Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)

RT HON GEOFFREY HOON MP AND MR BRIAN HAWTIN CB

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002

Patrick Mercer

  140. Secretary of State, given the Taepo Dong-1 missile which, as you know, is in production, how soon could states that we are concerned about have the capability of building ballistic missiles and launching ballistic missiles which are able to carry a mass-destructive payload?
  (Mr Hoon) That is the same question as I was asked earlier and I will give you the same answer which is that, as Mr Hawtin said, it is extremely difficult to put a precise timescale on that, but it is something that we monitor very closely.

  141. The weapons-of-mass-destruction warheads that we have been talking about, which warheads do you expect to pose the earliest threat to UK interests?
  (Mr Hoon) I think you need to be more precise as to what you mean by a warhead. Are you referring to a nuclear warhead or are you referring to some other kind of payload?

  142. Well, which type of payload are we worried about first? Which is the most likely, given intention and capability, a mixture of the two, and I appreciate that intention is difficult to quantify?
  (Mr Hoon) I would not want to draw a distinction too finely between any of the kinds of weapons of mass destruction that are capable of being developed and delivered. Clearly there are countries with aspirations to develop nuclear weapons which they are then capable of delivering, but, equally, the delivery of a chemical or biological weapon would be a matter of very great concern as well which is why we did not make quite the fine distinctions that I think your question suggests.
  (Mr Hawtin) I think that is absolutely right. It is again impossible to give a precise answer to that question. It is the conjunction of missile technology and weapons of mass destruction that is obviously potentially extremely worrying, but one cannot answer it in the precise terms you have posed the question. What I would add, if I may, is that we are focusing at the moment on one element of the broader strategy that the Secretary of State described in his opening remarks, namely missile defence. That is only one element. There are many other elements in the strategy, including counter-proliferation efforts which are continuing and in which we play a very active part, so the objective is to stop, insofar as we can, this happening in the first place and to complicate the objectives of any states who are so minded to acquire these capabilities.

  143. To tease that out a little further, if we may, can you say which state poses the earliest threat to us in terms of being able to produce this and perhaps the intention? Let's just stick with the technological side. Which states are going to be in a position to pose the earliest threat to us in the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Hoon) Well, I think you do need to go back to the analysis of threat that I set out for you. Undoubtedly in terms of the development of missile technology, North Korea has some very sophisticated development plans and in terms of producing missile equipment is arguably the most advanced of the countries that we describe as states of concern, but there is no indication that North Korea directly threatens the United Kingdom; it has never evinced any such intention. Therefore, it is still that conjuncture that amounts to a threat and until that is an immediate threat to the United Kingdom, I am confident that the Ministry of Defence's position is the right one.

  144. On that line of reasoning, North Korea you see as having the capability and intention is another matter, but who else would be up there? Who would be second in our order of concern?
  (Mr Hoon) Well, the concern does depend on there being both the ability and the intention and I think it becomes slightly invidious to produce a league table that you are clearly searching for.

Jim Knight

  145. The Government likes league tables!
  (Mr Hoon) If I had to identify a single state that caused me most anxiety, it would undoubtedly be Iraq.

  146. In your opening statement, you said you would consider very seriously the fact that if certain states of concern do acquire complete systems of sufficient range, then they might be capable of targeting the UK, and obviously we accept that, but it is a bit like saying that if somebody you do not like points a loaded gun at your head, you would be worried about it. Do you share that concern in terms of terrorist groups acquiring such weapons?
  (Mr Hoon) I certainly believe that the events of September 11th have demonstrated that there are arguably no limits to which some fanatics will go in the pursuit of their perverted ambitions and, therefore, as we are aware, the attempts that groups like Al Qaeda have made in the past to acquire elements of weapons of mass destruction is a matter of real anxiety and it is something that we would have to guard against very seriously.

  147. Is it a major concern of your Department?
  (Mr Hoon) It is something that not only my Department, but other government departments as well will be actively engaged on, yes.

