Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-374)



Mr Roy

  360. And military role sharing?
  (Mr Hoon) I think that is a very good point and it is a point that I think we are seeing in particular as a result of the headline goal process. I was delighted by the efforts that a number of our allies have made in order to find solutions to capability shortfalls by co-operating together. That is something which I think is the way forward in satisfying the problems that we have in dealing with military shortfalls. The example that I use most frequently is that of the Scandinavian brigade, NORDCAPS, a number of countries pooling their resources in order to achieve a much larger military effect by making a permanent contribution to the headline goal catalogue. I think you said you went to Saif Sareea and one of the things I was impressed by—this Committee has drawn attention to the weaknesses that we have in medical services available—was the number of Dutch medics who were there working alongside Britain's Armed Forces providing an invaluable capability that we absolutely required if we were going to deploy that number of people into the desert at that time. This is certainly the way forward. We identify those areas where individual nations either cannot afford or do not have the capability and then find ways in which we can satisfy that collectively. I think the headline goal process in particular is enormously useful in encouraging those trends. It is something that we continue to work with colleagues on. For example, today I signed a further level of co-operation with the Netherlands in terms of commando forces, something that has worked extraordinarily well now for 26 years and something which I believe is a model for co-operation between allies into the future.

Jim Knight

  361. Do you, therefore, think that we should be looking perhaps no longer at Armed Forces being capable of doing everything, not to the extent of the United States but still capable of doing everything, and starting to specialise and have niche capabilities? Is there then a danger, that we cannot make the necessary coalitions in order to be able to do what we want to do at the time?
  (Mr Hoon) I think that you are going to the heart of the debate in the sense that first and foremost in the United Kingdom we must maintain a range of capabilities that we require ultimately to defend the United Kingdom but certainly to defend its interests and participate where we can in coalitions of the willing around the world. That was precisely the effort that was put into the Strategic Defence Review. There then does arise the question particularly as we face different sorts of threats, and we see in Afghanistan, what is the range we need to be able to deliver military force effectively? As I said earlier, outside the United States I doubt there is any country in the world today that can deliver a sufficiently comprehensive range of capabilities in order to conduct an operation at such a huge distance. If Afghanistan were slightly closer to the United Kingdom certainly we could do a great deal more but the truth is that it is not and we have to adjust our military response in the light of its geographical remoteness.

  362. Is there a danger if we are developing specialist capabilities that because of the way we have been over time that we develop specialisms that are more front line and other countries—you talked about the Dutch and their medics—provide support services and then we are constantly having to keep our public opinion on side in light of the fact we are the ones taking the decisions that put our people at greater risk than our European partners?
  (Mr Hoon) I think that is a very fair point and it is something that we have to be very aware of given the ability of Britain's Armed Forces to move quickly into difficult and dangerous situations with the inevitable risks that involves. I would not judge it appropriate always to say that Britain is going to be the lead country in any given situation. There are very significant political judgments that have to be made about how and when we deploy that sharp end capability. Certainly I would not accept a situation where it was always assumed that it was Britain that had to lead the way into any particular situation. Without going into detail, I can assure you that there have been times when I have said no.

Syd Rapson

  363. Secretary of State, clearly everyone is very impressed by what our services have done out in Afghanistan. Although there might well be political comments I think everyone I have spoken to is very proud of what they have done. There are lessons to be learned from our operation. Has this formed a rethinking of our counter-terrorism planning? The second part of the question is we have had a number of answers as to how far the war would be progressed on terrorism, and the Prime Minister yesterday was the last person to say stopping Afghanistan at this moment, but how far should we go with the Americans if in their interest they perceive the need to go further? That is a different question than the one that has been asked a number of times already by Members of Parliament.
  (Mr Hoon) Obviously as far as your first point is concerned in terms of counter-terrorism, that is essentially a domestic responsibility and we are all aware of the kinds of legal changes that have been made and we have given considerable attention to some financial measures that are required as well as sharing information between different countries. It has been an extremely difficult thing for Parliament and Government to face up to, the question of whether we have had to take appropriate action in order to deal with the kinds of freedoms traditionally associated with a liberal democracy in the face of some pretty fanatical opponents who are abusing those freedoms in order to achieve their ends. We are all collectively involved in that process. Government has looked hard, not my direct responsibility, at the kind of measures it has to take inside the United Kingdom to deal with this threat. As far as relations with the United States are concerned, I do not believe that in the period since 11 September two countries could have worked more closely together than the United States and the United Kingdom. At every level, political, military, administrative, there have been exchanges of information, conversations, understanding, a process of decision making, that I think has simply demonstrated the way in which our two countries have a common approach and common interest. That is not to say that we agree on everything, it would be naive to assume that absolutely everything goes forward in a process where everyone says "that must be the obvious thing to do next". One of the great strengths of our friendship with the United States is we can be pretty robust with each other and that, I believe, has enormously enhanced the way in which the military campaign has been conducted. We have had a senior military officer at the heart of the American decision making process really right from the outset and that has made an enormous difference to the military co-ordination. Equally, from the regular exchanges between the President and the Prime Minister and every other senior Government minister involved we have worked extraordinarily closely with the United States and I do not see that about to change. I do not see that there is suddenly going to be a response in the United States that says "we must do something simply to poke the United Kingdom in the eye", it does not work like that. If they are contemplating taking further action then I assure you that we will be the first to know.

