Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



Mr Roy

  40. May I raise a point which was raised earlier regarding public opinion and the public viewpoint? Will the public be given the opportunity to give their viewpoints, will they be listened to and is it not really just a type of very soft PR exercise? I know that the public have been asked for their views before. What systems did you use before in the SDR? You are presumably doing that again. What lessons if any did you learn from the previous exercise on which you will be able to improve over the next couple of months?
  (Mr Webb) In the SDR we invited written comments from a wide range of people. We had some views we were not expecting, particularly on the interface with NGOs. I do not want to cite a particular NGO but we had some very stimulating contributions which actually changed how we approached certain issues. We also have invited seminars and we had a somewhat wider process of consultation. I expect quite a lot of those elements to be there in this one. I have actually invited the people who are running the individual study teams not to wait for a process, but if they want to invite experts to come and join in then they are just free to go and find people and Tony has already being doing some of that. I have a sense, but you are telling me as much about this, that there is a desire in public to know a bit more about the wider exercise. I am considering whether we might see whether we could have a discussion piece maybe through the exercise which we would put out, maybe on the website or something, somehow make it widely available.

  41. More widely than a website. We do not all have computers.
  (Mr Webb) Indeed. Maybe it is true that although the Strategic Defence Review was of interest to groups of people, there is a wider spread of interest in this subject which we ought to meet by making something available. Perhaps we should go out and get groups of people and talk to them. I am exuding an intention to do this well rather than trapping myself into particular commitments on how to do it.

  42. I am very interested in the fact that you would try to use as wide a scope as possible, certainly not just a website, because I am of the opinion that it would only be certain people who would use a website. I would prefer to see it in newspapers. More specifically I think that the Muslim communities throughout the length and breadth of the country should have some input as they do have something to say and should be listened to.
  (Mr Webb) On listening, we have not had contact about that yet but I did part of the previous Defence Review myself which was on smart acquisition. The one thing people would say is that we did go out and talk to lots of people and we did listen. That is very much my style and we know we will get views which will surprise us and that is what we want.
  (Major-General Milton) From early on in this crisis we have actually engaged a small number of academics and asked for their perspective. Your point about the Muslim community is very interesting. We have also sought views from Muslim academics and the Muslim community to try to break away from this danger of thinking of it purely from a western military perspective. We have to understand it from the other point of view. If I may reassure you, we have been doing that from an early stage. We have also been doing it fairly discreetly for obvious reasons. We understand that it is absolutely vital that we do not just see it from our own stovepipe perspective.

  Patrick Mercer: You have talked about additional resources perhaps having to be added to cope with specific requirements.

  Chairman: I do not think he quite said that.

Patrick Mercer

  43. The possibility. Extra resources are fine in terms of equipment but in a briefing recently from ACGS, we were told that the shortfall in manpower, particularly for the army, has reached a position from which there is little hope of increasing it. A fairly remarkable statement he made to me was that yes, there were likely to be incremental additions of manpower but that commitments would be reduced, in other words take the seats away, to make the numbers fit the seats as opposed to the other way round. What hope do you have should extra manpower be needed of being able to achieve that?
  (Mr Webb) I do not think I was there when Richard Dannatt went through that with you, so I do not want to cross comment on that. I know the enormous effort the army is making on recruiting and it will be interesting to see whether the current focus on defence and security issues catches young people's attention and makes them interested in the army. That would be a slightly positive side effect if it came to pass. What I am absolutely clear about is that if we are resource constrained in any way, particularly on people, the one thing we must avoid doing is just to pile that burden onto the soldiers, sailors and airmen. One of the reasons I was careful with Mr Howarth was that nowadays we are operating coalitions, we have choices about what operations we do and in my previous job I talked to the Committee many times about choices of that kind. Sometimes you need to say to allies, and this is one good reason for building coalitions and defence ability, that we are going to have to sit this one out, either this operation entirely or this roulement of an operation where you replace the early entry force with a follow-up force. Part of our job is to try to manage that balance. Mr Hoon is very determined not to dump this problem on the individual servicemen. Task Force Harvest is a good example. There was something the UK could do and really the UK were the only people who could move fast enough to get a brigade headquarters into Macedonia to intervene at an important time. Speed was important but we made it absolutely clear that that was all we could do and that because we had Saif Sareea and other pressures coming up that was it. We talked to our colleagues, the same sort of colleagues I was talking to on Monday, and said "Where can you help, please?". Interestingly this was before 11 September and Germany came through and said they would take it on next and they have been leading the following task force and we have not been involved beyond a couple of staff officers. That is part of it too and we need to manage it.

