Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)



  340. And the second question?
  (Mr Hoon) I have answered that question on a number of occasions already this afternoon. We have to make assessments about what kind of equipment we might need. We have then to make judgements, both within the Ministry of Defence and across Government, as to what are our likely priorities. I cannot anticipate that today, because we have not done the work.

  341. So nothing is ruled in, nothing is ruled out?
  (Mr Hoon) Exactly.


  342. I think the acquisition of lots of horses might be a consideration, in the light of how war is pursued in Afghanistan.
  (Mr Hoon) I think it is fair to say at certain stages in the campaign in Northern Afghanistan that there were some fairly unusual requests in the early part of the 21st Century that might not previously have been anticipated.

  343. Like suits of armour perhaps?
  (Mr Hoon) Saddles were one of them.

Patrick Mercer

  344. Secretary of State, on force structure, I am glad that the Ministry of Defence Animal centre has not given up teaching how to use military ponies and pack mules.
  (Mr Hoon) Is this a cavalryman talking?

  345. I was a former infantryman from your County regiment, as you know. There is no doubt, I have already alluded to it, that special forces in all their guises have huge utility both in Ulster and, as we are seeing now, in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that forces such as the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines also are seen to have huge utility, but there are not many of these people. Given that according to the Assistant Chief of the General Staff it is proving almost impossible for the army to reach its manning level, the ceiling has been reached, and given that the army seems to be developing into a sort of two-tier system of special forces and those that are almost special forces—some might call themselves ordinary forces—and that there is a real morale problem developing amongst the ordinary forces, how do you intend to change the structure? How do you intend to change the utility of forces that could be used for this sort of campaign?
  (Mr Hoon) I want to emphasise that I am not commenting on special forces. It is not something which successive Governments do, and I am not going to change that today. As far as our rapidly deployable forces are concerned, you have mentioned the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment in passing. Clearly there is an emphasis on particular kinds of skills and the need for those skills to be both maintained and used, often at very short notice. That certainly means that the qualities that we have developed through the Strategic Defence Review—and I want to emphasise that by "through" I mean refining abilities that were there already, this is not something new to the United Kingdom, but it was very strongly emphasised in the Strategic Defence Review, an emphasis that I think has proved absolutely correct—has meant that we do have an ability, and we developed that ability perhaps earlier than other countries, to be able to deploy quickly. That is not the end of the story, though. There are a range of skills that we use, as required, across the armed forces to support those front-end forces who might be expected to go in very early, and that is wholly consistent with the work that we have done. I assure you there is no morale problem as a result. As I hope you did, I went to Saif Sareea and, for example, amongst the proudest people in Saif Sareea were the logistics people who had done an absolutely remarkable job of ensuring that large numbers of people were deployed very quickly into a pretty alien environment. They were enormously proud of what they had done, quite rightly, because they had achieved a remarkable result. I think it is a mistake—and I am sure you do not really make this mistake—simply to assume that because there are forces who are deployed right at the start of a military operation, that is the end of the story, because actually they require an enormous and sophisticated chain of support to keep them there and to keep them sharp. I think that what we are developing in fact is a way of using our forces in a very sophisticated and refined way, and it is not causing morale difficulties.

  346. I was referring more to the combat element, Secretary of State, who find themselves constantly stuck on tours in Northern Ireland, peace-keeping duties in Bosnia, peace-keeping duties in Kosovo, whilst they see—their words, not mine—"chaps with funny-coloured hats getting the good jobs all the time. I am merely wondering whether- and there are many historic precedents - combat units that are currently not as highly trained or trained in as specialist a fashion, that may be used in place of those who are. I am suggesting that more agile forces might be created without having to recruit fresh manpower.
  (Mr Hoon) That is a very interesting and useful suggestion. I think we do need to develop more of those skills across more of our armed forces, in the light of the threat that we currently have to deal with. I think that is one of the things that we shall look at very hard in the course of the work that we are currently undertaking, to have more of our forces available at relatively short notice. I think Gerald made the point earlier about "Are there any preliminary assumptions that you have made?" Certainly I think one of the preliminary assumptions that I have is that we are going to have to have more people available at short periods of notice, but there are real implications as to how you do that, and the impact on those forces themselves and their families is something to which we also have to have regard.
  (Mr Webb) Can I make a quick point, which is that rapid reaction forces of the kind that we are talking about are obviously going to be an important component. Can I just say that sometimes some of the most important jobs that get done are containment—you will find it in this book—which is to say that sometimes there is not a rapid answer. You had this in Northern Ireland. This Committee looked at Iraq and the flying operations there. If I may say so, it is very helpful the way this Committee gives praise where it is due for people who do those operations which are just as important for the overall defence posture but do not give such quick results. It is very helpful when people can focus on that a bit because it is naturally a little less liable to get public attention. It is very helpful when the Committee gets on to it and they appreciate that a lot, I think.

