Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500 - 519)



  500. Are you satisfied that everybody knows exactly what their role would be in this? Do I understand from your previous answer to Mr Rapson that it would be CAOC9, the High Wycombe Strike Command which would co-ordinate all this?
  (Air Commodore Cook) Initially. On 11 September our initial reaction was to analyse very, very quickly whether the NATO system in place was adequate to cope with the needs of the UK to take action against a civilian airliner of the UK. It was felt that the consequences of taking that action had to be held nationally and not with a NATO commander.***. There is a procedure now in place which has been exercised live on two occasions since 11 September but also procedurally links the national representative to the authority within the Ministry of Defence in London. I am confident that we now have a procedure in place which will allow a fairly swift transition from a NATO standpoint to a national procedure to deal with such an event.

  501. *** there so the commander essentially has at his disposal a radar screen where he can see what is identified on it. You are saying that at the point where ***.
  (Air Commodore Cook) No, the decision to launch the QRA aeroplanes is taken at a much lower level because there must be no doubt and time is of the essence. If there is any doubt about whether we need to get airborne to intercept these, then there is no doubt: we launch. We have done so on a number of occasions. We launch, we intercept, we identify, then we can worry whether it was the right decision later on. That initial decision is taken at the CAOC level.
  (Mr Bowen) Two things happen at the same time: one is that as soon as the CAOC launch the aircraft, ***

  502. What facilities are available for Ministers to monitor what is going on? Presumably they are going to have a radar screen available at the Ministry?
  (Air Commodore Cook) ***

  503. You say an exercise has taken place twice.
  (Air Commodore Cook) There have been two incidents since 11 September when we put these National Air Defence procedures in place. One was a hoax call saying an aeroplane was getting airborne out of Northern Ireland heading for Sellafield, so we launched QRA to put combat air patrols up. The second was that there is a facility on board aeroplanes to put on a squawk, an electronic signal, which says they are in trouble, they have been hijacked. We had a similar event in the Midlands recently and again it was incorrect dialling by the pilot, but we took no risk and we launched for that one as well[2]. During that process, these procedures were—

  504. What really does concern me is that given the approach pattern to Heathrow, where aeroplanes are stacked way out in the Thames estuary and lined up by the controllers in a straight line over some of the most sensitive buildings in the United Kingdom, including this one and the Ministry of Defence, if a determined terrorist were going to launch an attack on the United Kingdom there would be no point in doing it out over the Atlantic somewhere. The time to do it would be on that final approach and you are not going to know anything—
  (Air Commodore Cook) No. I agree there would be very little time.

  505.—until a controller suddenly sees an aeroplane departing from its final approach. There are only going to be seconds.
  (Air Commodore Cook) Yes.

  506. You cannot deploy somebody from *** to get down here and deal with that.
  (Air Commodore Cook) ***
  (Mr Davenport) That is why we think it is worth having this procedure in place ***.

  507. We are all in the same boat on this. There is no way we can reassure our constituents that the country is 100 per cent safe.
  (Air Commodore Cook) No. What you can reassure them is that by implementing this system immediately there is a chance of getting the interceptors and the process alerted very quickly, such that if aircraft Nos.2, 3 and 4 are on its way you stand a better chance of stopping those happening.

  508. I also do not quite understand why *** is the place where these aeroplanes are based. I happen to have my aeronautical map with me as every good aviator should and ***. If you have to deal with something down here in the Thames estuary . . . ***.
  (Mr Mann) I have maps of my own which I can wave round if you want me to do so. Life is not as gloomy as has just been painted. ***. Let me list two or three and then tell you what we are doing about them. First of all, if we get prior intelligence warning. Second, if we remember back to the events of 11 September, there was an informal warning, the mobile phone calls which started to activate a process and it could be we get something out of that. Third, it is possible that through squawking or whatever, we could know from air traffic control authorities some way away if these aircraft are hijacked overseas and then become inbound to the UK; we could have warning there. Finally, there could be a second or third or fourth aircraft in which case we need to have arrangements to put aircraft up ready to respond. Yes, you are absolutely right on the geography. ***. I hesitate to mention this, looking round at the constituencies.

  509. This is the old cold war disposition.
  (Mr Mann) Indeed. ***. Some of the targets are not going to be there. There are potential targets in the south and the west of the country. One of the things we are looking at and indeed are working on—I should hate to give the impression that we are wasting time—is looking at other places where we could put aircraft in to provide coverage of the whole of the UK within fast response time. ***

  Mr Howarth: *** ? Mr Jones is entirely right to point out that life does not end at Watford and there are very important people, not least himself, operating north of Watford.

  Rachel Squire: ***?

Mr Howarth

  510. That can be done but it does seem to me that London presents one of the best targets for terrorists and it is high profile and they go for high profile. ***.
  (Mr Mann) *** are important because it may be that we want to get at these aircraft before they are anywhere near London, as they are tracking in from the Middle East or wherever. Having aircraft that far out will be useful in that respect, leave aside covering the potential targets down there. ***.

