Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1093 - 1099)




  1093. Secretary of State, Mr Webb and Rear Admiral, thank you very much for coming along for what will be our last session on the lessons of Kosovo. I think, Secretary of State, you have probably been one of the most regular attendees of our Committee, but before you get too pleased I must tell you that we have just come back from Italy and, apparently, the Ministry of Defence sends a minister along to every single one of the defence committee meetings. So, no doubt, I shall write, in due course, and you could depute Dr Moonie or one of your colleagues to sit in and maybe ask questions of ministerial colleagues. It would be quite interesting.
  (Mr Hoon) I am sure you will be very able to explain to the Prime Minister why we need more ministers to be able to cover your many meetings.

  1094. This is our last session and we have looked very carefully at Kosovo, Lessons from the Crisis[1], and I think it is a very good document. I think the Department should be congratulated on it. Before we start, would you like, Secretary of State, to make an introductory statement?
  (Mr Hoon) With your permission, I would, but I ought to introduce, for the record, Rear Admiral Simon Moore, who is the Assistant Chief of Defence Staff for Operations, and Mr Simon Webb, who is Director General for Operational Policy. In the course of your inquiry you have already heard from a number of witnesses from the Ministry of Defence, and I know that you have received a considerable amount of evidence in writing. The report, to which you kindly referred, the paper on lessons learned from the crisis, was designed to provide an authoritative account of what happened, to record the key lessons we have learned and explain what we plan to do about them. We aimed to be as open and frank as we could be and I am grateful for your indication that you found the document useful. For any operation, attention inevitably tends to focus on the problems. This is understandable. However, we should not allow that to mean that we forget that we intervened in Kosovo for a reason and that our objectives in that intervention were successfully achieved. Yugoslav and Serbian forces responsible for ethnic repression and violence over a prolonged period were forced to leave, and the 1.3 million refugees and displaced persons were able to return to their homes. We know there is still a great deal to do in Kosovo, but we are absolutely clear that the future for the people of Kosovo is much better as a result of what we did. We must also examine how to make our performance better in future. The key capability lessons are identified in the paper, and, in the first place, rightly so, is the importance of looking after the armed forces. They delivered the results in Kosovo. The percentage of the Army committed to operations has been brought down from 47% last year—what was an unprecedented level in peace time—to some 27% now. We are taking a large number of other steps to improve the situation of our servicemen and women, both on operations and at home. For example, we are announcing today that some £4 million a year extra will be available to defence to fund the contractorisation of transport, engineering and petroleum operators in the Balkans, which will have the effect of relieving pressure on some of our busiest personnel. Many of the detailed lessons of Kosovo have already been implemented. At the lower end of the scale, some require little or no extra resources and can deliver real benefits. For example, pre-training civilian staff to provide essential financial expertise for deployed operations; organisational and procedural changes can make a real difference where substantial resources are required. We have to weigh these carefully against the other demands on the defence budget. Important decisions based wholly or in part on our experience in Kosovo have already been made. For example, trials are under way for secure air-to-air communications and Maverick Anti-Armour Missiles. Strategic airlift is another important area recognised in the SDR, and we have taken action here too, through the decision to acquire four Boeing C17 Globemaster aircraft and to commit ourselves to acquire 25 Airbus A400M aircraft to meet our longer-term requirement. Indeed, one of the key lessons of the Kosovo campaign is that the decisions we took in the Strategic Defence Review were the right ones, and that we will be better prepared for future operations once the review has been fully implemented. Finally, I should emphasise that as the Kosovo operation was a team effort, so, too, is the follow-up. Future operations are equally likely to be multi-national enterprises, and as I recently told my fellow NATO defence ministers, we need to work together to ensure that we are better prepared as and when there is a next time. That is what the Defence Capabilities Initiative at NATO and the European Headline Goal in the European Union are designed to do. We therefore remain committed to their full implementation.

