Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 20-39)



  20. Okay. The early work that was done that was not used in stage two, that was obviously used to inform the strategy about how you moved forward. Is there anything in relation to that that is going to be published that we can see as useful background to us about the strategic thinking that then informed how you move forward?
  (Mr Webb) Most of it came out.

  21. In that rather thin document you are fingering?
  (Mr Webb) In the discussion document and in here[5]. I do not have any particular problems about any of this. If there is something that you are particularly interested in I am sure we could see if we could provide it.

  22. Were these work groups publishing reports for ministers that were relatively concise pieces of work as a result of the conclusion of that first stage?
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  23. It may be that those would be interesting for us to look at.
  (Mr Webb) The advice we give to ministers is a difficult area but behind that is usually a lot of analytical material. There was a lot of work done and if there is something that you are particularly interested in I am sure we could try and see whether the background material—I think I would probably like to make my usual exception about things where we put advice to ministers because it is important that I can give them unvarnished advice without worrying at all that it will be published.

Mr Hancock

  24. Can I take you back to what you said in an earlier reply to Jim Knight and that was that after you produced the working groups' paper you took that out for further discussion. That is what you said. I would be grateful if you could explain where that went and how far down the chain of command that went and the relevance of the feedback from that discussion and whether or not that is available.
  (Mr Webb) We produced the discussion document, which is the one that we published, so that was both made public—

  25. No, this was before that. I am talking about when you said you went to ministers with the working groups' thoughts on this and then you thought, or you decided, that would have to go for further discussion. That is not the published document, that is the document that went somewhere else. I am interested to know who that went to and what was the basis of the discussion, what was the feedback from that.
  (Mr Webb) It is the same piece of work.

  26. Is it?
  (Mr Webb) Yes. We turned it into a discussion document because otherwise you have mounds of background paper. In order to allow people to comment on it you need to turn it into a discussion document. It was the same discussion document which we sent both externally—you saw it on the website and as a published document—but also very extensively within the defence community, so many comments came back internally, either because people e-mailed things straight into us or because they fed it up the chain of command, as happens in the military world, and we got responses up through the armed forces about what the general reaction was. Both those things happened. We then adjusted a bit to what we got. You give ministers initial conclusions and say "This is the way that things are going, we think we now have to do some wider discussion, here is a discussion document" and then you adjust a bit as you go on. What we did not do was to make all this sequential because otherwise, Chairman, you would have been really cross with me for taking a long time. What we did was to get on with some of the discussion at the same time as we initiated the work on implementation, so we overlapped it a bit which meant we had a very busy spring. That was to avoid losing time. I think I am missing some anxiety of yours.

  27. I just wanted to know if there was more than one discussion document. There was the internal discussion document produced for the benefit internally of the MoD and presumably the Foreign Office. I would be interested to know whether they had any input in those two stages, one in the consultation that was going on in the working groups and in the final document before it went to your ministers. I want to know where the Foreign Office's input came. It certainly did not emerge after the discussion document went out to people like us. There were two documents obviously.
  (Mr Webb) We had an internal report on the progress of the work last autumn which we discussed in a consultative group not just involving the Foreign Office but a range of other government departments—I mentioned the Treasury and the intelligence community—they joined in at that stage. We turned that into a report which also went round to other ministers so that after Christmas we reported, as happens in these cases. Although you involve officials of other departments the ministers like to know at least in summary what is happening and you try to produce a piece of paper which is manageable for a busy Cabinet minister, so you get a shorter version on the basis that their officials will know the detail about their department's interests in much more depth. We did indeed do both of those things. The Foreign Office were involved in both those stages and the Foreign Office were again involved as we got towards the end of the exercise and wrote up the White Paper as a whole. Probably the bit they were less involved in was developing the force structure bit but that is more MoD business. They were involved in the initial working groups, they were involved in preparing a summary report for ministers, they saw the report that was going to ministers collectively and they were involved at the end of the exercise as we tried to wrap up what we were going to do to implement the strategic conclusions.

  28. Is the Foreign Office input into that final discussion document as they presented it to you available to us?
  (Mr Webb) I do not think so, sir, because I think it is terribly important that we have live discussions between us and the Foreign Office. I really want my Foreign Office colleagues to be able to say "Oy, I think you have really missed it here MoD, please redo this bit".


  29. So behaving just as we do towards you.
  (Mr Webb) Absolutely, Chairman, and we pay equal attention.

Mr Hancock

  30. You look convincing, I have to say.
  (Mr Webb) We do get very valuable comments from other departments. We get both informal contributions from other departments by involving them in working groups and at my level my counterparts will write me a letter saying "thank you, I have seen your emerging conclusions, we have these points on it". My whole thesis about the campaign against international terrorism is that one of the things the British Government can do well is to have an integrated approach in the international arena in particular, so it is in our interests to get it right by involving other people so there is not some sense of having to have your homework marked, we want the Foreign Office and other departments involved early on.

