Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Welcome, gentlemen. This is our first public session in our inquiry into lessons of Kosovo. There are other committees, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Security, who are mounting parallel inquiries so when one of your predecessors, Sir Charles, talked of the media as the newly invented curse to armies, I think parliamentary committees must be put in that category as well. It might appear we have been rather tardy in mounting an inquiry. It is now some 12 months since the first bomb was dropped. Maybe that tardiness was largely due to the fact that you had to learn the lessons before we could elicit from you what the lessons were. This is our first formal evidence session. We have already visited troops in theatre, last November. We took evidence from the then Secretary of State on the morning before the bombing campaign against Serbia began last year, and again after the peace settlement. Almost exactly a year has passed since the first bombs were dropped by NATO and it is now timely to ask what we have learned from the first aggressive military in the Alliance's 50 year history. We are seeking answers on a whole variety of questions. How important and how successful was the United Kingdom's military contribution to the Kosovo operation? Did the Kosovo conflict reveal any deficiencies in the United Kingdom's political/military capability, or in that of our European allies, to respond to future crises of this sort? Was the military strategy adopted by NATO to coerce the Serbian government into compliance with UN resolutions soundly based and well chosen? To what extent was the information campaign effectively integrated into the overall strategy? Are NATO's political decision-making, planning, command and control structures appropriate to undertaking similar missions in the future? How can decision makers, particularly in the MoD, best assess the military risks and benefits of any future intervention of choice that might be contemplated before committing the United Kingdom to military action? Has the United Kingdom got the right intelligence support to enable well-founded military advice to be given to the government on the military risks and costs of such interventions in the future, and have the right people got access to it at the right time? How might military doctrine need to be adjusted to take account of the coercive use of force, in particular in pursuit of humanitarian aims? What are the implications of the decision to intervene in Kosovo for the `concurrency' assumptions about the force structure planning set out in the SDR in 1998? How much did the intervention cost? What are its implications for the future of the defence budget and, one might add, perhaps consequences for the three services in the future? At this morning's session we have assembled a team of witnesses from the MoD with whom we will examine the political/military strategic context of the operation. Next week we will focus on the conduct of the air campaign. Further sessions will be announced in due course. The Committee hopes to report in the summer. That is our agenda. Before we start, perhaps one of our witnesses would like to make an introductory statement?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) Thank you very much indeed. Kevin Tebbit, the Permanent Secretary, would like to say a few words after I have done. I hope you will find these introductory comments helpful. I will keep them short. Most of these points echo the comments made by Lord Robertson in his account of the crisis, which was published before his departure, to NATO last October. I think this is a useful guide. Firstly, our success in operations to date is largely, I am sure, due to the quality and professionalism of the people in our armed forces and those who support them. They are widely respected among our NATO allies and our other partners in KFOR. As we consider our performance in the air campaign, we should do so in the absolute clear knowledge that NATO achieved its objectives. NATO conducted some 38,000 air sorties, some 10,500 of which were strike sorties over Serbia. A mark of our success is that only two aircraft from NATO were lost and that all the air crew were successfully recovered. This may however be a useful juncture to underline the point which has been made repeatedly by our ministers and by the Americans at the highest level. While we would always seek to reduce the risks to our pilots in air operations, we must never expect a zero casualty conflict. That is unrealistic. In Kosovo we were careful but we were also, I think, lucky. There has been a lot of attention focussed on the amount of damage caused by NATO air operations. We have provided you with some details in our written answers to your questions. In assessing the success of the campaign, however, the key point is that the damage we did was enough. Success in this sort of operation can never be an arithmetical exercise. You have asked us in the written questions for the military reasons why Milosevic gave way. I think we must recognise that we may never know what the decisive factor or factors were in Milosevic's mind. The change in the Russian position, the threat of ground forces and the continuing solidarity of the alliance all contributed but I have no doubt that the damage caused by the air campaign was undoubtedly important. We were pleased by the performance of our crisis management machinery. In some senses, we had a head start over some of our allies in the practice we had gained through Operation Desert Fox. Kosovo proved that the Ministry of Defence's procedures and structures worked well overall and that government departments were able to work closely and effectively together. As is the case after all operations, we have been learning lessons. As you will appreciate, not all lessons learned can be implemented straight away, particularly where there are resourcing implications. We have however moved quickly to identify the key capability gaps and we will seek to address these on an alliance and European-wide front through the Nato Defence Capabilities Initiative and the Helsinki Headline Goal, as well as nationally through the defence programme. The following key capability gaps are those where we consider that more needs to be done. It is important however to emphasise that it will not be necessary for this country or any other individual nation to deliver all these capabilities on its own. What we want to achieve is an improved alliance and particularly an enhanced European capability. We need an improved precision, all-weather strike capability. We cannot just rely on Tomahawk missiles in these conditions. Our laser guided and other systems performed according to expectations and helped to make this an exceedingly accurate campaign with a minimum of collateral damage, building on our achievements in Desert Fox, but our flexibility would be enhanced by a wider range of capabilities. Next, we need strategic lift, ro-ros and a large, wide bodied aircraft. We need secure interoperable communication systems for both air and ground forces and more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. Here, ASTOR will make a significant difference. We need sufficient numbers of the scarce assets which act as key force multipliers such as air to air refuelling, electronic warfare and suppression of enemy air defence or SEAD. There are other capability gaps you might like to talk to us about. We were pleased with our ability to get significant numbers of forces into theatre rapidly and to sustain them there. This vindicated the decisions we made in the Strategic Defence Review and which we are still implementing, but it is clear that some of our allies and partners need to do better in this area. There have been problems since the deployment, most notably with the Temporary Field Accommodation project. Progress is being made but it is fair to say that we have been disappointed by the time taken. The improved tentage camp has been a great success so it is not all bad news. I hope I have shown that we are being positive in learning from our experiences, and that we are keen to address those capability gaps that have emerged, but I would underline again that we do so from a starting point that we were successful in achieving our objectives. Our aim of course is to do even better next time. I hope, Mr Chairman, that is a helpful background from me.
  (Mr Tebbit) I would add two points to what the Chief of Defence Staff has said. The first is about the way in which this particular campaign underscored the importance of developments which had been going on before then within the alliance and in relation to the surrounding countries of the alliance. If anything was needed to emphasise the importance of both strengthening European capabilities within the alliance and of the wider partnership, the Euro-Atlantic partnership, the Partnership for Peace with the countries of eastern Europe, this was it. One of the important dimensions of the whole operation was that NATO was not just dealing with a problem which could cause instability for NATO members; it was also dealing consciously with a problem which had grave implications for the security of candidate members of the alliance, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, in by then. The need to continue to see European security in the wider context was completely underlined by this event. The second point really is about media, public information, the way in which these things are now conducted in a dotcom world. We were dealing with press, public interest, the media in real time. There has been a huge evolution since the Vietnam war but this really underlined the point about the need to be able to give clear, accurate information about what was going on to people, not just out of public interest but as part of sustaining the campaign itself in democratic society. Very difficult, because we did not get the information first. Milosevic usually had it first in terms of bombing information on the ground, but very important to try to get it right. A huge effort was put into this. We learned a lot of lessons and need to do more. The MoD website, by the way, was accessed by nine million hits during the Kosovo campaign, just as an example of the way in which this has changed. We put quite a lot of effort into it in the United Kingdom. That was why you saw defence, foreign and aid ministers regularly appearing along with people like the CDS throughout the campaign. Others learned that they had even further to go than we did to get this right, including the alliance, but I think the emphasis not on manipulation but on public information has been really learned. For example, one of the main lessons we are learning is how much more we have to do to have people available to tell the news and the facts as quickly as they possibly can and as accurately as can be achieved.

