Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
HOUGHTON, CBE AND
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.
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
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 onI should hate to give the impression
that we are wasting timeis 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
Rachel Squire: ***?
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 relevantit depends on the circumstancesto
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 ***.
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
(Air Commodore Cook) No, nothing whatsoever.
517. The French air force would participate
(Air Commodore Cook) They are fully knowledgeable
of our air defence procedures and we practice a lot with the French
on air defence exercises.
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) ***
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