Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. No? So the potential of a terrorist group stealing one or illegally acquiring one and potentially using that to blackmail somebody is not something that you or the Ministry of Defence treat as a very serious threat?
  (Mr Hawtin) No. We watch developments very carefully, as I have said, but I would not regard that as a major concern. However, perhaps I might ask Commodore FitzGerald to give you an explanation of how difficult it is to fire and target a ballistic missile, not something one can simply pick off—

  21. I would be interested to hear that argument.
  (Commodore FitzGerald) There are certainly mobile ballistic missile launchers, as you well know. The Russian Army contains a number, as does the Chinese. It would be possible to visualise a terrorist group perhaps getting hold of a short range ballistic missile but not an intercontinental one, not one with a range to reach the United Kingdom, certainly.

  22. But it depends where they fire it from.
  (Commodore FitzGerald) Precisely.

  23. They can fire it from North Africa.
  (Commodore FitzGerald) They would have to get it within range and therefore that is why earlier we said that we had some concerns about Libya, not so much for their technology but because of their desire to acquire such weapons. A terrorist group is rather different. They would have to have state support I think to move around a weapon system of quite considerable size. It is not just a truck with a firework on the back.

  24. What evidence is there that these countries, other than North Korea who have actually fired and tested them, have got missiles now which could reach in excess of 5,000 kilometres?
  (Commodore FitzGerald) Five thousand kilometres is a significant range and at the moment it is North Korea only that has that sort of technology.

  25. But they have not actually fired one that far, have they?
  (Commodore FitzGerald) They have fired a three-stage Taepo Dong beyond Japan which was—I could not tell you exactly the range—about 3,000 kilometres.[13]

  26. A lot shorter than that.
  (Commodore FitzGerald) But once you get to three-stage technology it is not a very great technological advance then to increase the range significantly.

  27. Is it difficult to target a fairly unsophisticated ballistic missile?
  (Commodore FitzGerald) Targeting accurately is extremely difficult technologically.

  28. This goes back to the point that you made about the Libyans, for example, who have a shortage of the technological experts in the country, but these people are available. The Ukraine, for example, has a whole legion of people who know how to target and build missiles which can go over vast distances and these people are on the labour market. Is there any evidence that you have that these countries are buying that sort of resource?
  (Mr Hawtin) I cannot answer that question in specific terms. There is certainly underlying your question the concern about proliferation both of the technology and as it were the human expertise that goes with it, and there is always that possibility of movement of the expertise and we have mentioned in particular the export proliferation activities of North Korea as an area of real concern to us.

  29. Do we believe that the North Koreans have guidance systems that could target accurately a ballistic missile?
  (Commodore FitzGerald) I have no specific knowledge of North Korean guidance technology. We could certainly provide a detailed intelligence report.

  30. When we were in the United States they could not seem to be able to prove to us or offer any evidence at all that they might have a vehicle that could travel great distances but whether it would travel where they wanted it to go was something that they did not explore in any detail. What are we doing about that? Are we suggesting that that is something that is not easily achievable?
  (Mr Hawtin) What we are doing is watching the developments extremely carefully. We are concerned about the nature and the direction of those programmes, including North Korea. I am not an expert on guidance systems or the relative ease or difficulty of improving them as one's development programme continues, but I would observe that the United States is a fairly large country and that accuracy in a precise sense may not be the most important characteristic.

Jim Knight

  31. Mr Hawtin, your response clearly says that there is really no potential as you see it for terrorist groups to acquire and be able to use these weapons of mass destruction on ballistic missiles. Is it fair to then say that to be pursuing the threat of weapons of mass destruction amongst rogue states could not be regarded as a natural extension of the war against terrorism?
  (Mr Hawtin) Could I just say on the first part of your question that I do not think I said that there was not the potential for terrorists to acquire it. I think I said—I certainly intended to—that that was not our prime concern.

  32. The second part was, that said, is it fair then to say in your opinion that the pursuit of the threat against weapons of mass destruction from rogue states could not therefore logically be regarded as a natural extension of the war against terrorism?
  (Mr Hawtin) Again I would regard the war against international terrorism and the concerns about proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as very much twin and inter-related. I think the Foreign Secretary said that clearly to the House recently.

Mr Jones

  33. I hear what you are saying in terms of the difficulty in terms of terrorists getting hold of it and I accept what Commodore FitzGerald said, that it would have to be state sponsored to get there. But there is a possibility, is there not, for example, in Iran where quite clearly there is a big divide between different elements in the government, in terms of both the elected government and also the unelected government that do give quite active support to organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. There is a possibility therefore that you could have a situation whereby a terrorist group could get support from one of those states or an element within one of those states to use such a weapon.
  (Commodore FitzGerald) I am happy to answer that. The other issue about ballistic missiles is that you can very rapidly establish from where they were launched. This does not fit entirely with the terrorist modus operandi. The terrorist group, supported by whatever agency, might think rather carefully before launching a ballistic missile, particularly one with a weapon of mass destruction attached on the top, the launch point of which would very rapidly be located, and could then be used in counter operations against them. I personally do not think it is necessarily a terrorist priority to acquire ballistic missiles so much as weapons of mass destruction.

  34. But in terms of September 11, for example, where you are not really bothered what the consequences are afterwards, are you, in that case you would be prepared to die and in these situations a retaliatory strike against that would not really matter, would it?
  (Commodore FitzGerald) Yes. There is a difference between the suicide mission and a group that you would need to put together to sponsor and organise a ballistic missile.

