Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-95)



  80. Thank you for your reassurance on reassurance. Along with the ravages to the Territorial Army that SDR enplaced, as I perceive it not only have the numbers been cut substantially to about 40,000, not only are we told that there are difficulties in terms of locating Territorials and reservists and fit-for-role Territorials, but what thoughts have been given to making these units capable of operating above platoon or perhaps company level operations. As I understand it there is no battalion level of capability. The majority of the Territorial Army is committed to providing individual reinforcements.
  (Mr Webb) It is true that the emphasis after SDR was shifted, particularly in this area of enablers which is something you need to reinforce for operations. Let us give you a decent note about the current state of the TA and cover that point in it. What I do know is that there is nonetheless availability to undertake immediate tasks within the United Kingdom if required and if requested by the police.

  81. May I move on to nuclear, biological and chemical warfare defence, NBC for short? We have seen that the Royal Tank Regiment have now become the NBC regiment and we see them being used for other purposes, which we will not go into just at the moment. Their remit clearly is to defend deployed forces against an NBC threat. What extra capacity do we have for defence of the homeland from NBC, particularly in terms of using the reserves?
  (Mr Webb) We certainly have that capability when it is available in the UK, because it has other tasks as you indicated. We have the ability to provide something which is very important to the crisis response against chemical and biological threats which is specialist technical expertise. This is again something which others lead on but being able to give good advice early is a very important ingredient of managing this situation well. That is clear from the exercises we have undertaken, one of which I participated in. There is a question about just throwing bodies into it and about what they are going to do. You also have to be particularly careful about throwing in people who are the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence without the kit and training to be able to look after themselves. Tempting as it is to say send in the TA, are you sure that you would really need them and that you would not just be potentially increasing the number of people who are at risk for no purpose? The civil emergency procedures run by the National Health Service, by the fire services and so on are quite sophisticated and practised in this area and there are well-made contingency plans. There is also the call-out point which we talked about earlier. To the extent anybody was needed from the armed forces it tends to be the regulars who have the up-to-date NBC training, who are available at very short notice and whom we can direct straight into it without having to wait for a call-up procedure and who are mobile and can be got to the right place very quickly. It tends to feel more like regular support if you need it. The complexity of some of the modern emergencies is not necessarily something which lends itself to having lots of extra people: expertise, good information, which can be just as necessary, good command and control are some of the ingredients. If you asked me to guess, it would be reinforcing the command and control capacity which would probably be as important as anything in a big civil emergency. As you saw in foot-and-mouth one of the particular roles of the armed forces was being able to provide a reinforcement of command structure, so that the experts from other areas of government and society as a whole could operate most effectively.


  82. It would be useful if you could drop us a note, because I do not think you will be able to give us the answer either in private or public. During the foot-and-mouth epidemic, what advice did the NBC regiment give about countering a viral epidemic? What biological defence lessons have been learned from foot-and-mouth. I am not in any way suggesting, as I was accused of suggesting on an illustrious radio programme two weeks ago, that bin Laden started foot-and-mouth, but perhaps you could drop us a note on what lessons were learned from that experience.
  (Mr Webb) I remember the issue coming up. I was involved in that crisis in a previous job and I remember the issue coming up and vanishing as quickly as the suggestion was raised in the press somewhere. I shall send you a note about how we made that judgement.

Mr Cran

  83. I have a few questions to ask you and I do guarantee you that they are in your bailiwick, so you are not going to be able to pass them on to the Home Office or wherever else. I am really not confident that I am going to get an answer out of you so what I want you to do is surprise me.
  (Mr Webb) Asymmetric responses.

