Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 261-279)




  261. Welcome, Secretary of State and Mr Webb, again. Would you like to make any opening remarks, Secretary of State?

  (Mr Hoon) Yes, I would, thank you, Chairman. I believe it is impossible for us to overstate the impact of the events of the 11 September. It led to the first invocation of Article 5 by NATO and it has generated a significant set of responses: political, diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, financial, legal and of course military. Longer term solutions in the war against international terrorism will involve all of these instruments and, as a result, we might hope that the military instrument can be often one of last resort or indeed one not used at all. The issue for us is whether 11 September represents a fundamental change in the strategic context and just how serious that is. For example, it could be said that the United States command chain was not actually seriously threatened nor was their business infrastructure and the civilian casualties on this scale occurred regularly during previous wars. On the other hand, the United States homeland had not experienced such an external attack in recent times. The threshold of terrorism has potentially been raised, although I think it is important that we do not play that up, and the likelihood of terrorists turning to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear devices has arguably increased so it has had a significant strategic impact. I have described the need to add a new chapter to the Strategic Defence Review and in the work that is already under way we are looking at a number of different questions. Firstly, can we base our policy on getting intelligence of specific threats, with occasional misses, or do we have to assess our vulnerabilities to potential terrorist capabilities and counter those? How far do we try to defend the homeland in a collective NATO and European sense and how should we try to deal with terrorists, in their bases or in transit? In the United Kingdom, how far should the armed forces play an increased role in security? If so, what sort of forces are best suited for these tasks? Should the reserve forces have a different or an enhanced role? In the military dimension is there a role for pre-emption? What is the role of armed forces in dealing with problems upstream, what capabilities do we need? What is clear already is that we need fast, integrated operations involving high levels of military skills, improved intelligence gathering capability and a deeper understanding of potential opponents. How do we engage the causes of terrorism as well as the terrorists themselves? How do we do so on a cross-governmental and coalition basis and what is the role of the military if any in this? How do we avoid the use of force becoming our opponent's own recruiting sergeant? How do we deter or dissuade states from support of complicity with terrorism, especially the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear activities? What if the state has failed, as it so comprehensively had in Afghanistan. Finally, what is the nature of asymmetric threats, how does this impact on our approach to operations? I am conscious that this is a formidable catalogue of questions and that there are, as yet, no specific or agreed answers. It may well be that in many cases there will be no right answer and we will have to make judgments on the basis of imperfect information, but I am determined that this work should be carried out thoroughly. It would be irresponsible of us to do anything less. I am delighted that Simon—who I know you have had evidence from already—has started on a comprehensive piece of work inside the Ministry of Defence. It is a piece of work which I know you will want to contribute to and I look forward to receiving your thoughts on that.

  262. Thank you, Secretary of State. An impressive list of questions, can I add one more? How is it going to be paid for? Do you seriously think all of these quite fundamental questions can be borne within the existing budget which although it slightly rose last year—I was standing behind you on a boat in Sierra Leone when you made that announcement—a number of those questions that you are asking are not going to be answered at no cost. Does it mean that if we spend additional money on those things that you are asking to be looked at that the budget has to be downgraded in some other area? Frankly we can barely pay for what is being done already, if there are going to be any additional functions—and I hope there are going to be additional functions—then have you already asked the Treasury to make way for a fairly substantial increase? I can anticipate the answer but please tell me anyway.
  (Mr Hoon) I know that it is a very agreeable tradition that you ask me whether there is going to be more money to be spent on defence and I indicate to the best of my ability as a Member of the Cabinet that certainly I would like to see that happening but clearly it is too soon to say specifically what the outcome of the work will be and whether that will necessarily entail extra resources but we are at the start of a budgetary round and certainly it is my responsibility on behalf of the Ministry of Defence to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is properly resourced within the overall constraints of Government spending. That I think is a traditional answer that I have given you on previous occasions.

  263. Yes. I looked with scepticism on previous occasions as well at what you said. The second question, Secretary of State, the questions you asked are questions half of which could have or should have been asked in the initial SDR. This was trailed as the most thorough investigation of defence and security commitments, a lot of those questions you are now posing frankly have come three or four years too late. As I said before, if you had read our report carefully some of those questions would have been answered.
  (Mr Hoon) Is that a question or a comment?

