Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)

RT HON GEOFFREY HOON MP AND MR BRIAN HAWTIN CB

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002

  200. Can I ask you one final question, Secretary of State? What do you reckon are the prospects for a missile defence system which might cover the whole of Europe, not just the United Kingdom but the European members of NATO?
  (Mr Hoon) I think what is interesting about the various thoughts that there have been about the way in which Europe might be covered is the extent to which we are able to take advantage of a system essentially designed to protect United States' territory and what further changes and refinements might be required to protect Europe. I think one of the issues is how we would define "Europe" in those circumstances and how extensive such a system would be.

Chairman

  201. That is almost Richard Mottram-like in obfuscation.
  (Mr Hoon) As long as it is only an obfuscation!

  Chairman: Giving evidence to us, not talking to his staff.

Syd Rapson

  202. Can I turn to missile defence for smaller areas, including the deployed forces protection? That is an area that is worrying me following on from what was said earlier. In the Technology Readiness and Risk Assessment Programme the MoD concluded that: "it is still premature to decide on acquiring an active ballistic missile defence for deployed forces. . ." . Again, this morning, you said exactly the same words. You said you believed it is premature to make decisions on acquiring missile defence for the protection of deployed forces. Exactly the same wording. This implies to me (which is complacent, in a way) that the decision can be made at a later date safely; we can leave it until later; it is not a real threat now, it is premature so we can make it later. What sort of lead-time do you envisage being needed between making a decision to acquire a missile defence system and introducing one for our deployed forces?
  (Mr Hoon) That is a refined version of the questions that I was asked at the outset. Obviously, it will depend on the emergence of a real threat—threat plus intention—to our deployed forces. We simply do not see that immediately, but as I have indicated we are very careful to monitor any such threat from whatever source.

  203. The general phraseology of "in the next few years" is really just saying "We will wait and see"?
  (Mr Hoon) As of today I do not see the capability and the intention to attack deployed forces of the United Kingdom.

  204. We tend to be monitoring and watching developments and being very careful to get that information together. That seems to leave things very late in the day. When we do make a decision it will happen quickly, and our procurement policies and the time it takes to get these things into place means that we will be trapped into buying off-the-shelf, ready-made systems and not going through the normal process of giving other people a chance to get in. That is a worry I have, that we leave it naturally because "we have not got evidence so far", "it is a bit woolly", "we do not want to make wrong decisions" and then, suddenly, it happens, we need it quick and we cannot go through this 20-year development programme and buy off-the-shelf. Is that a potential you see?
  (Mr Hoon) I would be delighted to be the Secretary of State responsible for a defence budget the size of that of the United States and be able to spend $8 billion a year on research and development. I happen to recognise, as you will recognise as Members of Parliament, that that is not realistic.

  205. I can understand that, although when we went to Washington they were crying tears about how little money they had. They all tell stories. We were also told when we had experts here from DERA or QinetiQ that although we have not got the money available in such quantities, our science level is very high. British invention and the science level in these fields is very high indeed. What technology do you think the UK could give to the United States on developing a missile system? Have we got the ability to give them, as we have done in the past, the edge and lead?
  (Mr Hoon) Mr Hawtin can give you more detail in a second, but in principle the basis of the technology is, I should not really use the word, "straightforward". However, the difficulty about missile defence is the execution rather than the basic technology, in the sense that we have the radar equipment, we have, potentially, interceptors that could achieve the desired effect. It is being able to refine that equipment to work 100 per cent of the time against an evolving threat that is the technological challenge. In terms of actually having radars and missile interceptors, potentially the basis of the technology is there already.
  (Mr Hawtin) Putting it together, I think, is the very difficult issue. Providing missile defence in the terms the Americans are contemplating is anything but straightforward, hence the sums of money they are spending on it and the length of their test programme, both the broader research and development testing and evaluation programme which is looking at what might work and what will not work as well as their particular series of tests—of which we have just had the eighth in the series last weekend, which was a success. To answer your specific question, what are the areas in which we might share technology, we have since 1985 had a Memorandum of Understanding on collaborative research and information exchange with the United States, and the areas it covers include radar, tracking, counter-measures and discrimination. So those are the kinds of areas where we believe we have a particular contribution to make and where we are talking to the Americans and contributing to their work. All of this in a way that is designed to ensure we are better able to understand the technology, the problems and the issues concerned should we reach the point at which a decision to procure would appear sensible.

  206. We are in there playing the game. That eases some of my tension. Part of my problem, being a old trade-unionist, is worrying about manufacturing; that British business, British technology and skill levels are retained. That tends to drive what I worry about. It seems to me that we just offered the facility to the USA of Menwith Hill or Fylingdales to do what they want, and we do not seem to be in this. We could be locked out because of the speed and take-up of a missile system. If I take your answer to mean that people are actually in there with the Americans discussing everything at that level and that the Americans are wasting their money, to some extent we will gain something for British technology and skill levels, and I am quite happy with the last part of my question. Is that a good interpretation? We are able to share the meal at the table in America at that top level on these things?
  (Mr Hawtin) We are certainly participating in the way I described with the Americans, and I hope benefiting from the rather larger sums of money they are able to contribute.

