Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 314 - 319)




  314. Welcome, gentlemen; I am sorry we delayed you slightly. Mr Bowen, I understand you would like to make an initial statement. I must say to those who are not giving evidence or who are members of the Committee and those authorised to be here that it is highly likely that some of the questions will only be answered in private session. If we ask a question that you do not wish to answer in public, then please inform us, as I am sure you will and we will make a note of it and then towards the end of our session we will move into private session. So, Mr Bowen, would you introduce your team please?

  (Mr Bowen) Thank you very much, Chairman. First of all, myself: I am Desmond Bowen, I am the Director-General of Operational Policy in the Ministry of Defence. I have got with me Brigadier Nick Houghton, on my right, the Director of Military Operations; next to him is Commodore Andrew Dickson, the Director of Naval Operations; I have got Air Commodore Ron Cook, from Air Operations at Strike Command and I have Mr Colin Davenport, Head of the Home Secretariat, on my far left.

  315. Thank you. Your opening statement please.
  (Mr Bowen) If I can just make a few comments please, Mr Chairman, just to set this in context. First of all, we are here obviously to help in your inquiry and in particular we are here to explain the contribution that the MoD makes to defence and security in the UK. In its broadest form that could involve taking the fight to the terrorist and that means, for example, what we have been doing in current operations in Afghanistan. Our ability and willingness to participate in operations and tasks abroad with partner countries in mutual self-defence was confirmed as a key policy in the Strategic Defence Review and that remains the case today. The defence of the UK, which contributes significantly to the security of the UK, rests on the ability of our armed forces to undertake missions overseas and that is their primary role, that expeditionary capability which is absolutely at the forefront of the armed forces' abilities. I believe the focus of your inquiry is the capability within the UK to defend against and deal with the terrorist threat, that is on the home ground. Whatever its source, terrorism is a criminal activity and consequently the operational lead, quite rightly in constitutional terms, remains with the police. Both they and the Home Office, who, as you are aware, take the policy lead in central government on counter-terrorism, call on the support of a great number of other departments and agencies, including of course the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces, and our contribution, I think, in the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces, is significant but it should not be regarded as the only solution—the only contribution—to deal with the threat. This threat is not new; it has been given added prominence and impetus by the events of 11 September, and, as the Committee itself noted, the scale itself was new and significant. Much of what we have to describe today in answering your points and questions pre-dates 11 September. We were not unprepared then, nor have we been complacent since. A great deal of work has been done to ensure that the contingency plans already in place could withstand the new scale—the new challenge—of this terrorism that we witnessed on 11 September. On the whole, in reviewing our contingency plans we found that we had the right sort of plans and precautions in place but there has been refinement since then. I am sure that you, Mr Chairman, will want to get into that. But I would mention by way of introduction that we have strengthened our air defence posture and the ability to respond to rogue civilian aircraft, we have made improvements to our chemical and biological defences and, as was demonstrated just before Christmas, we have demonstrated an ability to respond to what was perceived as a terrorist threat from the sea. I will add by way of confirmation of your comments, Mr Chairman, that many of these plans and precautions involve current and classified operations and these operations could be called upon at any moment, and clearly the one thing we do not want to do is to give any comfort to terrorists by giving them insights into what those precautions are and as a result we will, I think, want to move into private session at some stage and we will certainly signify to you straightaway if questions are taking us down that path.

  316. I think we appreciate your dilemma—one does not want to give unnecessary information to any terrorist—but on the other hand the balance is one wants to give reassurance to the public that even though you may not talk about things you are actually doing things that matter. That is the dilemma and maybe on the margins of this argument we may slightly disagree as to what should be made public, but at this stage what you would like said in private will be said in private. If I might kick off, we are aware that Mr Hoon will be giving details of the progress of the SDR New Chapter in the debates on defence policy tomorrow. It will be pretty surprising if the three single service Directors of Operations before us are not heavily involved in the New Chapter work. Could you tell us—but not too much, otherwise it will be career-terminating for you in preceding the Secretary of State—what your involvement has been to date and what your main input has been? We do not want to know the content—well, we do want to know the content but we are not going to ask for the content, we shall wait until tomorrow—can you just give us some indication as to where you have been fitting into the process?
  (Mr Bowen) Mr Chairman, I think I will probably turn over to the Directors of Military Operations very shortly but I think the main point is the work that is being done has been to try to scope the extent of the challenge—the range of questions. I know that the Secretary of State himself has, as it were, tabled some questions that he wants to have answered. In a way it is the scoping of those questions and trying to understand what the inwardness and the implications of those questions are that has been the focus of the work. But perhaps I could ask Brigadier Houghton to say what his involvement has been in the process.
  (Brigadier Houghton) When the SDR work was set up it was put into two phases really, the first of which is a conceptual and policy phase and after that that will then inform, after a more public debate, whatever options there might be which then go forward and would become costed options. Within the policy of the conceptual element of this Strategic Defence Review new chapter, which is just about reaching its conclusions now before it goes public, the work was broken down into five main strands for which a two-star civil servant or officer was put in charge. Those five strands—and there is nothing sensitive about them—are first a military assessment, but with wide input from other places, on what the changed strategic environment is post-11 September. Second, there was a strand on international relations and the role that defence diplomacy might take in the global war on terrorism. Third was a strand specifically on home land security. Fourth was a strand on what you might call conventionally deployed military operations, and finally a strand on what you would call special military operations. From my own perspective, my principal involvement has been on the third strand, that of home land security. That has looked at a number of areas of which certainly the integrity of UK airspace, the integrity of UK territorial waters are a part, and then the potential roles for the armed forces in support of the civil authority in maintaining home land security. Those have been the areas which we have studied.
  (Commodore Dickson) The Brigadier has described the overall organisation and how it was looked at, and really the other Operational Directorates, and more widely than just the Operational Directorates, supported that work. The main area of input from our Naval Operations Directorate was into the home land defence, and particularly territorial waters and the integrity of the waters around the UK. Additionally, because of the expertise that is available within the Directorate, we provided specialist advice in other areas to support.
  (Air Commodore Cook) Similarly with Strike Command we provided Royal Air Force expertise in those areas; particularly on UK air defence where our knowledge and expertise was required. So both the Plans Division at Strike Command and the Director of Air Operations in the MoD have been fully engaged with those committees.