Mr Hancock

  347. If I could ask just one question. It was when Gerald was questioning you and he moved off of it too quickly for me to come in. It was on the question of intelligence and what was happening. One of the lessons of Kosovo that everyone owned up to, and certainly UNPROFOR makes great play of, was this admission that we did not really understand or know the enemy too well, particularly Milosevic. Are we convinced on this occasion in this war that we are absolutely sure that we knowledgeable enough to know about who the enemy is and what their possible reactions are?
  (Mr Hoon) I think it is a fair comment on the attitude of the international community towards Afghanistan that we perhaps all collectively took our eye off the ball following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and perhaps did not pay as much attention as we should have done to the collapse of the state and to the way in which the Taliban regime itself were both organising Afghanistan but also were providing protection to Al-Qaeda. I think it is right to say that we faced the consequences of that on 11 September, but that is to be wise after the event. I think the issue is whether we can monitor those kinds of developments around the world since I assume that none of us on 10 September assumed that by 28 November we would have the kind of engagement in Afghanistan that we face today, it just was not something that anyone anticipated.

Rachel Squire

  348. Secretary of State, you referred earlier post-11 September to the threat to alliances built on an assumption that nation states should form coalitions to deal with a potential threat from another nation state. What thoughts do you have on the kinds of coalitions that are going to be needed and relevant in the longer term?
  (Mr Hoon) I think there is work that we need to do with our allies in the various international organisations that we are members of. I think the fact that NATO within 24 hours of 11 September was looking at the process for invoking Article V—it did not have to invoke Article V until certain conditions were satisfied but nevertheless within 24 hours it was considering that—does demonstrate that this poses a threat to all of us and not simply individual countries. A significant amount of work has been done inside NATO thinking through the kinds of issues that we are facing up to in the United Kingdom. I raised equally the question at the recent Capabilities Improvement Conference in an EU context that good work had been done towards satisfying the headline goal, which again was about rapid deployment, and that, consistent with the work I have started here, we ought to be looking as well at the implications of 11 September for any of the headline goal in an entirely consistent way, which is to say the headline goal is an expression of the need for European nations to be able to deploy rapidly into a crisis, as is Strategic Defence Review for want of a comparison, and if the Strategic Defence Review requires further work, the extra chapter that we are now discussing, then similarly we ought to make sure that the headline goal is not simply a response to the events in the Balkans, specifically the reasons for its development, but we also bear in mind the consequences of 11 September. I think in those two areas work is under way. Similar processes are certainly taking place in other capital cities. There is quite a determined collective effort to make sure that we collectively look at the response to 11 September.

  349. You mentioned obviously NATO and you mentioned the headline goal, I would be interested to know how optimistic you are that the European nation states will finally start to deliver the European Defence Capability that has long been recognised as deficient even prior to Kosovo.
  (Mr Hoon) They are doing that. It is a process. It was never going to happen overnight. There are some very important contributions that have already been made. The point of the Capabilities Improvement Conference was to highlight the shortfalls and to emphasise that the work must continue. A parallel process is taking place in NATO, many of the same capabilities that we require have been identified in NATO, and it is work that needs to go on.