  Chairman: History and tradition have predetermined that Parliament does not insert itself into the decision making process. What this Committee and other committees will do if we have no direct role in the making of policy is to ensure that those policies and decisions, once made, are made as transparent as is possible, consistent with national security. We have colleagues in the United States who are more probing than we are. They have greater access to information. The information they are provided with is spectacularly better than that which we are provided with, despite improvements of late. We have here a report to Congress and a classified Kosovo operation allied force after action report, 31 January 2000, which is the yardstick by which we will measure the Ministry of Defence. You know we are not anti-defence; quite the reverse, and therefore we will be remorseless, I hope, in our questioning and ruthless in our questioning and polite, as we usually are. What we would expect is truthfulness in replies. I have no anxieties about the desire to be truthful, but it is in the British national interest and that of our alliance that we learn all the lessons. This Committee has conducted inquiries into previous wars. We have been varying in our success in accessing information we require. I think we will produce an excellent report and we hope that you will be prepared, on occasion, to admit that not all of your decisions were absolutely perfect. You will not be thought less of for having admitted to the occasional mistake. In fact, that is a mark of respect and I hope that it will not be a snow job in presentation over this inquiry to this Committee, because we really have to find out what are the lessons to be derived. Thank you for coming and for the information you have provided so far. There will be many further requests for information and we hope to publish early in the summer. The first questions relate to planning and preparation and I call on Mike Gapes to ask them.

