Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



Mr Cann

  40. It is not a stupid question, it is very pertinent.
  (Mr Tebbit) I think you are missing the point though that this was a political operation, this was not a military approved operation. The success we sought was not a military victory over Serbia or Milosevic, it followed a set of clear principles that we articulated, that NATO articulated, that even the UN Secretary General articulated.

  41. In military fashion.
  (Mr Tebbit) By their nature the military force was an adjunct to a wider political effort. Military officers, including the Chief of Defence Staff, were an adjunct to that overall objective. It was not just a question of the effect of involving other countries.

  Mr Cann: I take your strictures, but I do not agree.

Mr Hepburn

  42. 12,000 reserves is a substantial number, can I ask what sort of disciplines you would have been calling on to embark on an invasion?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I think we would have looked at logisticians, engineers, signallers and infantry, they would be the main places where we would look.

  43. Does that indicate a shortage that you have within the forces at the present time?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) We have got 800 reservists there. We have got shortages but recruiting is going very well at the moment. Retention is getting better and we are hopeful of getting full manning as predicted.

Mr Brazier

  44. Two points just arising out of those answers, Sir Charles, and also Air Marshal Day. Firstly, is there not a certain paradox between, on the one hand, saying that there was extreme urgency to get these people back to their homes as the refugees had increased ten fold since the bombing, and yet on the other telling us that the configuration was all wrong for a ground invasion, that we would need much larger numbers of troops, differently configured, and also that NATO was very stable and solid but of course only on the air bombing? We know the French, Germans and others had grave doubts about sending ground troops in. Was this not, in fact, a very close run thing indeed?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) It appeared to us that NATO was moving and other nations were moving. No-one was enthusiastic about an opposed ground invasion but people were beginning to realise that perhaps you could not go on bombing forever, and therefore we ought to do something on the ground. It was coming, some countries were more forward leaning than others, and I would not want to mark them out of ten, but I felt people were moving gradually in that direction from talking to my military colleagues at the time.

  45. It would have been a long way to move in a few days, Sir Charles.
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) You are absolutely right and that is why with the approaching winter I made the remark that in the next month we needed to make that decision because otherwise we would have got into winter and the bad weather. The weather, as you know, is terrible in Kosovo.

  46. The last point, just picking up something my colleague, Peter, said earlier on, the issue of these cases, and I understand there may be more than one, out of our relatively small number of volunteers who have lost their civilian jobs as a result of going to the Balkans. You mentioned an experiment to take place shortly. Could I suggest that unless the MoD is seen to very, very solidly support those people, experimenting for compulsory call-out would be seen as a joke right across the TA?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) I think it is absolutely right what you are saying.


  47. General, I regarded the primacy of the mission in the early days to retain NATO solidarity. Quite clearly the United States put their stamp on it very early on by saying no ground forces. I was of the view, as most people I suspect were, that this bully once faced with the threat would run, but I am not a professional psychiatrist or psychologist. When you look at the evidence, when you look at the initial sortie rate of 0.35 sorties per aircraft a day, when you look at the very restrictive rules of engagement, not getting below 15,000 feet, when you look at the other factors which were obvious to Milosevic because we said so quite clearly, in dealing with a hard headed flexible realist like Milosevic would he not have reached the conclusion very early on that these guys were not really serious and even though most of us thought he would capitulate on reflection with the soft way in which we started, I know you could argue it is the lowest rung of escalation, was it not stupid of us all, those who believed that these first modest signals would bring about capitulation? Frankly do we not all look now—I say "we" generally—quite ridiculous?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) Well, he did capitulate, did he not? I would say that our experience of him at Dayton and our experience of him in Bosnia had shown that he did back down. He did not back down on this occasion and the leaders of NATO were not at war with the people of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. They did not want to damage them any more and they built up a programme and they ratcheted it up. Air Marshal Day is on the edge of his seat to talk about 15,000 feet, which he ought to be allowed to do. It went on for a long time. As I said, we were prepared for a long haul. Have you a better plan?

  48. Have I?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) A better plan?

  49. I did not at the time but I do not think you did either.
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) No, because we had a plan which worked.

  50. Eventually. Would it not have been feasible to have started rather higher up the level of escalation?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) You have probably heard what the United States General, General Short, has been saying about how we ought to have taken out great chunks of Serbia and bombed Belgrade on day one. Firstly, that was not what we were trying to do and, secondly, again that was a step too far for quite a lot of the alliance. We have to think of alliance solidarity. Rather than having a triumph of NATO solidarity, which actually saw this thing through, it would have had a disaster on day one.

Mr Viggers

  51. Does it worry you that in the attempt to maintain the solidarity of NATO, which was successful, the truth was an early casualty?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) Why was the truth an early casualty?

  52. In stating that a ground campaign was ruled out.
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) At that stage it was but we moved towards it. I am just the Chief of Defence Staff.