  44. Forgive me. We are talking about trying to deal with an expanded problem with a number of men which is not sufficiently large to deal with the current set of problems. You talk about aspirations for finding people willing to volunteer, but it takes time to train them.
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  45. What is being done now to have measures in place to recruit?
  (Mr Webb) The army is trying as hard as it possibly can on recruiting and I am sure Richard Dannatt explained that better than I could. We will need to look, if—and there is an if—we do find this subject starts to require additional manpower, at whether there are efficiencies to be made elsewhere or deductions to be made elsewhere. The number of troops we have in the Balkans is something we keep under continual review and we need to look at numbers of troops we need to retain for collective NATO infrastucture. You need to keep looking at this. You do not want to assume everything else is static is all I am saying.

  Chairman: I still have not managed to work out why the last Government and the present Government substantially cut the Gurkhas at the same time as we had a major recruitment crisis. Maybe wandering around Nepal might be a very swift method of enhancing our grave shortage in the infantry.

Mr Jones

  46. On the present situation, is not the challenge that the situation is bad now and what we are into now is possibly an open-ended commitment, something we cannot see an end to? Is that not going to add to the pressures which have already been highlighted?
  (Mr Webb) I do not know about open ended. We should be trying to bring it to a conclusion in the sense that we need to respond to 11 September and get to a conclusion on that in whatever time it takes. I do not consider ourselves to be necessarily into an open-ended deployment in that sense. We may, as you rightly say, have to consider having the possibility of doing subsequent operations because of the international terrorism problem in general, but we need to factor that in to whatever else we are doing. I have a sense that something additional may come out of our studies, but if it does, we need to look at what else is happening in the world, that is all.

  47. What you have just said does not actually fit. What is coming out at the moment and certainly from the United States is that this is going to be a long haul, a long campaign. What you are saying is that you can see an end to this. A lot of people cannot. Is that going to add to the pressures Mr Mercer already raised?
  (Mr Webb) I do not want, if I may, to get into the question of commenting on the length of the current campaign.

  48. But it still has to be taken into consideration when you are reviewing.
  (Mr Webb) The answer is that we do not know yet, which is why we need to take six months to think it through. "Indefinite" has major implications. This is the point. A campaign is one thing, an indefinite further requirement for extra forces is another thing. We need to spend some time mulling over whether that is the case. Forgive me, we do not jump immediately from the conceptual work into particular types of forces. There is a lot of work to be done to say if—if—there is an ongoing new international terrorist dimension of a very long-term nature, set aside the question of a campaign but a new international long-term high security problem, we have a process which starts off with Tony doing work on concepts for dealing with that. A lot of the tools for dealing with that may be in other spheres: they may be diplomatic, they may involve building coalitions with regional partners. The military is only one small component of an overall campaign against terrorism. We then need to work out what type of military capability we are talking about which requires further study and thought and how far it is manpower intensive, how far it is equipment intensive, whether friends in technology can help in this area. All I am trying to say is that there is a long way to go on that part of it and it is not helpful to jump to conclusions. You are right to make sure we get to conclusions in the end, but it is not useful to speculate in month one of the study where we shall be in months six to nine.

  49. No, but the danger is that you are going to spread the jam increasingly thinly across the actual board and you are perhaps going to have to face up to some very serious questions on whether we do withdraw from some of the commitments we have already. Are those questions being asked as part of this review?
  (Mr Webb) They will be when we have worked out whether there is an additional task and how much it takes to do it. We shall have exactly to say whether it is extra or it is something we should accommodate by reducing elsewhere. This is the February discussion. We need to spend time at the moment working out what is the right thing to do. I have not been constrained in looking at that. We have been told to think it through and get it right. You do not want instantly to assume that the best ways of dealing with this are very manpower intensive, they may not be.
  (Major-General Milton) We increasingly think in terms of effect. We ask ourselves what effect we are trying to create and then work backwards. We do not want to have people immediately coming forward with bills saying they need more of this, more of that, more of that. Ask yourself what effect you are trying to create and then work backwards. We find that is a much more effective way of planning in these terms.

Jim Knight

  50. Almost regardless of how long a campaign it may or may not be, are there not post-Taleban military implications? If, as we are, we are committed to talking now about that situation and about creating a stable Afghanistan in order for a democracy to emerge and so on, surely there are military implications to that and therefore resource implications and if we look anywhere else in the world where we have performed that role, it has taken a long time. What discussions have there been about that? It goes back to what Mr Mercer was saying and Mr Howarth and all of those questions about resources.
  (Mr Webb) People are thinking long term. Do not just think national. Even if you have those kinds of jobs to be done, would British forces necessarily be the best pick even if they are the best forces? There may be other dimensions to it. One is in a process of discussion with coalitions about these things in which there are a lot of actors.