Mr Gapes

  2. The history of all this probably could have been predicted. At the time the Dayton Agreement was adopted which ended the civil war in Bosnia in December 1995, Kosovo was not included in that agreement; yet there had been several years of growing tensions and people were aware. People like Mr Rugova had visited various countries to talk about what was happening and so on. How soon after Dayton did you start thinking seriously about the possible need to plan to deal with the crisis and to prevent a crisis in Kosovo?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) Immediately after Dayton, very much it was political and diplomatic initiatives that were happening as opposed to military as far as Kosovo was concerned. I would not like anyone to think that we were ignoring Kosovo. We repeatedly pressed in the United Kingdom for Milosevic to engage in dialogue with the Kosovar Albanians and to allow international involvement in Kosovo. He consistently said no. He refused in 1993 to renew the CSCE long term mission there. He refused in 1996 an ECMM presence in Kosovo and the United Kingdom and other embassies in Belgrade regularly visited Kosovo and told him what we thought. By 1997, there were the first signs of radicalised Albanian protests, including the emergence of what came to be known as the KLA. The potential for crisis was clear and the United Kingdom took the lead in proposing the contact group to address Kosovo in autumn 1997. The Foreign Office Minister, Tony Lloyd, put our concerns about Kosovo direct to Milosevic himself in October 1997. Then there was the North Atlantic Council and the ministerial statement which expressed concern again in December 1997. It was Milosevic's refusal to countenance international involvement or to offer reasonable terms for a dialogue which radicalised the Kosovar Albanians and led to the creation of the KLA. We had no illusions about Milosevic, I do not think, but in the past under pressure he had cooperated. Putting pressure on the Bosnian Serbs before and at Dayton worked. We tried to make him adopt reasonable policies on Kosovo. When it was clear he would not, NATO had to act to prevent a humanitarian disaster. The indictment of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia I think made it clear that he is now the fundamental obstacle to Balkan stability. I do not think we were slow. The Foreign Secretary saw Milosevic in Belgrade within days of violence erupting on 5 March and he told him straight that what he was doing in Kosovo was unacceptable. He insisted on the need for political solutions, stressing that improvement between the EU and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was impossible without progress on Kosovo. The North Atlantic Council issued a statement on the same day noting what their concern was. Again, I think the United Kingdom took an initiative. It called an early meeting of the contact group precisely because we wanted to learn from the experiences of Bosnia and ensure a united front from the outset. The United States signed up fully, as did the Russians and our European partners, to the proposition that we maintain a tough but balanced approach. We condemned the Serbian repression but also called for an end to terrorist acts and acts of provocation. Then came the time when Holbrooke and Ambassador Hill from the United States began international attempts to promote a dialogue and met and organised a meeting between Milosevic and Rugova. We were kept very closely in touch by our embassy. We then built up the pressure during the summer. We had got a deal agreed by Milosevic with Holbrooke in October, signed by NATO and OSCE representatives a few days later. The contact group agreed to give priority to a political solution, but in tandem NATO undertook a process of considering military responses and, as early as March 1998, NATO had noted its interest in developments in Kosovo, given the possible repercussions for stability in the region. In June 1998, NATO Defence Ministers asked for planning to examine a full range of options to respond to repression and expulsions in Kosovo. That I think gave a strong, early signal of NATO's willingness to act by military means if necessary were the political track to fail. As the summer offensive developed, the international community significantly stepped up the pressure on Belgrade. In August, we had a full review of the range of ground and air options and NATO's military authorities were authorised to approach Allies and asked about forces available for operations against the former Republic of Yugoslavia. We had four Royal Air Force Jaguar Aircraft that took part in exercises to demonstrate NATO's ability to project power rapidly. The international community's demands on the parties, particularly on Belgrade, were set out very clearly again in UNSCR 1199 which was on 23 September. Solana announced the contingency planning for a full range of operations was complete and allies agreed to prepare aircraft for operations. In October, further aircraft were deployed and on 13 October NATO agreed to issue activation orders for air operations. Readiness to use force to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe was a crucial ingredient in Holbrooke's ability to extract commitments from Milosevic at the time, to limit force levels in Kosovo and to halt repression. The decision to initiate air strikes was not taken lightly. Most of this was done by diplomats and politicians in the early stage. We had gone as far as we possibly could. I remember very well this sense of sorrow when we all realised that we were going to have to take military action. It is interesting that during the time we were putting pressure on we were planning for three Partnership for Peace exercises in the area; we were planning for nine air operations, four others which had a mixture of air and ground and four ground operations from the very simple one, which was going in there unopposed, to implement an agreement which unfortunately we could not do when we wanted to do it, and the fourth option was a full invasion against the Serbs who were fighting.