  84. You will have seen, as all of us have, in the defence press all sorts of suggestions that the UK and its allies are going to have to devote more and more time to intelligence, air defence, guarding and security of homeland assets and all the rest of it. Can you tell us whether you have reached even tentative conclusions—I do stress the word "tentative" conclusions—about what new capabilities will be needed as a result of what happened? Are you anywhere near that?
  (Mr Webb) We have already reached conclusions and taken action on the aircraft problem. On the rest, we need to take time to think through the best way of responding to this and then get ourselves in a shape to announce some conclusions. Spring/early summer looks like the right timing unless something comes up specific to homeland defence where earlier action is appropriate, in which case it will be taken. If you are starting to talk about investments, in the defence business you can get into very large sums of money. You need to mull it through and you need to give up some time to think about ourselves, to consult, to engage other experts and to get it right. It would be very easy to walk in and surprise you by saying we have decided to raise extra regiments for this or to buy this, that and the other piece of kit. It would be easy to do that, but it would not be sensible unless there were an immediate pressing risk. Where there is an immediate pressing risk, we shall do so. I am sorry to be boring about this, but that is the right way to do it. We are on a timetable. We have declared a timetable. This is not indefinite. We have said what we think is a sensible period of time to think it all through and do the work properly and that is what we are heading for.

  85. Just remind the Committee of the timetable.
  (Mr Webb) The memorandum says we plan to announce some conclusions in the spring or early summer of next year. I would hope that we would have something by way of a consultation emerging a bit earlier so that as we get some tentative conclusions we can start to share them and get people's response to them a bit earlier than that.

  86. Have you even tentatively reached the position of saying there might be a need for major new equipment programmes? Is that in the realms of possibility?
  (Mr Webb) It is in the realms of possibility. I need General Milton to do the general concepts work because until we get this issue we have just been debating here, a live issue for debate, I cannot resolve instantly this question about deep engagement versus homeland versus close. The British armed forces are good at this because they think very deeply about how to have the effect we are after. They think extremely imaginatively. I shall be surprised at the innovation we get from our own staff about imaginative ways of tackling this. Altering opinion may be as crucial as anything we can do militarily, altering the climate in which somebody thinks they might want to become a terrorist can be just as good an investment as buying a piece of heavy equipment. We need to give the concepts people a chance to have a go at that. We are faster out of the tracks on getting this work going than any other country I can think of except the United States. When I talk to my colleagues from other countries about this in the way I was describing, we are clearly well ahead of others on getting our head into this but it will still take six to nine months.


  87. I mentioned the Defence Committee and we are 11 non specialists, ably advised and we outlined a scenario which was feasible. In this large bureaucracy of highly intelligent men and women, was somebody not given the task last year, two years ago, five years ago, just to think what would happen if somebody acquired a nuclear device, as happened in Tokyo in terms of chemical weapons? What is it about the British that when there is a disaster we start thinking about things. I should really be reassured if there were somebody in the bureaucracy who actually produced some sort of document on this, so when the crisis, which seemed to us almost inevitable, arrived there would be action which could be put into effect rather than waiting until the spring and hoping that nobody decided to follow our timetable.
  (Mr Webb) I am sorry, I must repudiate this, because it is very important for public confidence that I do. I have told you that I personally have participated in exercises on responding to chemical attacks in the UK. I have told you that contingency plans are in place and they are. That is not a lead responsibility because we have a country in which the armed forces do not run the interior of Britain, but I have told you that there are plans in place to deal with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear incidents of that kind within the UK. We have not been sitting on our hands. Those are in place and have been exercised. One of the reasons why we have looked reasonably confident in public has been because we have the knowledge of having worked on those kinds of incidents in our collective planning consciousness. It is not just us, these are exercises we have done with the police, fire, Health Service under proper co-ordination arrangements. I must emphasis that on the immediate risk to the UK homeland and in the air, and I would say that probably we had all missed the risk of a rogue aircraft achieving quite that result, we have taken action about rogue aircraft already. In terms of homeland defence, everything that needs to be done immediately is being done immediately. When people come up with new things we shall react to them immediately, whether it is the things I have talked about or others. If it is necessary to deploy the armed forces to help defend the UK homeland, I know that Mr Hoon will immediately approve that and the armed forces will react immediately. We can do these things in parallel; I used to do that stuff before, so I know about the tempo and you know how fast we can react. I have been out of bed in the middle of the night and into the Cabinet Office within an hour to do this stuff. I know how we can do this. But in parallel with that team, who are not present here today because they are running the current crisis, we also have a process of trying to work out what capacity we need in the longer term. I am sorry to be teased about this but if I gave you an instant answer on that now, we would invest badly in terms of people's money, taxpayers' money and in the time potentially of hard-pressed people in the armed forces or other people who might join in. We need to take a bit of time to get the long-term capability, but I keep coming back to the point that in terms of the immediate risk to the UK homeland, the plans are in place and the armed forces are ready to respond to them. I am sorry to be a bit emphatic.

