Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1100 - 1119)



  1100. We were on our own then. If we were in an alliance of 19 nations we might have made different decisions.
  (Mr Hoon) It is not my job to trade military history with you, Chairman, but I read those accounts with some interest because many British soldiers were still in France in Dunkirk, and one of them was my grandfather. There was an attempt, after Dunkirk, to hold a line across Brittany. It was a disaster. It was badly planned, ill-thought out and, eventually, the British Government indicated that fact to the French. Notwithstanding the fact that that had been communicated to the French, some attempts at resistance continued, which, undoubtedly, cost the lives of some British soldiers in the process. It is simply an illustration—I do not spend any time on it—of the fact that these kinds of political difficulties have arisen in all multi-national operations. They will continue to arise, it is part of what countries have to deal with when they organise these kinds of campaigns. Nevertheless, in Kosovo I am convinced that the unity of the Alliance was the single most important reason why, ultimately, we were successful.
  (Mr Webb) Can I just add the point that it may also deter another war. The fact the Alliance managed to demonstrate its resolve means that somebody else reading the ISS Military Balance may think that they would be very unwise to come up against an Alliance that can act in that way.

  1101. If you are coming up against an alliance that takes a long time to start targeting effectively, it might actually be an assurance to a potential adversary. You are facing 19 countries who take a long time to get their act together; some of the Alliance members are decidedly flaky and have to be drummed into line; they are not going to try to kill too many of your people; they are certainly not going to dare risk losing any of their own and it might send not the message that you would hope to send, but it might send absolutely the opposite message. That is something I have some anxiety about, Mr Webb.
  (Mr Webb) But, in the end, we acted effectively and succeeded. That they cannot ignore.

  1102. That, itself, must not be used as an excuse and a shield for all of the political compromises that had to be made in order to achieve that ultimate victory. This is not a criticism of the Government, it is a criticism of the way in which an alliance has to operate. On a factual question, Secretary of State, can you think of, perhaps, the most glaring examples of where NATO had to use sub-optimal means to achieve its military and strategic objectives because of the requirements of political cohesion and avoiding as much loss of life as was possible?
  (Mr Hoon) We used the means that were necessary to fulfil our objectives, given the political constraints that I indicated in terms of achieving unity. However, I do not think it is particularly helpful for me to list those areas of difficulty other than the ones that are implicated in the paper. I think the reality is that we conducted a remarkably successful campaign. It perhaps took rather longer than we anticipated and it may have been that some of those factors you describe account for that, but, nevertheless, it was successful, and I do not think it particularly helps to dwell on the kind of difficulties that inevitably arise in co-ordinating this kind of multi-national operation.

  1103. I have to slightly disagree, because unless the difficulties are exposed, unless the weaknesses are remedied, the next time we go into a conflict we are not necessarily going to have the objectives achieved and I think there were times during the conflict when I was decidedly worried about whether we were going to be successful. If the air war was not successful then the land war would have been the only option, and I must say that did not fill me with a high degree of confidence. So I honestly take a slightly different view. I do not think we have to cover things up in order to say how well we did. It is not our job to take part in any cover-up; our job is to get the best—as is yours—effort with the limited resources, but we do not want to be responsible for any failures because we were quiet and, I am sure you feel the same. We need to identify what was successful, which tends to be forgotten, and emphasise more, for the overall, long-term objectives, what did not go as well as we might have liked. I am thinking, in that sense, we are absolutely at one, I am sure.
  (Mr Hoon) I am sure we are, and I am not suggesting for a moment that it is necessary to cover anything up, and, indeed, this document exposes many areas of the difficulties that we have identified. What I was getting at, and I think this is an important distinction to make, is the distinction between the way in which the Allies signed up to the objectives of the campaign—and consistently supported those objectives and, ultimately were successful in delivering them—and the relationship between those objectives and how it was actually delivered in the campaign. I am absolutely confident that the Allies were willing to will the means to the end, which were ultimately successful. I think there is a distinction there between the general objectives of the Allies and the Alliance and the technical means—if I can put it that way—by which those were delivered.

