currently planned.

  12. I just wonder how Captain Jean Moulou, the French Naval Attache«, got the impression that for him he was aiming for "a completely joint investment. For me ... Yes", he said. Who is stringing whom along?
  (Mr Hoon) I am not aware of any plans for there to be developed a joint aircraft carrier. I am sure that there have been from time to time conversations and discussions about that and it is clearly in the fullness of time a possible option, but it is not something that we are working on as of today.

  Chairman: Perhaps, as Sir Robert Walmsley is in the next room, I can create a precedent by summoning him to answer that question.

Mr Viggers

  13. I must say that the Navy traditionally used to have a girl in every port but it does sound to me as if the Government may possibly on this occasion be doing something it has been accused of in the past, which is saying different things to different people. Let us move on. All of the capabilities needed to enhance the European defence capability are expensive and require a considerable investment on the part of European states. What is the United Kingdom doing? You mentioned air lift. Can you expand a little on what the United Kingdom is doing to address these deficiencies which have been identified in addition to the air lift which you mentioned earlier?
  (Mr Hoon) I gave you an example of what we identified in the Strategic Defence Review as being a particular deficiency in the United Kingdom. There is also, as I indicated earlier, a considerable amount of work going on to both identify the shortfalls following on from the Capabilities Conference last November and to work out ways in which each of the countries identifies potential solutions. I have indicated one area where the United Kingdom will make a contribution, which is in relation to heavy lift. It is too early to say yet who will be making other contributions because frankly we will not be able to rectify all of the shortfalls ourselves. Obviously this is a combined effort and we are still discussing with our partners and allies who will do what and by when.
  (Mr Hatfield) Perhaps I can give a couple of details on where we are in looking at that. One of the other areas identified as a specific shortfall, and in fact it is a familiar one from NATO as well, is the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences, and we are talking to the Germans and Italians in particular about the possibility of co-operation there. Another area where we are talking about the co-operation with, in this case, particularly the French, is Combat Search and Rescue. It is too early to say whether this will lead to a specific proposal, but both of those are areas we are investigating. We are working with a Nordic group of countries on what is essentially their plan to produce a single coherent Nordic brigade which could be deployed by 2003 and where we could provide some assistance in fielding that which possibly would fit into a wider British structure.

  14. Are there some areas where it has been decided that it will be appropriate for one nation to take the lead and the initiative and seek to provide the filling of the gap in the European defence capability?
  (Mr Hoon) Not yet, no, because those sorts of discussions are still under way. We are still assessing the gaps and who might be in a position to fill them. I suspect, given that in a sense the Headline Goal is a European version of much of what we set out in our Strategic Defence Review in the sense that the emphasis is very much on moving forces quickly into a crisis, that many of the conclusions that we identified as being deficiencies in our own capability will be found ultimately to be common deficiencies across Europe. I think it is fair to say that we probably are more advanced in addressing those issues as a result of the timeliness of the Strategic Defence Review than are a number of our continental partners and therefore we are probably more advanced in addressing some of the solutions as well.

  15. We are told that in relation to the numbers sometimes used in international gatherings, particularly of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, if you take the American effort as a hundred then the European effort in defence is about 60 but the effect is about 15.
  (Mr Hoon) I would not disagree with that assessment. I would not necessarily agree with the precise statistics but I think that the order of magnitude of the discrepancy is probably about right. Specifically, what the Headline Goal is designed to deal with is the gap if you like between the 15 and the 60 because what has happened there over far too many years of course was that European nations simply duplicated their capabilities and the spending that they make is not cumulative. What the Headline Goal is trying to develop is a process by which defence spending in Europe is cumulative rather than duplicating existing capabilities.

  16. But dealing with the 60, with the gross European effort, I believe that something like six of the 19 NATO countries are expanding their defence expenditure and these tend to be the rather smaller countries and the increases are small. What is your message to your NATO colleagues in terms of their defence expenditure?
  (Mr Hoon) Those figures I think came out of NATO and they were a little disappointing, certainly as far as the United Kingdom was concerned, because they did not indicate that the United Kingdom was increasing its defence expenditure, which is quite wrong. We will have an extra £1,250 million to spend on defence in the course of the three years from the Defence Spending Review. Therefore your six is not a strictly accurate figure. The further qualification that you need to reflect upon is that not all countries allocate defence expenditure in quite the same way that we do. For example, Germany does not allocate significant defence procurement spending in with its defence budget. Therefore, when they come, for example, as they will, to allocate the money for the A400M, that will only retrospectively appear as allocated to defence. A number of countries adopt a similar approach. Some of those figures do need treating with a certain amount of caution. Nevertheless I agree with the sentiment you have expressed, which is that not only do we want to see European nations spending their money on defence in a different and more effective way, which is what the Headline Goal is about, but we also want to see them spending more.

Mr Hancock

  17. How are you going to exercise influence to persuade them to change their role from "scatter gun" down to a more specific task force in these countries?
  (Mr Hoon) That is precisely the purpose of the Headline Goal. The Headline Goal is very specific. It sets out a particular output. Instead of looking at the problem in terms of inputs, that is, what countries spend on defence, which we cannot guarantee will produce what we want at the end of the day, by concentrating on outputs, on what we actually want to deliver, we will use the political process that the European Union affords to ensure that at the end of the process we have what was set out in the Headline Goal. How we get there I accept is still a subject of debate but that is what we are working on. The Capabilities Conference in Brussels was a very useful beginning. What we need to do now is to build on that and go through the process that I have previously described.

  18. Do you sense that there is a willingness then on the part of those countries to change so dramatically what they might have been doing in the past? We met the Defence Committee for example from Holland who were here recently. They were not looking to be driven by an EU directive telling them they had to specialise. They were very much of the opinion that they were doing the right thing now.
  (Mr Hoon) All I can say to you in relation to the Netherlands is that the Government has specifically put aside a fund for their contribution to the Headline Goal, so they have actually recognised the importance of the Headline Goal for the Government. I know not what members of the Committee were saying, but the Government has actually committed itself not only to put money on one side out of its defence budget for this purpose but also to say, and I have had this in conversation a number of times with the Dutch Defence Minister, that whenever a procurement arises they will test the importance of that procurement against the Headline Goal. They will actually say, "What contribution will this particular piece of equipment make to our ability to satisfy the Headline Goal?", which is a fairly forward-looking view in relation to satisfying the goal, and I think does demonstrate the commitment that the European countries have to this process.

Mr Hepburn

  19. How is the Working Group on Capabilities established by the EU and NATO working out in practice?
  (Mr Hatfield) The Committee has been meeting, two or three times already this year. It is only meant to be a temporary group until we get on to more permanent arrangements, but I suspect it will in fact be replaced by a somewhat similar group on a permanent basis to link the big NATO planning system with the EU Headline Goal process so that we make sure that the development of capabilities in the two organisations marches together, particularly of course for the 11 countries who are members of both organisations. At the moment it has only had two or three meetings. One of its early meetings will be about the linkage of the two planning systems in the way I have just described.

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