  Chairman: It is a comment, expecting a rather sharp rebuff.

Mr Howarth

  264. I think the Secretary of State is a bit hesitant about answering that.
  (Mr Hoon) I was not at all hesitant, I simply think it does demonstrate how seriously we take the views of this Committee, even though it may take longer than perhaps you would like to get around to dealing with the points you raise.

  Chairman: Gerald is dying to get in.

Mr Howarth

  265. Chairman, before we leave the question of funding, if I can ask the Secretary of State, who is obviously very coy, about what the Chancellor might be doing next year? Can I ask him if he will give some explanation as to what the Chancellor was saying yesterday when he said "I can report that the new equipment and immediate operational requirements of an additional £100 million has been made available to the Ministry of Defence". Can the Secretary of State tell us how that £100 million has been divided between immediate operational requirements and the new equipment?
  (Mr Hoon) That was, if you like, a down payment on the cost of the operations already having been conducted[1]1. I do not think it will come as any great surprise to the Committee that that down payment is fairly close to exhausted already so it is only part of the traditional understanding that extra operations of the kind that we are engaged in and around Afghanistan will be funded separately over and above the allowance for the defence budget. This is part of that process.

  266. So far it has cost at least £100 million, pretty well?
  (Mr Hoon) I think that is in the broad order of things, yes.

  267. New equipment?
  (Mr Hoon) New equipment for the longer term would be a separate issue which in a sense the discussion that we are having this afternoon is part of. Part of the reason for implementing this process is to identify whether in fact over and above the assumptions we set out in the Strategic Defence Review we require new equipment to deal specifically with the kinds of threats that we face as a result of the events of 11 September. That is part of the continuing work and something that I hope this Committee will contribute to.


  268. I will get back to asking the first questions. The initial SDR was trailed as involving other departments because this was a joined up inquiry. Is the additional chapter a joined up inquiry because it seems to me a number of the tasks to be undertaken in defence of the UK can be undertaken by groups other than Her Majesty's Armed Forces, such as civilian emergency planners, health workers, ambulance drivers, intelligence services. Is this additional chapter, Secretary of State, just MoD or will it involve genuine consultation with other departments to show that this is genuinely a cross-departmental inquiry?
  (Mr Hoon) I agree with that assumption, it is obviously important that we do involve other departments and there will be senior representatives from other departments closely involved in the work that we are leading. So there will be people from the Treasury, from the Foreign Office, from the Home Office, from DTLR and the Cabinet Office who will be giving their perspective from their Department of the implications of the work that we are doing.

  269. What data comes out of their budgets, I hope, not yours?
  (Mr Hoon) I think it is important, and one of the lessons that we have learned in a number of recent crises is the need to involve right across Government other departments in work which might have a military element but that element is only part of the response that Government has to make. That is particularly true of the response to terrorist threats.

  270. Thank you. Before I move on, to reiterate, I would have hoped that the initial SDR would have been sufficiently robust to have accommodated a number of questions that you are now asking.
  (Mr Hoon) If I may, Chairman, just emphasise the point of why it was that I called this a new chapter. The reason for that is that I believed that in fact the conclusions of the SDR were sufficiently robust, in terms of equipment and capabilities, to deal with the kinds of responses that we have needed to make, specifically the need to be able to move forces very quickly into a theatre in order to deal with a threat. What I am interested in is whether there are specific further lessons that we have to learn, which is why we are not reopening the assumptions of the Strategic Defence Review and why we have called this an extra chapter. This is about refining the work that has already been done in the light of the events of the 11 September.

  271. That final chapter will encompass lessons learnt or needs to be relearnt, of your earlier chapters and not just opening a new line of inquiry, it is going to be a synthesis, in a way, an evolution from what went before?
  (Mr Hoon) I see it more as building on the assumptions. I do not think anything that we have seen since 11 September has necessarily challenged the fundamental assumptions of the Strategic Defence Review. I want to be sure in the light of this Committee's comments, and the comments of others, that we do not miss out on any further assumption that we need to make in the light of the 11 September. That is why it is a new chapter rather than addressing the issues that we dealt with at the time of the SDR.