  511. There is Farnborough in my constituency.
  (Mr Mann) ***. We shall not stop looking but there are some fairly significant difficulties there, one of which is about explosive licensing and the dead zones which would be needed around aircraft missile storage facilities, which would heavily intrude on commercial development there. There is a certain amount of dead zone which has to be left for safety reasons. Secondly, the disruption, if this is relevant—it depends on the circumstances—to flight patterns. In response to a crisis it will not matter, but in terms of routine day to day activities the disruption to commercial flight patterns of aircraft taking off and coming back again and so on. It is more the explosive safety issues that are significant for commercial airfields that make them a much less attractive place to go.

  512. At the end of September, CinC North American Air Defence Command announced that the authority to shoot down civilian aircraft could be taken by the military, "If there's time, we'd go all the way to the President. Otherwise, standing orders have been pushed down to the regional level". That is apparently down to a two-star general. I doubt such procedures are in place in the United Kingdom.
  (Mr Bowen) Correct.
  (Air Commodore Cook) Correct.
  (Mr Bowen) Correct. This is something we have consulted Ministers on ***.

Mr Jones

  513. I am reassured that the North has some benefits over the South in this war against terrorism. I do take your point. ***. What co-ordination have you had with French or Belgian or Dutch counterparts because a lot of flights coming into the South-East actually start descending over France, over the continent? If you had a squawk message from somebody coming over the English Channel, how would that be co-ordinated?
  (Air Commodore Cook) There is strong co-ordination. Within each civil military centre in the UK there is a corresponding military sector. Within the UK the military and civilian controllers work side by side and there are land lines to our European counterparts. It would be easy for me to say "It does work. Trust me". I can recall back in the late 1980s a small civilian airliner was airborne, I cannot remember where it emanated but it flew through European air space not squawking, not talking to the European agencies, it was handed over to the UK authorities but before that had happened the procedure went all the way through to the UK Operations Centre that preceded CAOC , ***. In the end it was not needed because it was shadowed into the Atlantic and it fell. There is a good example of the procedure from the European countries into the UK working and working well.

  514. Would it be intercepted by the French?
  (Air Commodore Cook) Yes, and they would hand it over.

  515. Intercept or shoot it down?
  (Air Commodore Cook) ***. It would be intercepted by the French, say, taken to the Flight Information Region boundary, we would take over, shadow it through UK air space, just like we have done for many, many years with Soviet aeroplanes which have come round the Northern Cape.


  516. Nothing to do with the integrated structure of NATO.
  (Air Commodore Cook) No, nothing whatsoever.

  517. The French air force would participate in this.
  (Air Commodore Cook) They are fully knowledgeable of our air defence procedures and we practice a lot with the French on air defence exercises.

Syd Rapson

  518. When we were in Washington, Raytheon showed us the new technology which was coming in for sensor to shooter, to reduce the time down from more than 20 seconds when you sense some possible target to shooting it down in about three seconds. Our technology must obviously be lagging behind that because we do not have the money to spend and the Americans have. Is there a move to try to update our technology in line with the Americans so that we have the shortest possible time delay between detecting a problem and being able to despatch it?
  (Air Commodore Cook) There are two distinct issues here. What you are talking about is sensor to shooter time in a war campaign and we are fully engaged in development to reduce that time lag for a war scenario where you are dealing with a hostile enemy all the time. This is different. It is not the same as in wartime. We would have to prove first of all that the aeroplane was indeed hostile and had not just had a radio failure or the pilot incapacitated. It is a slightly different scenario.
  (Mr Bowen) ***

Mr Hancock

  519. What have you done about sorting out the legality of shooting down a civilian aircraft and the decisions which would have to be taken? I am interested and supportive of the view that *** would make the final decision and if they ever have to do it, it is a terrible thing to do. There is also the pre-emptive thinking that goes into saying we will shoot an aircraft down whether our right is to do it or not and where do we shoot it down. Who makes the decision when actually to shoot it? Do you shoot it down when it has finally got to the stage where you know that this plane is going somewhere that is going to do harm or do you shoot it down very early on so that the repercussions of the plane coming to earth are going to be fewer than maybe not judging where it is finally going?
  (Mr Bowen) These are appallingly difficult judgements to make ***. How that comes out on the day, you just do not know, but in terms of the legal aspect, we are satisfied and we have satisfied ourselves with lawyers that there is a proper basis for doing this, one being the Criminal Law Act 1967 where there is provision for use of reasonable force to prevent a crime being perpetrated. That balance has to be made. If this building or Canary Wharf are targeted, is that where shooting down the aircraft is the right thing to do, is that a reasonable act to take? The other is Article 51 of the UN Charter in self-defence, in terms of international law. The legal basis is there and exists and we are satisfied, but it is the process of weighing those judgements.

2   Note from Witness: At the time of the evidence session. A third incident had taken place in response to an aircraft flying towards Sandringham with a communications failure. Back

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