Mr Howarth

  51. Can we return to the substance of the review itself? I understand that on Monday there was a report in The Guardian—so it may of course be a fabrication—of a suggestion that the review would focus on homeland defence. Given that the SDR was predicated on being foreign policy led, can you tell us whether this review will be homeland defence led or foreign policy led?
  (Mr Webb) It is an important question. There are two work strands: one is homeland defence and the other is countering terrorism predominantly offshore. I shall ask Tony to talk about the military doctrine issues of this. Let me start off by saying that the manoeuvrist instinct which you can read about in British Defence Doctrine, tends to take you to engaging these kinds of people upstream where they are planning, building, preparing, moving, rather than waiting for them to come to you. We have sought to avoid Maginot Line sorts of approaches. On the other hand, as the Chairman has indicated, one of the first items in the list of military responsibilities is the defence of the homeland. I have a sense, a strengthened sense having listened to members of this Committee today, that that is an important dimension of at least what the public would like the armed forces to be doing. The answer to your question is both. We shall talk to the Home Office and civil contingencies people about one and we shall talk to the Foreign Office about the other and we shall do all this in groups together within government. The balance of what we do is a really good question. There could be an interesting question about where you invest most effectively. Perspective is important here because we should not just react to the situation as we immediately feel it. We need to take a bit of time to get this balance right. I take both of those very seriously. It has been interesting, as we have debated this amongst ourselves that we have come back more strongly to the homeland side than perhaps we started off.
  (Major-General Milton) From a doctrinal perspective we looked at it in terms of deep, close and rear operations. May I give you a conventional analogy? If we had a force deployed in the Gulf conducting conventional operations, the deep operations would be those operations some way away from the forward edge of the battle area to try to attack units before they had even gone into battle formation. Close operations, as the name indicates, will be an operation conducted within the forward edge of the battle area. The rear operations are all those operations which sustain it: the operations to mount out from the UK, to run the lines of communication and to support the troops in the field. It is a little early to say, but that construct will actually serve us quite well in looking at counter-terrorist operations. The deep operations you can see going out, pre-empting, dealing with people before they have the capacity to mount an attack against you, or perhaps attacking them in transit. We will have a requirement for close operations. We will be dealing with terrorists head on, perhaps back in the UK, but we shall also have this responsibility of looking after the home base and our ability to mount out. The key question, as you quite rightly identified, is the balance of investment. I would emphasise that we do all three of these concurrently. They are not alternatives. The key is how much we spend on deep, how much we spend on close, how much we spend on rear. That is what we have to ask ourselves. Some hard questions may be asked on that. Our instincts and indeed in conventional operations and in counter-terrorist operations tell us that actually the biggest pay-off is deep. That is where you get the best pay-off. That has been our experience over many years. The problem of course is the practicality. Can you do it in military terms, can you do it in legal terms, can you do it in political terms?

  52. There is also a question of timescale.
  (Major-General Milton) Time and above all intelligence.

  53. I am sure we all accept that thesis which you have set out. Quite clearly these guys have a ten-year head start on this so the deep penetration work of which you speak is work which is going to take us a long time to put together in order to be able to tackle the problems at source.
  (Major-General Milton) Indeed and I would emphasise that this is not just a military problem. In fact in many phases of the campaign the military instrument may be of relatively low priority or non-existent.

  54. We understand that and quite clearly intelligence is a key factor in all this, as Air Vice Marshal Sturley pointed out to us when we came to the Ministry of Defence the other day. Given the immediate threat is certainly perceived by the public to be to the homeland and the need to deal with that, in the United States President Bush has appointed this chap to be Director of the Office of Homeland Security. Do you think we should have something like that in the United Kingdom? You have told us about the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, which is a bit of a mouthful for a start and secondly not very visible. Do you think it would send a reassuring message out to the public if the Government were to set up such an office for homeland security in the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Webb) Having worked in the United States and with the US Government for some years you do have to be very careful about the differences in structures here. We are very used to working in collective Cabinet Office run structures. The person who runs the Civil Contingencies Secretariat can get fast reactions from government departments.


  55. Who is it?
  (Mr Webb) I am not sure whether his name is public. I shall just check that. It should be.

  56. Do you know who it is?
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

Mr Howarth

  57. He certainly is not very visible is he?
  (Mr Webb) We officials are quiet. Let me just check. I am sure there is no problem but I just do not happen to know whether the post has been made public. I have worked with that kind of unit run by the Cabinet Office on exercises and I am happy that it is very effective and the range of departments in the UK is very much used to working together on these things. He has immediate resource to Ministers day by day and to senior Ministers if he needs them, so if there was any kind of need for ministerial clout, I know he would get it. That is a good solution and it is our way of doing the same thing. It will work all right.

  58. Do we have to redefine the home defence role? Is there a case for increasing the activities of the Territorial Army and reserve forces?
  (Mr Webb) That is an interesting question. Would you indulge me just to give a little talk-in about military support for civil powers? We are going round this issue and I have a little slide here[1]1 which I did mention to the Clerk that we might get to.

  59. Before we get onto military support for civil powers, may I suggest that there is a military issue here? There is a suggestion for example that the Territorial Army should be called up. There was a report on Sunday in The People that missiles were set to foil terror blitz on nuke plants, which is obviously tabloid-speak for a possible ramping up of defence of key potential targets for terrorists. I understand that there is now an air exclusion zone of two miles over power stations.
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

1   1See Ev p 21. Back

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