  317. Thank you. After what we have heard and what you have done—and of course I am asking a very difficult question to respond to—how confident are you that the response of each of your services in response to the events of 11 September are adequate?
  (Mr Bowen) That is a difficult question, Mr Chairman, and I think that is one of the reasons why the Secretary of State for Defence wants to have a consultation process to see whether the thinking that has been done matches up to expectations and indeed to the challenges of others; this Committee clearly but more widely. I am not sure that we can really answer that and I think it will come out in the wash of the process that will be undertaken, I hope, as from tomorrow.
  (Chairman) I will let you off the hook with that evasive and very diplomatic reply but I assure you that that is the most important question we will be asking in this report, and our unwillingness to harry you for a better answer will not be replicated with any of the successors in your chair who give such a non-committal reply to a very adequate question.

Mr Jones

  318. In terms of the context of your work, obviously you are looking at the threats and the preparation of each service. Have any parameters been put down in terms of the cost or budget, or is it basically a blank piece of paper to map out what the idea is?

   (Brigadier Houghton) As I said, the first phase of the SDR New Chapter is really a policy and concepts phase and in that respect there is no resource constraint placed on it. This was against the background—perhaps the foolish aspirational background—that new resources would be made available were this to lead to a requirement for new forces or new capability. But clearly as part of the second phase our findings from the first phase will go through a costed options process to find out whether or not some of those capabilities could be afforded or else achieved through a re-balancing.


  319. Of course you will send us a copy of that first, undiluted, disguised, limited option, Brigadier. A brown envelope would be appreciated! Then we can see where the eventual decision matches up to the initial advice given. That, I think, is what we shall be exploring more fully but it will be at political level. Can you tell us a little more about the Defence Crisis Management Centre and are you regular members of that Centre?
  (Mr Bowen) I think I shall start by saying the Centre is the physical location in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence. It is the organisation, I think, that is actually of interest in terms of bringing together all the relevant people from throughout the Ministry of Defence in order to handle a crisis; but I think probably the Brigadier would be better placed than I to speak on that.
  (Brigadier Houghton) Yes. The actual Centre itself is clearly housed in Pindar, within the main building of the Ministry of Defence. The Defence Crisis Management Organisation goes beyond that and includes representatives from the front-line commands, from PJHQ and wider within the Ministry of Defence, but principally it is populated by officers and civil servants working within what we generically call the Commitments Area of which four of those represented here as witnesses are part. The nature of that Defence Crisis Management Organisation in effect serves two functions. One is, as it were, anticipatory and preparatory in nature in using a variety of sources looking out for potential crises on the horizon and, when those crises are identified, doing work that will flesh out what the potential military involvement might be in the handling of that crisis—its management or resolution—and in that respect provide advice and guidance to ministers as to what our role as armed forces might be in that management or resolution. That is the upward element. The downward element quite simply would be to translate political aspiration into military tasking and it is through the machinery of the Defence Crisis Management Organisation that the political requirements that are placed on the armed forces are turned into military orders, and operations if necessary, and managed.
  (Mr Bowen) An additional point that I think is worth making is that it is an enormously flexible organisation; it is geared to the crisis that needs to be managed. We have a different arrangement of people and a different constellation in the Crisis Management Organisation for dealing with Afghanistan as opposed to dealing with a different crisis in a different place or indeed dealing with something on the home territory. It is that flexibility that brings people together and makes sure that all the co-ordination is done and that the orders are transmitted.

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