  364. We are joined at the hip and we will be going with them regardless of where they go. Can I put a supplementary on the first part of the question when I was asking about counter-terrorism rethinking. Clearly the Special Services have been involved to a great extent, from what we read, and coming from Portsmouth there is the Royal Marines' Headquarters there and we are very proud of what the Royal Marines and Commandos are doing. Is there now a need to reconsider the need to support Special Services to a greater extent in future warfare operations than we were thinking in the past because of the rapid deployment and amphibious capability they have got and all the other things necessary? The only service that has not been carpeted is the Marine Corps and they probably had some foresight in knowing what they would need in future operations. I am trying to tease out whether I could make a plug here for the Special Services and Royal Marines in the future.
  (Mr Hoon) You are confusing me slightly, Syd, when you talk about "Special Services". If you are talking about Special Forces then I am not going to. If you are talking about the need to consider the role of the Royal Marines, of the Parachute Regiment, and other forces that we hold at high readiness short notice, as I said earlier one of the things we need to look at very carefully is whether we have enough of those kinds of people, whether we need to extend the training and readiness requirements to other sharp end members of the Armed Forces. There are down sides to that. It is not a simple straightforward process because it does mean that that has a significant impact on the way in which they are organised and the way in which they live their lives, it is not something that is unlikely. Nevertheless, I think it may well be something that we will want to look at very carefully in the course of this work.
  (Mr Webb) Perhaps it is just worth saying that we have an operational audit process which kicks in every time we do an operation. These are some very hard-nosed people who draw lessons out of operations even as they are going along, we have arrangements to fit them into the SDR new chapter work. The experience of Afghanistan is already coming back into the new chapter work, although you have to be a bit careful about instantly generalising last week's experience. Major General Milton, who sat on my right when I gave evidence to you last, is a Royal Marine. He was a former Commander of the Commando Brigade and actually does concept work now, so he would not dare promote the Royal Marines, but in my experience the Royal Marines do not need a lot of help in promoting their value.

Mr Hancock

  365. They have not got a single player at the defence table, have they?
  (Mr Webb) Major General Milton is —

  366. He is not there as a Royal Marine.
  (Mr Webb) No, but he has a background in the Royal Marines. Once you get beyond a certain level everybody is purple.

  367. The problem was the Royal Marines lost that seat at the table.
  (Mr Hoon) That is a very old-fashioned view of the way in which the Ministry of Defence is organised.

  368. I think the Royal Marines would resent the fact that they do not have a seat at the senior table.
  (Mr Hoon) Since they have a Chief of Defence Staff who is from the Royal Navy I think they get good representation.

Patrick Mercer

  369. I would like to move on to publication of the revised SDR, please, Secretary of State. The MoD's memorandum states that "we would expect to be in a position to publish some conclusions in the spring or early summer next year". Also, that it would "follow the SDR precedent of openness and inclusivity". In what form do you expect to publish the conclusions of your SDR review—a new chapter, a comprehensive White Paper?
  (Mr Hoon) I think it would be assumed that it could be published in the form of a White Paper. I see no reason why that should not be the case. Obviously I want to ensure that both in the interests of relative speed in order to try and reach some views fairly quickly but at the same time in the interests of openness we give everyone maximum opportunity, including most importantly this Committee, for setting out their views, but at the same time I have set a fairly tight timetable because I do think it is important to conclude this work fairly speedily. I assume it will be in the form of a White Paper, a document that then will be laid before Parliament and will be open for discussion.

  370. And the openness and inclusivity of the SDR, the same principle will be followed?
  (Mr Hoon) It will be the same principle. The only thing I would say is the SDR was obviously conducted over a longer period and a more detailed process of inviting evidence was embarked upon. In the constraints of time I doubt that this will be quite so comprehensive, but then it does not need to be quite as comprehensive.

  371. Will there be an interim product, a discussion paper or consultation paper?
  (Mr Hoon) One of the ideas we have got is perhaps in the early part of next year to produce some sort of an outline that then would enable people to react, without committing ourselves to anything very specific.

  372. Your speech at King's College next week will not be an interim statement?
  (Mr Hoon) It will be first thoughts, if you like.


  373. We all thought today would be first thoughts. We want to know if it is worth cancelling our meeting next week to come and hear you.
  (Mr Hoon) It will be one and a half thoughts.

  374. We will read very carefully what you say, Secretary of State. Thank you so much for coming in, it was very helpful. Perhaps when you reach the conclusion of your study maybe we could ask you to come in prior to publishing.
  (Mr Hoon) I am looking forward to the Committee's comprehensive answers to my questions. Thank you all very much indeed.

  Chairman: Thank you

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