Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1060 - 1079)



Mr Hancock

  1060. Suez.
  (Lord Gilbert) Not many other Western powers have much experience of that. It is very revealing, Chairman, the state of the terrain. In not all but in certain parts of Kosovo there was a report recently of British troops there finding it thoroughly inconvenient, if not impossible, to use their light armoured vehicles to get around and they were resorting to ponies and horses.


  1061. Could we have got 50,000? I know it was not your own department but you obviously know what goes on on the other side of the shop.
  (Lord Gilbert) I am not sure I always knew what was happening on my side.

  1062. Where was our contribution going to come from?
  (Lord Gilbert) I think you had better ask somebody else that question, Chairman, I am not competent to answer it. All I would say is I would have been very pleasantly surprised indeed. I think a land invasion of Kosovo would have been possible by September but by September this year, not by September last year.

Dr Lewis

  1063. This developed into a test of NATO's strength and credibility in the end. Are you saying that if the air campaign, which as you yourself acknowledge remained quite a limited campaign, had failed that we would have just said "ground invasion is not on really, we will have to give up and Milosevic has won"? I suggest we would not have said that at all and, therefore, if that raises the possibility of a ground invasion then surely the heart of that would have been an important factor in Milosevic's mind. Coupled with that, will you also say why was it that it was felt necessary publicly to rule out a ground invasion at the outset that many people now seem to acknowledge was a mistake and that even if one had ruled it out publicly, why could the threat not have been conveyed to him privately that we would, in fact, do it?
  (Lord Gilbert) There is a whole raft of questions there, Dr Lewis, as you know. I am sure you are not trying to put words into my mouth.

  1064. I would not dream of it.
  (Lord Gilbert) I hope I did not say that, had the air campaign not proved effective we would not have tried. I think people would have tried. I think it would have been far more difficult than they thought it would have been. I think it would have taken far longer to get enough troops together with equipment and I think it would have been extremely difficult to get the various countries to produce the troops. For God's sake they cannot even produce the number of policemen they all promised in a peaceful Kosovo, as you well know, many, many months afterwards. The sorts of things that were being said in the Ministry of Defence were "what is all this about the Serbs being ten foot tall; they are no good as fighters; the Croats gave them a bloody nose and they ran away, it is not difficult dealing with them". I do not happen to share that view. I think it would have been very, very difficult. You asked me whether it was necessary to rule out a land campaign from the beginning. I think probably, psychologically, it was a mistake, but I do not think it influenced Mr Milosevic one way or another because I think Mr Milosevic is a realist. Mr Milosevic knew perfectly well as the thing proceeded how little damage was being done to his military assets. Have I answered the question?

  1065. Not really, no. You are saying that the threat of ground forces had nothing whatever to do with the eventual decision to cave in and what I am putting to you is if you acknowledge that had the air campaign not brought about the result that eventually came about, if you acknowledge that in those circumstances NATO would indeed have proceeded to a ground offensive no matter how hard it was to do and how long it took, then you are acknowledging that a ground offensive was indeed possible in the medium to long term. If you acknowledge that then the ruling out of our ever doing that at the beginning was a mistake and the fact that Milosevic could see that we were moving strongly in that direction could well have been a factor, as indeed many of our witnesses think it was a factor, in his final decision to capitulate. That is what I am suggesting.
  (Lord Gilbert) First of all, I do not think we were moving strongly in that direction by the time hostilities came to an end. Secondly, I think we were extremely lucky that he gave way when he did. I am sure you have taken, evidence, Chairman, on the stocks of various types of munitions that we and the Americans; had and how we were scraping the barrel of this, that and the next thing in certain areas. You are constantly trying to tempt me into making a prediction as to what NATO would have done and I do not feel competent to do that, Dr Lewis. They would have had to contemplate very, very considerable numbers of casualties. The French estimate was that they would be taking 2,000 casualties a day if they tried to go in. I do not know which land route the French contemplated. *** there was no way in which you could put together a ground force to go into Kosovo before the winter and when the winter arrived it would be diabolically difficult. It is all very well for the decisions to be taken, but were they going to be implemented? I think we would have had very considerable difficulties in raising 50,000 troops. George had put them on the table saying "that is what I will provide", it is a matter of record, I gather, from evidence in Lessons from the Crisis,[2] but whether the others would have come up with the other 100,000—Most of them would have been Americans, they would have had to come all the way across the Atlantic and where were you going to disembark them, how were you going to deploy them?


  1066. They could have been sustained for a limited amount of time.
  (Lord Gilbert) You would have to get it through the United States Senate. If you think you could get all that done and have an effective force in position by September, that is very optimistic.

Mr Brazier

  1067. I am moving amendments on a Bill up the corridor so I am going to very rudely ask a question, hear your answer and then disappear. Just on the Russians, I heard what you said about the Russians, Lord Gilbert, but it is a matter of public record that a public pact was signed between Milosevic, the Government of Belarus and a large group of extremists in the Duma Parliament. It is also a matter of public record that it was just two days after the collapse of that same group's impeachment effort against President Yeltsin that Chernomyrdin was sent on his second mission which resulted in the immediate collapse. There is some solid evidence there, it was not what the Russians had done to them, it was the prospect of ousting Yeltsin and the Russians doing something for them which disappeared surely?
  (Lord Gilbert) I am sure that is right. I think it was largely a lot of posturing. What on earth could the Russians do?