Mr Hancock

  272. In the answer to Gerald Howarth's question earlier, I was going to ask a supplementary to that. You said things were changing and you needed to look at what those things were. You suggested you knew what they were. I was going to ask what examples they were. In the new chapter there will be, obviously, financial implications in the extra chapter you are writing now. Do you envisage that will substantially change any of the previous chapters in the SDR to fund it if new resources are not available?
  (Mr Hoon) In the end I think that will depend, firstly, on what we identify as being necessary spending and thereafter on the degree of priority that might require in the light of the other priorities that the Ministry of Defence has. That is no different from any other Government department. One of the difficulties of Government is having to make those choices and they are quite difficult. I think you are inviting me to prejudge the work that we are all engaged on and I do not think that will be particularly sensible at this stage.

Mr Howarth

  273. The fear that we have is that you have been talking about an extra chapter, and you are absolutely right and we understand that. We are worried that unless the additional resources are made available to meet whatever conclusions that final chapter arrives at, that you are going to be reduced to the position of having to find the funds by limiting our defence capability somewhere else. We are asking you if that is how you see it or whether there is likely to be a real increase of funding?
  (Mr Hoon) I think it is a perfectly proper question that you might want to come back to at the end of the work that is in hand. At the start of the work or just after its commencement, I do not think it would be sensible for me to say one way or the other. It is possible—personally I think unlikely—as a result of the work that we do that we actually judge that all of the capabilities that we have already and have identified are perfectly satisfactory to meet the kind of threats that the events of 11 September pose. I am saying that is possible. I do not particularly believe that is likely to be the conclusion that we reach but it is obviously within the range of options that might be produced. Therefore I do not think it is sensible at this stage to say what are our likely priorities in terms of equipment, capabilities or training that might flow from the work we are embarked on.

Jim Knight

  274. Just very quickly, and for the sake of clarity, this morning we heard from Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden. He quoted some words I think of yours which talked about the new chapter as being a rebalancing of priorities. He suggested to us that might mean it is a zero sum game in terms of funding, would you at least be able to deny that?
  (Mr Hoon) I cannot say precisely what the conclusions of this work will be. Frankly it would not be sensible for me to say either what the results of the next spending round will be. I have indicated that I believe it is important that defence has the resources it requires to do the job that Government collectively asks it to do but I cannot absolutely guarantee that in very difficult economic circumstances we might not have to face less than I ideally would like. That is true, I think you will find, of most Cabinet ministers in most departments. There is a judgment to be made in these things. I think the quotation you were given exactly reflects what I have just said to you. We will do the work, we will identify the priorities, we will then have to make judgments as to what are the overriding priorities for the Department within the resource constraints that all Government departments face.


  275. The questions you are posing will take some time to answer. Will this be congruent with the financial process involving the Treasury or will you produce your conclusions after key decisions have been made?
  (Mr Hoon) I think those matters are for my judgment in terms of how best I consider it necessary to extract the maximum benefit out of the conclusions as far as the Department is concerned.

  Chairman: I think you will have the full support of this Committee, Secretary of State, if you try to extract more money out of the Treasury.

Mr Jones

  276. Secretary of State, anti-terrorism was obviously mentioned in the SDR. I quote from the White Paper in 1998 which says : "Support against terrorism of all kinds remains the highest priority for the foreseeable future". What actions did the SDR identify in terms of capacity for anti-terrorism work and actually what was implemented as a response to that?
  (Mr Hoon) I think that is really, in a sense, the first half of the point I made in asking whether it is justifiable to say if we face a new strategic threat as a result of the 11 September because it could be argued—I am not saying that I do, I very strongly do not—that in fact the 11 September was only different in scale, that in terms of the strategic impact of those events, as I indicated, it was not threatening the United States' ability to defend itself or indeed its basic functioning as a state or as a society. We sadly have had significant prolonged experience of terrorism in this country, what was different was the scale. In a sense what the SDR was looking at before 11 September was what up until then we sadly regarded as too often day to day examples of terrorism. The real issue is whether we now face the kind of threat that actually requires, as we have seen, a military response of a particular kind, that means we have to look again at some of the assumptions we have made previously about the kinds of forces we require, that in terms of the priorities that we have to give to developing those capabilities that we have to address those in a different way. I think that is part of what we have to do.