  148. When Mr Hawtin appeared before us at the end of February, he said that he did not think it was a major concern, a terrorist group acquiring a weapon of mass destruction.
  (Mr Hoon) Well, I do not think that there is any evidence that any terrorist group has acquired a weapon of mass destruction and, as I said very deliberately, they have sought to acquire elements of such weapons and, therefore, I do not think there is any difference between us.

Chairman

  149. I think Mr Hawtin would like to reply.
  (Mr Hawtin) Thank you, Chairman, if I may. I think my remarks were related specifically to terrorist intentions to acquire ballistic missiles and of that I said we had no evidence and did not believe it to be a real and major threat, but that their intentions were directed rather more towards covert measures and methods of delivery.

Jim Knight

  150. Thank you, that is helpful. Can you then talk me through the linkage between the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and war against terrorism in that the logic of certainly the discussion around the potential action against Iraq, and obviously we all know that no specific proposals have been made and so on, but that discussion is about the threat of weapons of mass destruction and that is certainly what the President talked about in his State of the Union Address, so how does that link through to the war against terrorism?
  (Mr Hoon) We have had a longstanding concern about the efforts of countries like Iraq, and specifically Iraq, to develop weapons of mass destruction. That was the justification for previous military action against Iraq and it continues to be a matter of very great concern. It is covered by a series of United Nations resolutions and UNSCR1284 sets out the terms on which the international community, because of its very real suspicions of Iraq, would want to see inspection freely inside Iraq of facilities that might potentially be developing weapons of mass destruction, so that is a longstanding concern. What I think the events of September 11th did was to focus the minds of the international community on those threats. I think governments around the world recognise this. By in a sense looking the other way after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and perhaps not taking as seriously as we should have done the Taliban regime and its willingness to harbour terrorism, the events of September 11th were a direct consequence. Therefore, what I think September 11th has done is focus our minds much more clearly on those kinds of potential threats to future stability and, therefore, we do need to take still more seriously, although we have always taken it seriously, the threat that countries like Iraq might pose.

  151. Given that you have said to us in previous sessions that there is no evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, it is not a concern that as capability increases, that would marry up with intention in terms of a terrorist group and you would see proliferation and, therefore, a threat through that route?
  (Mr Hoon) No, although, as your question actually accepts, there are obviously developments that we have to continue to monitor. It is not simply technological development, but it is also development in the way in which both states and particular groups might organise themselves, particularly given the shattering blow the international coalition delivered to the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the period after September 11th, so this is not a static situation.

  152. No, but given that, should we not be more concerned about capability? Your statement earlier on was about the balance between intention and capability as the reason why we are interested observers rather than participants in missile defence, but given that it is a pretty fluid situation and that intention and capability can rapidly marry up in ways we do not necessarily expect and anticipate, therefore, should we be looking at capability with much more concern?
  (Mr Hoon) We have put an enormous amount of effort into monitoring the development of capabilities and we have put an enormous amount, as have other members of the international community, into taking steps to limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. That is one of our highest policy priorities, as is the international community's, so no one is in any way doubting the importance of monitoring capability, but given scientific ability, given the influence of money, given particular states' ambitions, given, equally, the determination of certain individual terrorists, it is not something which the international community can entirely seal. On the other hand, I think we have had remarkable successes over the years in at least limiting the proliferation and the capability.

  153. When we were in the United States, the impression we had was that their security policy was governed far more by an emphasis on capability and less than we have in terms of intention. Would you agree with that and if we were to shift more in that direction, what are the implications of a security policy based on capability?
  (Mr Hoon) Well, if you will forgive me, I do think you are drawing a wholly false distinction and I think you are putting a wholly misplaced emphasis on one side or other of the equation that you see. We put a very significant effort, alongside the United States and other members of the international community, in both monitoring capability and seeking to frustrate its spread.