  1068. It was what Milosevic believed and had been told by his mates in the Duma basically.
  (Lord Gilbert) I think Milosevic's intelligence was pretty good. I know his brother or his brother-in-law was ambassador in Moscow. I cannot remember which one it was.

Mr Hancock

  1069. Brother. And was very heavily involved even before.
  (Lord Gilbert) Absolutely. The Russians were shown to be absolutely impotent.


  1070. On the question of what could the Russians do at Pristina Airport, do you line up on Wes Clark's side or General Jackson's side? Can we tease you into an answer?
  (Lord Gilbert) This is a quote from 11 May, Herald Tribune: "When fewer than 200 lightly armoured Russian peacekeepers barnstormed to the Pristina Airport in Kosovo to upstage the arrival of NATO peacekeepers, General Clark asked NATO helicopters and ground troops to seize the airport before the Russians could arrive. But the British General . . ." this is not my language, "absurdly saying he had feared World War 3, when in truth the Russians had no cards to play, appealed to London and Washington to delay the order". ***.

  1071. As a subordinate officer, what were his rights?
  (Lord Gilbert) He was not insubordinate, he had rights under the NATO command structure to appeal to his national line of command.

  1072. So who do you think he—
  (Lord Gilbert) Now you are tempting me a little too far. I have a pretty good idea of what happened.

Mr Hancock

  1073. When we were in Italy last week the American General who was responsible for part of the air campaign, responsible in the Atlantic Command South—
  (Lord Gilbert) This was not Short?

  1074. No, this is his replacement. This is the chap who is actually running the air fields, not the overall commander. I cannot remember his name. Also one of the senior British officers there told me, because I was sitting with them at dinner, that part of the problem was that Clark was fixated with targeting tanks and used a disproportionate amount of resources chasing tanks around Kosovo to the extent of it being bizarre and there was much criticism within the American chain of command over Clark's actions which went back to the Secretary of Defence and subsequently to the President about Clark's behaviour and being fixated over chasing numbers rather than critical areas of command. That is the first one. I wonder if the Brits had a view on what was going on?
  (Lord Gilbert) It was extremely difficult to know what was going on. One of the first things I should say is as far as I know we did not originate any targets. We approved certain targets but they were brought first of all to the Secretary of State who delegated some types of targets en bloc to commanders and then reserved to himself other types of targets to be dealt with individually. When he was out of the country they came to me. All targets, of course, were cleared with the law officers in this country. I think NATO, under pressure from the media, certainly became obsessed in their reporting with the amount of material that they had successfully attacked; I think that is quite right, but I do not think either Clark or Short wanted to attack those targets. Primarily they were forced to do that because the politicians would not allow them to start off by taking out the factories, the bridges and the oil refineries and so on.

  1075. They went on to say that it was when the French, who flew the second largest number of missions, objected to so many abortive missions being flown chasing tanks that action was finally taken, that Clark had slightly lost track of what was happening and they felt had slightly taken his eye off the ball of the reality, as it were.
  (Lord Gilbert) I cannot tell you everything that went on at NATO headquarters, not by a long way; all I knew was what was happening at MoD of course. I think Clark was very highly stressed, that was a lot of this. I am told by people who were with him that he was actually on his mobile phone every ten minutes or so, which is a quite extraordinary state of affairs for a commander in charge of a campaign of this scale. I do not recognise the scenario that you have put to me. I am not challenging it; I am saying I do not recognise it.

  1076. The second question relates to what we have been told both in this Committee and when we have visited elsewhere about the state of intelligence.
  (Lord Gilbert) Ah.

  1077. Considering that we claim to be the top ball players in this field, along with our American colleagues, why was it that there was so much of a deficiency in the intelligence both on what Milosevic was going to do and what he was up to and, secondly, about what his reaction or what the Yugoslavs on the ground's reaction would be to what was going on? Why did intelligence get it so wrong?
  (Lord Gilbert) I think that is an extremely good question, I asked it myself. I do not know the answer. I think it is something where the Ministry of Defence ought to be picked up by the scruff of the neck and shaken. Can I talk for a moment or two about intelligence?


  1078. Yes, please.
  (Lord Gilbert) There were basically three different sorts of intelligence. One was intelligence battle damage assessment. Has your Committee been given various figures?

  1079. It changed after we were given them.
  (Lord Gilbert) No doubt you have been given information on this subject. Have you been given classified information on this subject? There is no reason why I should not give you information in that case. We had an assessment ***. I am not at all sure that they were all being attacked. When we get on to the question of the oil supplies, the amount of damage we had done to Serb oil refineries varied very considerably. In my view, if we had really wanted we could have taken out all of the Serb oil refineries like that if we had concentrated on them. We knew exactly where they were, we had the weapons with brilliant precision, as I am sure you know, Chairman. We also got extremely varying intelligence on the state of Serb morale and what was happening post-Milosevic. I have to say that it was very difficult to know what to believe from one day to the next. Thirdly, we also got advice right at the beginning when I was advocating that we should take out the electricity supplies as soon as possible,***, "why the hell were we told eight weeks ago that these consequences were going to flow?" We got some rhubarb, people were not happy at being asked that sort of question. In answer to your question, I think a very serious look needs to be taken at intelligence, both the Americans and ours.

2   Cm 4724. Back

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