  3. Can I take you back to 1997? I would be grateful if we could concentrate on 1997. The meeting where Tony Lloyd, the Minister, spoke to Milosevic in October that you mentioned: did we at that time, did the allies at that time, have any credible threat of force behind any diplomatic statements that were made? You have referred to 1998. You have talked about Holbrooke's agreement, which followed on a period of statements and preparations, and Milosevic knew at that time that NATO was involved with various things, but clearly in 1997, from what you said at least, you did not mention it. Can you specifically deal with the point about 1997?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I cannot specifically tell you.
  (Mr Tebbit) I was in the Foreign Office then and we were actively concerned about it. There was no threat of force made at that stage against Milosevic. The first NATO involvement in terms of grave concern and registering that was in the NAC communique of December 1997.

  4. That is after Tony Lloyd's meeting.
  (Mr Tebbit) Yes. In other words, concern was mounting through the second half of 1997 particularly. I have not got the communique with me but that was the first time there was a strong NATO statement of concern, watching with concern the events unfolding etc. etc.

  5. You referred to the Kosovo Liberation Army or the insurgency that became the Kosovo Liberation Army starting from 1997 a radicalised Albanian protest. That was the phrase used. When in 1997 was that?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I cannot remember exactly what date it was but we noticed in reporting telegrams that there were more and more incidents starting pretty low and getting more serious.

  6. There was a response from the Serbian authorities to that?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) Yes.

  7. It has been suggested that the KLA came virtually from nowhere and that suddenly a group of people were relatively well armed, had uniforms and clearly had support from somewhere to establish that. I have seen press reports that suggest that the United States government was supplying, either directly or indirectly, resources for that and, secondly, that Albanians living in Switzerland in particular were funding it via various mechanisms including, it has been alleged, drug smuggling as a means of financing the operation. Would you like to tell us if you have any information on the sources of where the KLA came from and where it got its support?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I have no knowledge of the United States arming and equipping the KLA. I saw, I suspect, quite recently, the same articles as you are referring to. That was news to me. How exactly they got funded I do not know. It is quite possible that some were involved in drugs and criminal activities. Some money undoubtedly came from well wishers but I have nothing confirmatory to say.

  8. We do not have any intelligence of our own?
  (Mr Tebbit) We do not collect intelligence against the United States. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks as if the KLA was there as a nascent group that was being promoted and encouraged throughout. That came across from the television programme. I do not think it was like that at the time. When we were looking at these things in 1997, there was a Rugova leadership which was where everybody was going and promoting restraint on both sides and encouraging Milosevic to reconfer the autonomy, privileges and freedoms to Kosovars; at the same time, trying to encourage the Kosovars themselves to behave reasonably and responsibly and in a responsible political manner. This was a fairly chaotic situation that was going on at that time and there was not a thing which was as clear as the KLA. There were all sorts of groups of concern and protest, students and the educational stuff, but it was Rugova that we were trying to work through at that stage, rather than the KLA.