  53. A position eagerly sought I must say. You are doing it exceedingly well, Sir Charles. The line of questioning, so far as I am concerned, is that the alliance was right in saying we had to remain cohesive but I think it is useful for the punter outside to realise that a price was paid for alliance cohesion and that was adopting a military strategy which now it seems almost inevitable in the short term was bound to fail. Whilst I do not think you were wrong in what you did, people then had to realise that in elevating political considerations above all other considerations you often find military success is less and less likely.
  (Mr Tebbit) There is one point you are overlooking. I think everybody would agree with you that the more you can keep uncertainty in the mind of a bully that he might really get clobbered hard the better it is. Personally I regret also that we were not able to keep that uncertainty going and that there were clear statements ruling out a ground campaign. But that was the political reality, we agreed with that. There is a second point which does not give anybody particularly more comfort. But in terms of fact it would have taken the alliance a long time to have mobilised a force that could have given effect to a threat. Also we would have had to have come to terms with what would have been going on in Kosovo during that period. As I say, we could not have got it there any earlier than George Robertson said, in September, in order to have used ground forces. The international community was still working at that time with the Russians trying to bring pressure to bear on Milosevic to reverse his actions. There was that dimension as well. It is also a question of whether one could have credibly achieved other options quickly and that was not possible, it was not there. The strategy that was adopted was successful in the end.
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) We did not have to bomb Belgrade to achieve Dayton.

Dr Lewis

  54. Surely saying that ground forces would not be used, full stop, meant that all Milosevic thought he was faced with was having to sit out the bombing to the end?
  (General Sir Charles Guthrie) Yes.

  55. Would you not agree that the most recent ex-Chief of Air Staff at the time all this was going on, Sir Michael Graydon, was right when he stated publicly that it was a mistake to rule out the use of ground forces in this way, even if we were not going to use them at all or even if, as Mr Tebbit said, we would not be able to use them for some months, because it would enable Milosevic to shelter all his military hardware in impenetrable bunkers so that an air campaign could not possibly take it out? I would like, perhaps, Sir John Day's comments on that as an airman.
  (Air Marshal Sir John Day) I would love to answer that. There is no point in threatening ground forces if you have not got the organisation ready to mobilise those ground forces. Milosevic, as any other opponent, is very shrewd and if we, the NATO alliance, had threatened the use of ground forces and he did not see ground forces starting to mobilise, he would have started to see fissures in the alliance as to who was prepared to react quickly and who was not, that would have been a complete own goal for NATO.

  56. One short one on that. That would apply if we said "we are going to use ground forces any minute now", but what we did was to say "We are not going to use ground forces at all" and that surely sent Milosevic the signal that if he could just hold out with the bombing long enough he would win?
  (Mr Tebbit) We did not have the luxury of being an independent commentator like Air Marshal Graydon, we were actors within a team and we had to play by the rules of the team. I have already conceded your point that ideally one aims to put uncertainty in the mind of an aggressor but there were also very big political realities there. If you are going to threaten things you have to be able to back it up, you have to be able to do it quite swiftly, and it was not possible to do so. Consider the amount of civilian casualties you would have inflicted and created by an opposed ground force operation. We talk lightly about all this. We did everything we possibly could to minimise casualties and collateral damage because we were not waging a classic military war, we were seeking a political objective to reverse ethnic cleansing and this was a problem even from the air. If it had been an opposed ground force invasion the casualties would have been enormous and we would have been rightly criticised for that sort of carnage. Now these were real political calculations and practical calculations that had to be made at the time.

  57. We did threaten that.
  (Mr Tebbit) In the end, yes.
  (Mr Webb) Having come to work on the lessons side, I think Lord Robertson made an important point in his piece for all of those who come and look at this from a lessons point of view, which was to say "Here is a campaign which achieved its objectives without a single combat casualty". People who want to introduce new options, and I know something about what happens when you have ground force actions, have to ask themselves the question of whether their alternative suggestions could have achieved the objectives without a single combat casualty, and I think that is the dilemma we all face here.

Mr Gapes

  58. Can I take you to the work of the Kosovo Verification Mission before the actual conflict. In retrospect, do you think that the Kosovo Verification Mission was sufficiently strong, well equipped and capable of carrying out its mission? Have our partners within the OSCE accepted/recognised that it was unwise to leave a mission in post which was incapable of carrying out its mission? Are there any lessons for the future about the way in which that Verification Mission worked or did not work and was then forced to be taken out?
  (Air Marshal Sir John Day) The fact of the matter is the Kosovo Verification Mission was the best deal that Mr Holbrook could get in October 1998. It worked for a few months. It was a bit slow getting on the ground and in the end those who thought that it was given an impossible task were proved right. The fact that it was slow getting on the ground, there was a vacuum between the Holbrook deal being agreed with Milosevic in October and the Verification Mission building up, was one of the reasons why various nations, including Britain, put troops on the border ready from March onwards so as soon as the air campaign succeeded there would not be a vacuum before the ground force went in. Arguably you are right, they were not sufficiently well equipped in terms of what the law gave them, what Milosevic had been prepared to give them, but at the time it was the best deal that could be attained and there was hope that it would succeed.

  59. By agreement they were unarmed?
  (Air Marshal Sir John Day) Correct.

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