  154. At the moment with this theoretical discussion we have about possible military action in Iraq, that is clearly an attempt to tackle capability and proliferation head on, but does there come a point when if we are smart about tackling capability in that way or through diplomatic means or whatever, that missile defence goes on the back-burner because we have dealt with the threat, we have dealt with the capability by diplomatic and by military means and missile defence becomes less relevant because the threat goes away?
  (Mr Hoon) An interesting question built on an entirely speculative, hypothetical set of judgments about Iraq and presumably the answer you are searching for is that you are assuming that the United Kingdom will be willing to take on in a military way all of those countries—

  155. Not necessarily.
  (Mr Hoon)—who might be seeking to develop the capability and, since we have not taken any decision whatsoever in relation to Iraq, I assure you that your question is both speculative in its premise and builds on that speculation in its further thesis.

  Jim Knight: Thank you, Secretary of State!

  Mr Howarth: That will go down well in The Sun tomorrow!

  Chairman: The Sun does not attend our proceedings, but The Guardian does! We now have a list of questions we would like to ask you, Secretary of State, on the US plans for missile defence.

Mr Cran

  156. Secretary of State, can we move on to the potential role of Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. Now, I know perfectly well that you have a fig-leaf which you are deploying frequently and the fig-leaf was used this morning in your statement when you said, ". . . we have so far received no requests from the United States. . ." et cetera, et cetera, and I can entirely understand that, but at the same time your officials told us last month that the MoD was closely monitoring prospective US plans for these sites and have been assessing the consequences for the UK. Now, if the United States is to meet, as you know, its interim missile defence capability by 2004-08, we were told in Washington last month or the month before that any amendments to Fylingdales would have to be completed by 2006 and begun in 2003. Is that your understanding of all of this?
  (Mr Hoon) My understanding is that the United States, as I have set out in my opening statement, is looking at a range of means of promoting effective missile defence and that unless and until they have reached specific technical conclusions as to how they intend to do that, they have made no specific request about the use of facilities in the United Kingdom.

  157. But at the same time, if I go to Mr Hawtin, when he appeared before the Committee, he said, "...we are thinking through the implications of a possible request [from the United States]; the kind of request that might come forward". I can see that in public terms you are deploying the fig-leaf, but that behind the scenes you are doing quite a lot of thinking. Can you just tell me what Mr Hawtin meant and then, Mr Hawtin, perhaps he can tell us.
  (Mr Hoon) Well, Mr Hawtin is here, so I think he can tell you.
  (Mr Hawtin) I would not accept the term "fig-leaf". The factual position is that we have not received a request from the Americans, and I quoted to you President Bush's own remarks about "not yet decided what will work and what will not", so that is the factual position. The other point is that we are certainly looking at the possible implications of a request and it is no secret that we have been responsibly, I would submit, looking at that. We have talked to the Americans, we are talking to the Americans about this because it was certainly part of the Clinton Administration's proposals, but that is the factual position. We have not had a request and, as responsible officials, we are obviously interested in what such a request, were it to be made, would involve.

  158. I would never suggest that you are other than responsible, but have your discussions not covered the possibility that Fylingdales may have to need quite a lot of investment put in there if that was the option that was chosen? I am quite well aware of the fact that there are other options that the Americans could choose.
  (Mr Hoon) I think Mr Hawtin has made the position very clear. Obviously the previous Administration had rather more specific plans for missile defence in the sense of concentrating on a particular kind of technological capability. One of the clear changes that we anticipated and has come to pass is that a new Administration, which had in effect in opposition been rather critical of the previous Administration's proposals, wanted to look at a broader range of solutions to the problem that they anticipate and unless and until they reach a specific conclusion, you, as other Members of the Committee, are merely speculating as to what might follow.

  159. Well, I will have one more go at this before I move on to my two other questions, Chairman. I go back to what Mr Hawtin said. He said, ". . . we are thinking through the implications of a possible request. . ." Now, if the possible request comes along to meet the timescale that the American Government has set itself, would that mean that work would have to start on Fylingdales in the year 2003? It is a simple question.
  (Mr Hoon) But it is a speculative question. Unless and until the Americans decide—


 
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