  9. You knew that these radicalised Albanian protests were developing?
  (Mr Tebbit) Yes, but not emerging clearly as the KLA until the next year.

  10. Did you predict this intensification of the KLA insurgency in 1998 and the reaction from Milosevic to it?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I do not think we could have predicted it. We were certainly worried about it and we saw the incidents growing.

  11. The British Government as such did not have a view that this would inevitably lead to further intensification and potential problems of the kind that we subsequently saw?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I think that is right.
  (Mr Tebbit) The Foreign Office memorandum[1] has as much in it as we know, which they gave to the Foreign Affairs Committee last year on the history of the crisis. I think they set it out as clearly as we could from the MoD.

  12. Sir Charles, you referred to various statements and decisions made subsequently. At what stage were you, as the Chief of Defence Staff, first formally asked to advise the Cabinet or its committees on the options for military intervention in the province?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I really started work on the details of planning options in early 1998.

  13. How early?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) In the spring.

  14. Can you be more specific than that?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I cannot remember exactly what the date was.

  15. Could you write to us?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) Yes, I certainly could write to you.


  16. With the information?
  (Air Marshal Sir John Day) I cannot remember a date when we specifically started. I can remember two things but I cannot remember the dates. One fact is I chaired a committee that looked at operational tasking and we became concerned about the situation in Kosovo at the back end of 1997/early 1998. I cannot remember the date we upped our overview of this particular problem but you seem to be blaming just the KLA. I am just worried that you were, but there was no question in our mind of who was responsible and it was just a rising tension that we perceived. What was cause and what was effect was quite difficult. I would have thought round about March 1998 I recall briefing the chiefs of staff and ministers, but we can get you the date. I think it is in that kind of area.

  17. The problem we are facing is that there is something of a gap between 1992 and 1998 when you began planning. The Serbs had had severe losses in Slovenia, in Croatia and in Bosnia and apparently, from what we have been told, the US in their unclassified version is purporting to tell the US Congress that we only really got wise to the fact that something might go wrong in Kosovo—it seemed patently obvious with the benefit of hindsight and, I would have thought, with intelligence that we should have been doing the planning much earlier. What we are trying to get at within the limits of what you are able to tell us in public is when were you first advised, "The time is coming when we have to work out what we are going to bomb, what forces we require, where they need to go in, where they are going to liaise with our allies"? I simply cannot believe that the alarm bells started ringing in 1997 and 1998. Either you were deceived; you were not given information, or parliamentarians are not getting information. When did you seriously—?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) We started seriously planning in early summer 1998. The indications were that trouble was brewing but I would not put it at much more than that. It got much worse because Milosevic started behaving in a much worse way. Every intention was that the political/diplomatic problems could probably be sorted out. It was not until the summer of 1998 when people said, "This may well come to military operations" and that is when we got planning.

  18. What is the difference between planning and serious planning, General? We are almost getting back into Mottram territory in plain language. I would like to know, in military terms, what is serious military planning and what is military planning?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) The officers who were doing it were taking it very seriously because they had to show Air Marshal Day and myself their work regularly. They came forward having discussed it with the Foreign Office and other interested people like the Permanent Joint Head Quarters and NATO, though I think we were ahead of NATO and it was not until later that they really got planning. We planned on the air in 1998.

  19. There was this vacuum between 1991-92 and 1998. We spent a lot of money on people in planning and in the intelligence services, including inside the Ministry of Defence, and it does seem rather strange to me that, despite the resources we expend and that were expended by our allies, although not intelligence inside NATO, it took until 1998 before we started seriously working out what we might have to do if the Serbs did what they had already done on three separate occasions, when it was almost inevitably that Kosovo or Montenegro was going to be next on the list.
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) With respect, it is easy to say it was almost inevitable now. I do not think it appeared almost inevitable in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

1   Note by witness: a memorandum prepared in co-operation with the MoD, and provided also to the HCDC. Back

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