  Syd Rapson: It must be great. Thank you, Chairman.

Rachel Squire

  207. Can we come back to Russia? Secretary of State, many of us expected the Russians to be rather more vehement than they were in their objections to the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Can you say why you think the Russians adopted the approach that they did on that announcement?
  (Mr Hoon) Because it recognises the benefits to the world of seeing deep cuts in offensive weapon systems and, having discussed these issues with a number of senior figures in the Russian administration, I think they are realistic about the way in which technology is developing, and recognise the benefits that can flow from a different basis on which to deal with the United States than was the case as between the Soviet Union and NATO during the Cold War.

  208. Just following up on that, you seem to be of the view that it is a Russian approach rather than a specific Putin led approach that has adopted a rather more co-operative stand on both the ABM Treaty and other US announcements. Is that your view?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not think it is right for me to comment on internal discussions that might or might not take place in Russia any more than there are internal discussions inside a British Government. The President has set out the policy of the Russian Government and I am entirely content with that.

  209. That is interesting because we have certainly heard concerns that what Mr Putin says and what other Russian ministers might think could be rather different.
  (Mr Hoon) I am seeing the Russian Foreign Minister in three-quarters of an hour.

  Chairman: I am seeing him in an hour-and-a-half, so I shall ask him as well!

Rachel Squire

  210. Would you like to say whether you are going to raise the issue of either missile defence or the ABM Treaty withdrawal and its possible future action with Mr Ivanov?
  (Mr Hoon) I am sure we will be discussing a range of bilateral issues.

  211. You have spoken about Russia's reaction to the ABM Treaty, and perhaps part of that is them looking ahead. Do you get the impression that they are interested in the possibility of the US being able to develop some kind of leakproof missile umbrella? Are they showing any concerns about whether the US is looking to develop an initial system and then will be looking to enhance it?
  (Mr Hoon) The Russians, as I indicated earlier, have had a long-standing interest in missile defence. They have a deployed system to protect the City of Moscow. They also indicated towards the end of last year their willingness to participate in discussions on the development of a comprehensive missile defence system. So, yes, they have both a long-standing and a practical interest in this subject.

  212. So you think it is realistic to see US/Russian co-operation on missile defence?
  (Mr Hoon) I certainly think that there will be a range of discussions between the United States and Russia, and missile defence will be part of that.

  213. Can I also ask you what the substance of Russia's proposal to NATO is for ballistic missile defence co-operation, whether it is seen as feasible and whether it is still being assessed—what stage it is at?
  (Mr Hoon) Russia, as I indicated, did make a proposal which is being considered carefully in NATO. I think it is still the position that we want to see rather more detail on the way in which this particular proposal might be developed. Nevertheless, it does indicate both their interest in the subject and their willingness to discuss it.

  214. It is still being assessed at the moment within NATO?
  (Mr Hoon) Yes.

  215. Can I then, finally, ask you about the whole issue of Russia sharing its nuclear technology with Iran? Their justification for that seems to be that it is useful for financial reasons, even though they also appear to be well aware of the risk that Iran's development of nuclear technology could come back and bite Russia as well. Can you say what we in the United Kingdom are trying to do to persuade Russia that sharing such technology with Iran is not in its long-term interests?
  (Mr Hoon) We would have discussions with a number of countries—and I do not want to pick out Russia—about the concerns we would have over nuclear proliferation and about the passing on of particular technological developments to those countries who would seek to acquire them. The essential problem in the modern world is that it is not actually—notwithstanding what I said earlier about North Korea—states necessarily passing on that technology, but, frankly, individual scientists who have, for example, in the case of the former Soviet Union, been supported over very many years by the state but now find themselves no longer funded to do their work and available, in effect, to the highest bidder. That is a practical problem states have to confront and one which I could not pretend to you is easy to resolve, because those individuals clearly can move freely from one country to another and sell their abilities to the highest bidder.

  216. You seem to be suggesting that the problem with Iran developing its nuclear technology is, perhaps, more down to the action of individuals then the actual strategy or policy of a particular country.
  (Mr Hoon) That is how I would see it.

Mr Howarth

  217. Going back to the forces protection, Secretary of State, your department's memorandum to us states: "Current ballistic missile threats were assessed to be of relatively low accuracy, meaning that unitary high explosive warheads would be of limited military utility". Have our troops—who we are about to deploy to the Middle East, or Afghanistan, and other vulnerable theatres—told you that they are content with such a rationale; that they do not need an active defence against ballistic missiles?
  (Mr Hoon) When you are talking about deploying troops to the Middle East, the troops that I announced we will be deploying are deploying to Afghanistan.

  218. Indeed. I was not suggesting they were deploying anywhere else at the moment.
  (Mr Hoon) I am not aware of any threat to those troops from ballistic missiles.

  219. Have there been any discussions with your senior military advisers about the potential risk to our deployed forces from theatre ballistic missiles?
  (Mr Hoon) In Afghanistan?


 
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