  277. Ten out of ten for evasion. What I am saying is exactly highlighting this. What was put in place in terms of capacity to deal with anti-terrorism in terms of what was referred to and what was implemented?
  (Mr Hoon) The kinds of efforts that we have made in support of the civil power in Northern Ireland, the kinds of forces that we have available there, have been engaged, amongst other things, in dealing with the terrorist threat. They have done so very, very successfully. I think that is the issue that, in a sense, this Committee has to face and I have to face in promoting this work, whether, in fact, the events of 11 September go so far beyond that that we need to address this issue in a fundamentally different way. In one sense we do because, for example, we are waging war, to all intents and purposes, in Afghanistan. Now that is a different scale of response from anything that we had seen in Northern Ireland where the threat was, if you like, more persistent but arguably at a lower scale of intensity. Therefore we were organised to deal with that more persistent but lower scale threat.
  (Mr Webb) Exactly so. We are a Department who have spent a lot of time on anti-terrorism. It is a tradition which goes back to previous campaigns in Oman and elsewhere. So we have been building up on capability in that area. What the Secretary of State says about scale though is very important because it breaks into two parts really. One is the potential willingness to kill a lot of people in one attack. The other is the willingness to give up your own life in a suicide attack mounted by relatively educated and sophisticated people and so that scale issue question, we need to sift through whether it is different: it might be.

  278. The definition of "highest priority for the foreseeable future" then, that was a reference to Irish terrorism rather than what we are talking about now in terms of Middle East international terrorism?
  (Mr Webb) Well, no, I think we probably also encompass things like aircraft hijacking and that sort of thing and hostage taking which have been within our purview before. It was a bit wider than Northern Ireland but scale is the issue in the way we have described it.

Mr Crausby

  279. You tell us, Secretary of State, in your recent memorandum,that you expect your review of the SDR to set a course which will enable the UK ". . . to deter, dissuade and . . . defeat groups or states". But do we have a clear enough understanding of the aims and motivations of these groups in particular to be able to do that with any confidence? How do we effectively deter sub-state groups that are not susceptible to the pressures of international diplomacy? How—perhaps more importantly—do we defeat them? Do we do that through military means or do we do that through other means?
  (Mr Hoon) I am going to have to say this regularly during the course of the questions I suspect but you raise one of the questions that we do have to deal with. In a sense conventional strategic defence is designed to deal with the threat from a state and the deterrence, the way in which we organise ourselves militarily, has generally so far been aimed at a functioning state which provides a threat to the citizens of the United Kingdom or the United Kingdom's interests. At the other end of the spectrum you might say that low level terrorist activity is something which broadly, say Northern Ireland, we have dealt with as a policing function. The military are there in support of the civil power but ultimately the decisions are taken by a police authority. What we see with Al-Qaeda in a sense is something in between. This is one of the fundamental issues that I think we have to identify. Whether that something in between is something which is more akin to a policing supervisory function where we develop essentially a civil response to the threat, but recognising that from time to time the military might be assisting in that, or whether as a result of the complete collapse of the state and the failure of a central government to control what is happening within the borders of that country means actually where we are dealing with something new, something that challenges our notions of what is a state and challenges the kinds of threats that we then face because that has serious implications for example in terms of deterrence. You generally can deter a state in one way or another because you deter the leadership of that state. To be honest, the more that we have learned about the Taliban regime and its relationship with Al-Queda, the more perhaps we understand that by deterring the Taliban we could actually have been deterring Al-Queda, that did not appear to be the case at the outset where there appeared to be greater distance between the Taliban and Al-Queda. Nevertheless there is clearly a sense—certainly beyond Afghanistan—in which this terrorist organisation has an impact inside the geographical boundaries of a state which is completely different from anything which we faced in the recent past. But actually if you go back in history before the nation state, there are similar examples of organisations which operated in that way. What we are seeing in a way in a number of these countries is a challenge to our concepts of the nation state because these organisations are transcending geographical and political boundaries and that might be the answer to the question I posed at the outset about whether in fact we are dealing with something strategically different because we probably are.

1   1 Note: See appendix 4. 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 18 December 2001