Mr Howarth

  31. Mr Webb, in the initial discussion paper which came out in February there was a fairly grand campaign envisaged to develop techniques and ensure that we have the necessary capabilities, to collapse whole terrorist organisations which may be widely spread geographically, and not just individual cells. There clearly was a revision as a result of the thinking you have been doing over the summer because when the White Paper came out it spoke of "operations [against terrorist groups] may often consist of harrying and disruption of our opponents without producing a clear-cut outcome" and "the successful engagement of terrorists, even if only on a small scale, and the destruction of their infrastructure, may weaken and demoralise the opposition." Could it be said that in the light of your analysis you scaled back the ambitions of the New Chapter?
  (Mr Webb) No, I do not think so. What the first comment that you made was going to was, if you like, a concept. What I was trying to avoid, and I think one of the working groups said this very clearly, was that you must not think you are succeeding simply because you deal with one element of a networked group and therefore conceptually you must be going after the group wherever it has spread, hence the word about "collapsing". That may be ambitious but it is certainly the right mind set. What you can actually do about that of course when you get down to the implementation phase is you say that Britain is just one contributor to an overall campaign, so we cannot do all of that obviously but what we can do is to try and work with a range of other countries to engage the issue. Progress has been made in that you will have seen although of course we have suffered from further terrorist attacks widely there has also been interdiction widely and countries come to mind like Morocco to Singapore where co-operation has helped to engage the group as a whole. I think it is a distinction between having the right concept and ambition and being a bit realistic about the UK's share of it. To keep coming back to the point about co-ordination, I think the events of the last week have shown how important it is to have that international co-ordination.

  32. Afghanistan did represent the attempt to destroy a whole set piece organisation even if it was spread out in the hills. Would you not agree that the shift of emphasis must be towards trying to deal with cells of terrorist groups widely spread around the world and that poses a very much more difficult challenge, particularly for the Ministry of Defence which is more used to engaging either on an individual campaign like in Malaya or Kenya or set piece confrontation like in the Gulf War?
  (Mr Webb) I do not think it makes it more difficult for us in the sense that each one of those in the end reduces to a specific operation.

  33. What I mean is that it informs how you organise your resources. The original consultation document said that "we must therefore continue to be ready and willing to deploy significant forces overseas to fight against terrorism and those who harbour them" and that is what Afghanistan was, whereas the principal key conclusion—perhaps Major General Fulton might like to respond to this—was we must aim for knowledge superiority. That is a very different thrust from deploying large elements of troops overseas.
  (Mr Webb) No, it is the bit you do before you deploy what troops you need very precisely. Can I just come back to make another point which is that Afghanistan was very important in that it disrupted the central planning and direction of the al-Qaeda and I think it did that very successfully as well as actually reducing the number of people that they had, the training camps. A number of people were captured and so on. Since then there has obviously been a range of cells which have been able to mount operations which have been significant. It is a very grim situation we faced in Bali over the last weekend. We must continue to go after those individual cells and for the UK to play its role in that. Another dimension of it, which you will see in the strategy document, is to try to prevent them getting a new base like Afghanistan because although we must not in any sense understate the damage and deaths that can result from individual cells it would be much worse if they could get back a central training direction organising capacity of the kind they managed to find in Afghanistan. You mentioned havens and that is a terribly important point if I may say so.

  34. Would you like to share with us where Ministry of Defence thinking currently locates those potential new havens to replace Afghanistan?
  (Mr Webb) I hope not, Sir, because if I knew you would expect me to be planning to do something about it.

  Mr Howarth: I thought I would just explore and see how far you are prepared to go.


  35. Mr Webb is too old to fall for a sucker punch like that.
  (Mr Webb) Do you want to add anything to that, Rob?
  (Major General Fulton) Only to underline the point you have made that we saw very clearly that knowledge superiority was the key enabler without which we could not focus the military effort. In my working group we put quite a lot of effort into identifying not only what did we need to do that we were not doing at the moment in order to understand the terrorist as well as simply counting him but also to understand what part of that was the military role and what part of that was properly the preserve of others, the classic military intelligence activities of scan, cue and focus. We believed that really the right part of that was for us to look at improving the military's ability both to cue our assets and then to focus in order to provide actionable intelligence on which military forces could act. In the scan function, scanning the world to identify the point that you have made, we had a part to play but also so did others.

Mr Howarth

  36. Just one final question. Why do you need to produce a further White Paper next year and in which areas of the current New Chapter White Paper do you regard the conclusions as still tentative?
  (Mr Webb) We have committed ourselves to present to Parliament a White Paper during each parliament and it seemed to us that—this is Mr Hoon's call obviously—next year would allow us to draw together the New Chapter, the conclusions that we can take from the spending review, which of course led to the most welcome increase in defence budget.

  37. We are going to come on to that.
  (Mr Webb) And draw it altogether. There probably will be some updating of the New Chapter work but it is actually the commitment to give an overall Defence White Paper once per parliament. We imagined the Committee would rather have that sooner in the parliament than for us to wait another year.

  38. Do you think that the kind of things that you will be looking at will be perhaps an increase in special forces, more emphasis on intelligence of the kind that Major General Fulton was just explaining to us and, indeed, issues concerning heavy lift?
  (Mr Webb) I think all those will be looked at. We have talked about special forces' equipment, for example, and certainly intelligence gathering and we will probably get on to the question of the accelerated plans for UAVs and so on. I think all that will be seen as something that we are trying to gel together as a package.


  39. One last question on this section, Mr Webb. Can you remind me, what was the deal by which the navy was going to get its two new aircraft carriers? What did they have to give up? It is all a question of compromises. Can you remember? If you cannot can you drop us a note? I would be very interested in this, it is very important.
  (Mr Webb) It really does not work like that. We do future resource allocation across defence as a whole and we then make adjustments to the individual services. Obviously there has to be some realism about the number of people the individual services can recruit and so on but it is really not a question that if one service gets the new platform that they automatically are seen to be denuded of another platform, it just goes into the overall pool. I suppose what I would say the SDR reduced was the amount of heavy forces kept against Russian threats, that would be an example of an area where there were quite natural reductions in the late 1990s.

  Chairman: The Committee had a letter from the MoD saying that its naval commitment was 32 frigates and destroyers. Will that number survive the New Chapter review and the events of the next five years? Is it still 32 frigates and destroyers?

  Mr Hancock: We have not got 32 frigates and destroyers, have we?

5   Note from Witness: The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter. Back

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