  1095. Thank you very much. Lessons have been painfully learned and they are usually very costly. Are you satisfied that certainly the equipment changes that need to be made can be made within your existing budget, which in my personal view has been and is ridiculously low? If you pay for it out of your existing budget then you take money out of the rest of the budget. Have you done any costings as to how much this will take out of your budget, Secretary of State?
  (Mr Hoon) As I indicated in my opening remarks, some of those changes can be implemented at a modest cost. Some require substantial financial commitment, and some of those that do require substantial financial commitments have been met, and we are planning to be able to deal with the problem of strategic heavy lift—which is an issue I know this Committee has raised over many years—within budget. Very substantial commitment is involved, but, nevertheless, we have no doubt that that can be met within our planned resources. Obviously, there are always areas where we could find the opportunity of spending more of the taxpayers' money, and I am sure all Secretaries of State feel that, but I think that is particularly the case as far as the defence budget is concerned. However, I am confident that in the course of time—and I cannot say this year or next year—we will be able to implement the lessons learned as far as our equipment is concerned. We have a substantial budget, and we have to address priorities in the sense that some of the equipment needs we will deal with earlier rather than later, but I am equally confident that we will not be in a position in the foreseeable future to come back here and for you to say "There was a clear lesson set out in this report. You have not implemented it. Why not? Is that because of a shortage of money?" We will look very carefully at the priority that we attach to each of the lessons, and, clearly, it will take time to implement.

  1096. Has the Treasury read a copy of your report yet?
  (Mr Hoon) I guarantee to you that every part of Government has studied carefully the relevant passages as far as they are concerned.

  1097. How are your negotiations going?
  (Mr Hoon) Well, there is a constant process of reviewing budgets in government and, at the moment, we are engaged in negotiations to plan the next three years' spending for the government right across government. Obviously, it is my job to put vigorously the case for spending on defence, and I am grateful for the support the Committee has been able to give me, and I am sure will continue to give me, and I continue to put the case vigorously.

  1098. I am delighted, because you mention all Secretaries of State asking for money, but, historically, few defence ministers have had more commitments with less resources to meet those commitments. Those who are interested in defence ought to be aware of the fact that we cannot continue to do the things that the Government wishes to do if the defence budget is at a historically low level. If that level of defence expenditure falls further or is even held at the present level, many options that the Government ought to be able to pursue will either not be able to be pursued or will be pursued very ineffectively at high risk and high cost in terms of people and material. I am sure you have been able to communicate that message to your colleagues, and, certainly, anything you say I am sure will have the endorsement of this Committee, who have seen the Armed Forces operating and know the enormous difficulties they labour under. So you will certainly have our support, Secretary of State. To turn to my question, the main purpose of NATO entering the campaign in March 1999 was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. On the other hand, enormous stress was laid on the importance of maintaining Alliance cohesion, and that meant that some options which might have contributed to an earlier achievement of the campaign were discounted. Do you think that NATO's freedom of action to resolve regional crises of this sort in the future is always going to be constrained by the overriding need to maintain Alliance unity?
  (Mr Hoon) I certainly believe that Alliance unity was an absolutely key factor in our ultimate success, and that various efforts were made by the regime in Belgrade to try and undermine that unity. The fact that we were able to demonstrate a consistency of purpose, I think, perhaps, without being able to read the mind of Milosevic was, probably, the key reason as to why ultimately he backed down. It does seem to me, in the future, that that kind of consistency of purpose, that degree of unity, is vital in these multi-national operations. Clearly, in the course of planning, preparing and designing those kinds of operations there will be different emphases from different participants, and when we are dealing with deployment of each country's armed forces it is absolutely right that each country should be able to say freely and clearly to its allies what is its position. Nevertheless, I am confident that in that exchange amongst friends, amongst allies, there was a recognition of the vital importance of unity.

  1099. Are people aware, as it were, as you are, that whilst unity is very important it does make it very, very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the military objectives? After all, the countries who were involved in the conflict on our side take up two-thirds of the Institute for Strategic Studies Military Balance, over half the world's GDP and most of the armed forces, and yet we took as long as we did to have a one-nil victory over what was, in essence, a truncated third world country. The next conflict we may have could be more serious and do you honestly think we can fight the next war with the political correctness and the obsessive interest in Alliance cohesion—important though it is—even though it may make the military objective very difficult to achieve?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not accept some of the premises of your observations. It was not impossible to achieve success because we did achieve success, and maintain unity in the process. I do not think, with respect, that that is a particularly accurate account of the forces available to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which is one of the more militarily well-organised countries in Europe. I do not believe that it is right to say that we were taking on a country that we could treat lightly in military terms. Certainly, however—and I do not think this will come as any surprise to the Committee—there were political constraints that inevitably face countries engaged in this kind of multi-national operation. There is nothing new in that. This has been part of the history of joint operations for as long as there have been joint operations. Members of Committee may, like me, have read accounts of the evacuation of Dunkirk lately.

1  Kosovo, Lessons from the Crisis, Cm 4724. Back

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