Mike Hancock

  35. If you had a weapon of mass destruction would the best way of delivering it be a ballistic missile?
  (Commodore FitzGerald) That is another technology issue because a short range missile is relatively easily weaponeered for chemical type weapons or biological weapons, but as soon as the range starts to build up weaponeering becomes more difficult, not least because you have to consider re-entry and the heat generated in that context.

Mr Roy

  36. Gentlemen, we know that part of the United States' missile defence programme is related specifically to the American homeland. Can you tell us particularly what system they intend to use, how many missiles it would be intended to take out and what countries would be involved? Would it still be the same three? Would it only be one of the three? What do we know?
  (Mr Hawtin) The short answer, Mr Roy, is no, I cannot give you precise answers to that question but let me be a little bit more helpful if I may. Under the Clinton administration it is well known that they were concentrating their activities on mid-course intercepts involving ground based missile defences. They did not proceed with those programmes and the Bush administration has not decided what it is going to do. It is conducting a wide range of research, development, testing and evaluation activities, focusing in the short term on what it calls emerging technology systems, of which there are three: one involving the use of test facilities in Alaska, the second a proposed testing of an airborne laser and the third the possible use of seaborne missile defence systems. That is an ongoing testing programme. They have not decided what they want to do. What it may also be helpful to the Committee for us to do is for me to ask Mr Roper to set out in technical terms what the difference is in the various stages of missile defence are and how they relate to what the Bush administration is doing. Would that be helpful?

  37. Yes. Is it still the same three "axis of evil" countries that would be involved in relation to the threat specifically to the homeland?
  (Mr Hawtin) The three states of concern, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, are the ones in question. The immediate American concern we believe is over North Korea as the most immediate threat to the United States homeland. May I invite Mr Roper to say a few words?
  (Mr Roper) Perhaps I should start by making the obvious comment that in the 19 years since Reagan made his speech on the strategic defence issue the only thing constant in US plans has been the pace of change. There is no stability in those plans. Let me set the scene a bit in terms of the stages of a ballistic missile flight which may pay dividends as we get into the more detailed questioning. There are three phases of a ballistic missile flight where interception is being considered. The first is the boost phase when the missile is in powered flight. It is what is often referred to as the ultimate panacea of ballistic missile defence because if you can attack it in that phase you are attacking it as a large vulnerable target, very visible, before it has deployed any counter measures, before it has deployed sub-munitions and, in the old Cold War days, before multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles have been deployed. It has got everything going for it but unfortunately it is extremely difficult to do. The mid-course phase is the second phase and this is a phase when the ballistic missile has ceased its powered flight and is coasting in free flight outside the atmosphere. Most of a ballistic missile trajectory is in that phase, typically 80 per cent or so of the time in flight, so you have a lot more time to intercept in that phase. The other thing is that flight in the mid-course is inherently predictable. If you know where it is and what velocity it is doing at any one point you can predict where it will be in any other part of that flight independent of the shape, size and weight of it. Literally, if you stand in space and throw a brick with a certain velocity it will follow the same trajectory as if you throw a feather, and that seems inherently strange because if you try and throw a feather here at ground level atmospheric drag makes it really quite different. It is very different in space. That is the mid-course phase. The final phase is the terminal or re-entry phase when the warhead or complete missile begins to re-enter the atmosphere and suffer decelerating forces from the atmosphere. It ceases to be predictable in what it is going to do, and if you leave it until that point to intercept it you have left yourself very little time and you have the ability then to defend only a very small area on the ground. On the other hand, if there have been counter measures deployed in all probability they will have pancaked out and you tend to have a relatively clear target. Those are the three phases. The Clinton plan for national missile defence focused very much on the mid-course phase using very large ground based interceptors, essentially ICBMs, which were aiming to intercept incoming threat missiles deep out beyond the territory of the United States. Providing you can launch your defensive missile early enough you can defend vast tracts of territory. A ballistic missile flight with a 5,000 kilometre trajectory will take 25 minutes. If, as soon as you see it, you launch your missile you can intercept it several thousand kilometres out which means potentially one missile site within the United States could defend against trajectories going to the Eastern Seaboard, California, Alaska, Florida, even Hawaii.

  38. What would be the timescale between first seeing it from the launch to the intercept?
  (Mr Roper) That is a very important question because in order to defend vast tracts of territory you have to launch early, which means you have to see it early. No matter how powerful a radar you place in the United States the curvature of the earth means that you will not see it early enough, which means you need sensors in the up-threat direction to see it with the radar. You will get cueing from satellites when you see the launch but you need a radar to give you the track information. If the US wants to defend itself against, for example, threats from the Middle East, it will need a radar located in the up-threat direction. That is relevant to the Fylingdales study.[14]

  39. To the layman what is the timescale between it going off and intercepting it?
  (Mr Roper) A 10,000 kilometre long based trajectory from North Korea to the central United States is about 35 minutes' flight time. If the US wants to defend itself against trajectories of that length anywhere in the United States with perhaps a single site, then I suspect you would be talking about launching within the first ten minutes of that 35 minutes.

13   Note from Witness: The range of a Taepo-Dong-I as a two stage ballestic missile is estimated to be about 2000 km. The 1998 launch was described as a three stage satellite launch vehicle. The second stage over flew Japan and impacted in the Pacific Ocean about 1650 km down range. The third stage went further, but appeared to suffer a technical failure and did not insert a satellite into orbit. Back

14   Note from Witness: It is more accurate to say that this is relevant to the potential Fylingdale requirements. Back

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