  88. I can see why you were irritated by my remarks. You are very restrained. Thank you. Point taken.
  (Major-General Milton) May I just reassure you as well? We have not just discovered asymmetry, we have been stressing it for many years. The strategic context paper, which has been in the public domain for some time, says that we face adversaries increasingly likely to pursue unconventional strategies and tactics. They will focus on perceived weaknesses and fallibilities such as the sensitivity of public opinion to casualties. Some adversaries will tend to ignore international law and ethical standards, including the deliberate targeting of civilian populations. That is pretty well a description of what happened. We have not just invented this and we have stressed also the asymmetric nature of threats, not just from state adversaries, though we believe increasingly because of western conventional dominance that state adversaries will use unconventional means and will use surrogates to achieve their means, but also for non-state actors. It is not something we have just discovered, it is in the public domain and I can assure you that it has been in our work for some time.

  Chairman: We shall have ample opportunity to test how justified your relative confidence is.

Mr Jones

  89. In terms of reviewing equipment, what work are you doing with European partners and NATO partners in terms of the review which is going on at the moment?
  (Mr Webb) There is discussion going on in a variety of fora about equipment issues. There is actually a meeting today on equipment issues in the European security and defence initiative context and there are very regular meetings of NATO. Yes, there are discussions going on about equipment issues and they will start to factor in this dimension of it. One of the things we learnt as part of the smart acquisition process, which is to accelerate the pace at which we can do equipment projects, is that you need to get the military requirement right. Ideas will come forward for kit and some bright ideas have come forward. I should have mentioned perhaps already that we have a science and technology dimension to this study and as well as looking at potential risks they are also working on potential solutions in a very blue skies scientific way for the long term as well as what we can do immediately. But you do need to work out the military requirement because there is a terrible risk that if you just buy a piece of kit, then it does not turn out to be appropriate for the use the armed forces need to make of it. You need to work out the concept, then to work out what sort of capability you need and then to do the project. This can all be done quite quickly and we shall have a first cut at this in the six-to-nine-month phase. Behind the people you see here working on this end of the project we already have people identified to get into that.


  90. We want to have the name now.
  (Mr Webb) Mike has the ideal name for the official who is in charge of the civil contingencies unit which is Granatt. The I-T-E version certainly works in terms of how far you can rely on him.

  91. Thank you so much. You are so obsessed with secrecy at the MoD that you do not even know that there is good information to give away. I can understand the sensitivity.
  (Mr Webb) I just needed to check and I have.

  92. Thank you very much.
  (Mr Webb) May I make one final point on the question of secrecy? It would not be at all difficult to guess that there will probably be some techniques against terrorism which will best remain secret. We have said this in our memorandum but I want to be straightforward with you about this. I have tried to talk about everything I can, but I shall talk a bit better when I have done the work thoroughly. I say that now unashamedly because we are confident that will be the case. I just mention that.

  93. We shall draw stumps. Thank you so much. I hope you get a bonus for your performance today gentlemen. You did not say much but you said it really well. I thought it was a very helpful start to our series of inquiries. We shall be pursuing this in due course and we look forward to further discussions with you.
  (Mr Webb) May I make one point? Although the chaps here have made some notes, I am actually quite keen to take in the results of the Committee's work. As you know, the record of this meeting belongs to you not to us.

  94. You will have a transcript.
  (Mr Webb) The point is that it does not get published for a while. I hope you will allow us to use that at least internally so we can reflect in our work points which members have made.

  95. Of course we shall send it to you very quickly, so long as you send all the stuff we have asked for equally quickly.
  (Mr Webb) Indeed. I take the challenge.

  Chairman: Thank you so much.

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 18 December 2001