  350. Questions are being asked. For all that NATO invoked Article V, and in all sorts of symbolic, strategic and other ways that was very important, people have then gone on to say "Okay, we have sent AWACS planes to America, diverted some Mediterranean naval patrols further east, but what are other European allies doing to give the front line support to the US in Afghanistan? What are members of NATO doing? How is NATO involved? Should NATO not be doing more in the current campaign?" People are questioning whether NATO support has been fine in terms of saying Article V applies but what has it actually meant in terms of realistic and relevant and practical support from NATO European allies to the US?
  (Mr Hoon) You have probably answered the question already. You used two examples of what NATO has been doing in terms of the deployment of AWACS and in terms of the redeployment of the standing naval forces to the Eastern Mediterranean. Those are quite significant contributions, but in the end NATO is made up of sovereign states and it is the sovereign states who, by and large, provide the real military capability. There are collective capabilities, and you have identified two of them, but, by and large, in conducting operations NATO has to look to the members of the Alliance for providing the sharp end military capability and that is what has happened. It has happened that that country that has the military ability to project force over huge distances and deliver an effect in a land-locked remote place like Afghanistan has been very largely the United States. That is because of the commitment the United States makes in its defence budget and it has, almost uniquely now in the world, the ability to do that. I would certainly like the United Kingdom to be in a position to do more. We made a contribution and we continue to make a contribution. That contribution is significant but, I accept, secondary to the contribution that the United States can make both in the technology and the range of delivery mechanisms that the United States has available to it. If you go from the United States then to the United Kingdom and then to some other countries there is a very significant tailing off of the kind of military capabilities that we have available compared to the United States. That is true of any other country you care to mention anywhere else in the world practically because the United States, through a very determined effort over a long period of time, has not only the quantity of capability but the quality of capability that allows it to project force to a place like Afghanistan. That is a fact of modern life.

  351. You are, in effect, saying that the relevance of NATO as an effective coalition dealing now with the international terrorism that we saw on 11 September crucially depends on the US remaining a major partner. Do you have any indication that the US would question its role as a major partner, especially if European allies do not give it the support it wants?
  (Mr Hoon) I think it is a fact of modern life that without the United States' military contribution we would be enormously constrained in the kinds of operations that we can conduct. A follow-on from that, and I see no signs at all of the United States lessening its commitment to NATO or, indeed, to the international community, it has demonstrated that absolutely emphatically in recent times, is that it does raise the important political question why it is so important that we improve European military capabilities. It is to ensure that across the United States where taxpayers are contributing to that military capability, there is not any sense in which they are supporting countries that are not prepared to make their contribution. One of the reasons why I so strongly believe that European nations have to improve their military contribution is in order to avoid precisely the reaction of the United States that says "Why should we continue to pay our hard earned tax dollars in order to support countries who themselves are not prepared to make an effort?" I think improving European military capabilities is absolutely central to that vitally important process of ensuring that the Alliance continues to be a coherent and functioning military alliance.


  352. I have used those arguments even more brutally than you have there, Secretary of State, but it seems to me that the Americans have tried for years to get NATO to operate out of area and here is a case where NATO countries are offering to operate out of area, which is a startling development within the 50-plus years of the Alliance, a number of countries have promised to commit troops, send troops, send ships, are ready to send aircraft, are all dressed up for the party and there is no party for them to go to. I do not want to trivialise it. I know that the British are prepared to involve themselves infinitely more than the Americans have asked them to do, the Germans have promised Special Forces, the Charles de Gaulle is on its way, which is an achievement in itself, and the Japanese and the New Zealand Special Forces, whether they are there or not. It seems to me that whilst the Americans have learned the lessons of Kosovo, as we said in our report if you want to fight a war do not fight it like this again, the danger is that here is reasonable enthusiasm from NATO allies and others but the Americans want to do it largely by themselves. Is there not a danger, Secretary of State, that countries will say "We offered, and it was a serious offer. We did challenge our own public opinion by committing forces", the Germans are foremost in this, but if in the end they are not utilised then people might say why bother to offer, maybe they do not take it seriously enough?
  (Mr Hoon) But this is not a party. This is not everybody turning up and having a good time. This is achieving a military effect and it is achieving the best military effect in the best way in the shortest possible time. That means utilising those military assets that are going to achieve your aims and conclusions. That is why, in the first place, we were very heavily dependent on the United States for achieving that military effect. Long-range bombing capability, only the United States has the ability to fly bombers over huge distances to deliver smart weapons in a very targeted way. We were able to give enormous support to the strike bombing capabilities that the United States have by offering mid-air refuelling, something that perhaps has not been given sufficient attention. We supported at least 220 of those bombing missions over Afghanistan, at times involving members of Britain's Armed Forces in some very, very dangerous situations, carried out with extraordinary skill and ability but perhaps not given sufficient attention because they were not actually dropping the bombs. Without their ability to refuel those aircraft those bombs would not have been dropped in the way that they were. Nevertheless, in the use of military force it is not just a question of people saying "we would like to turn up and join in", it is a question of ensuring that that military force is organised and delivered in the most effective way possible. Not surprisingly in this particular operation it is the United States that is determining that, and I do not think anybody should be surprised about that given both the history of this operation and the way largely it has been executed.

  353. A very politically correct reply, but—
  (Mr Hoon) It is not a politically correct reply, it is a militarily correct reply.

  Chairman: When I said "to the party", I was not trivialising it, it was an expression that was used and you should not perceive what I said as in any way trivialising it. The point I am making is we have to look beyond the immediate crisis and here are countries prepared to put their forces forward, and some serious forces forward, not those who are not really capable, and I hope the Americans have not made a mistake in not utilising them in a way which could be beneficial to NATO in the future, or people will say "we will not offer again". That was the point I was raising. In the case of the UK it seems that we have offered to do more things than either the Afghan allies were prepared to accept or the Americans were prepared to accept. I would not expect you to say much on this. I hope the Americans have done the right thing. They seem to have done the right thing so far but on that front I wonder whether they have been absolutely correct.

Mr Howarth

  354. Chairman, I think this is an important point that you are raising with the Secretary of State. This is supposed to be a NATO operation yet it is almost exclusively—I see you shaking your head—an American operation.
  (Mr Hoon) It is not a NATO operation, it is an American led operation.

  355. American led. But in respect of the point that has been raised by the Chairman that these people have offered to help and it has not been accepted, do you see this as being a danger that in a future operation if their help is sought they may be turned off?
  (Mr Hoon) I think the Chairman has set out in a sense what might be an abstract political concern but it is not a concern that I detect amongst any members of the military anywhere in the world.

  356. The French, the Belgians, the Dutch?
  (Mr Hoon) Amongst the military.

  357. Yes.
  (Mr Hoon) I think you need to listen to what I am saying before you interrupt me. The military recognise that they have a range of capabilities available which they have been asked by the United States to provide and which they have, as the Chairman said, been very pleased to offer. Simply because it might appear to be politically expedient that large numbers of people should join in is not enough in the context of a very difficult and complex military operation where ultimately the military judgment has to prevail as to what is the best means of achieving a military end. Indeed, if I came to you and said that we had invited all sorts of countries to participate because it was politically expedient for that to happen, you would quite rightly challenge that as, for example, placing members of the Armed Forces at risk for political reasons, and I am not prepared to do that.

Mr Hancock

  358. You could interpret it as the Americans actually learning the lesson from Kosovo that NATO led operations where you had to get 19 to agree was not the way to fight a war and that the only successful way was to take command of the situation and keep fighting on your terms and not having to get continuous agreement from 18 other partners.
  (Mr Hoon) The point being, in fact, where allies have been able to provide capabilities that have been used in the conduct of operations in and around Afghanistan then a range of nations are involved in providing those capabilities, so there is no inconsistency in the American position. They have asked for offers of help, those offers have been set out, and from time to time the Americans have picked from the range of capabilities on offer those that they require at any given time, and that will continue.

Mr Roy

  359. Two points, Secretary of State. Firstly, post-11 September do you think there is now an opportunity to address the scope of military role sharing between the allies? The second question is at this morning's session one of our witnesses, Professor Paul Rogers, claimed that Eurofighter had been undergoing trials over Afghanistan, do you want to comment on that as well?
  (Mr Hoon) I think the record had better read that I was somewhat amused by that latter suggestion. I can categorically deny that.

  Chairman: We did express a degree of bemusement.

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