Mr Hancock

  1104. I am just interested in you suggesting to us that we should not debate openly the problems that were experienced. Somewhere or other both the political lessons and the military lessons have to be discussed and debated do they not? There is a serious problem, surely, that NATO would not have been able to respond quickly to a Blitzkrieg-type operation if there was one. I think the one lesson any opponent of NATO has learned is that they have to strike quickly because NATO's ability to respond quickly is seriously impaired because they cannot get it together in a short enough time. That lesson needs to be discussed publicly, surely, so that politicians are more capable of giving you a rapid response to a NATO request for political judgments to be made and action to be ordered.
  (Mr Hoon) I am not entirely sure I follow that.

  1105. Your intelligence has told us, and so has NATO's, that they had this profile on what was happening there and everyone could see what was going on. Yet it still took forever for us to get to a situation. We had gone long past the sell-by date of diplomacy trying to halt the war. It was obvious that decisions had been made. Any potential opponent or successor to Milosevic in any part of Europe would look at that situation and say "The lesson we have to learn from this is that NATO is a big, cumbersome organisation where 19 people take their time in getting their act together".
  (Mr Hoon) Forgive me if I did not understand the way you put it originally, but I do see what you are driving at, and I simply do not accept it. I think there are important constraints on an organisation as powerful as NATO, given the military capability that we possess collectively. I think it is right that we adopt a very cautious attitude before we both threaten and, ultimately, use force. I do not accept that it took forever for us to get into that situation. There will be many people around the world who would say we, perhaps, used the threat and used force too quickly. I suspect there are even Members on this Committee who might say that, from time to time. Therefore, it is important that we are cautious about the point at which we resort to force. I think that NATO allies were commendably restrained in the opportunities that they gave Milosevic, frankly, to back down. I think it is right that we should always be restrained before resorting to force in those circumstances. We needed to ensure that Milosevic fully understood our determination to resort to force should that be necessary and to give him every opportunity to back off. Sadly, he chose not to do that.

Mr Hood

  1106. Secretary of State, you talk about caution. In January we sent in SACEUR and General Naumann to see Milosevic to tell him we would smack him over the head if he did not come into line. Ten weeks later, nothing had happened, because you could not get agreement in NATO to do it. There was vacillation, and some people can understand why Milosevic did not believe we were going to take action at all. That uncertainty and that belief on his part has led to a lot of the problems.
  (Mr Hoon) You put the point more dramatically and more graphically than your colleague, but I simply do not accept that there was vacillation. There was a determined effort to give Milosevic an opportunity to recognise that we meant business, that we would use force—and ultimately we did use force—but the objective was always to give him the time to think through the logic of his actions in order to recognise that we were serious to resorting to force if he did not back down. I regret that he did not back down.


  1107. If you had been a defence minister then and not a foreign minister, maybe you would have had a different perspective. That is a very good Foreign Office view, Secretary of State.
  (Mr Hoon) I keep having to remind you, Chairman, that all Government ministers support the objectives of Government policy, and I suspect at the start of the Kosovo campaign I was actually in the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Laura Moffatt

  1108. Secretary of State, I think there are a few of us that feel that you cannot look at the lessons learned, both in a purist military view or a purist political view, and that we need to understand the interconnection of those two. I just want to probe you a little further on the impact of political actions, which may then have an effect on the military action that the Alliance then took. The whole campaign slightly reminds me of a group of people coming together who have a common purpose, and it slightly reminds me of a new government which comes into power and there are those who are more vulnerable than others, who are being badgered, perhaps by their constituency parties, who say "You have got to go back and tell them something else", and it starts to flake away. It must feel that way to some of the nations involved in NATO during the process—the so-called flaky ones. Are we forever going to be at risk from our enemies who will target those very people—as we know can happen—to put pressure on the main body? How do we protect them and how do we move forward if we have to conduct an action like this again?
  (Mr Hoon) I think you raise some interesting analogies, and I would be reluctant to pursue them too far. I think what is interesting about it is that it does reflect the fact that the Alliance is composed of sovereign nations and those sovereign nations are responsible for their armed forces. You, as Members of Parliament, would be rightly unhappy if this Government took decisions about deployment of forces that did not have best regard to the United Kingdom's interests. Therefore, each other country in the Alliance has to deal, quite properly, with those same pressures and constraints on their freedom of action. That is why, in the context of the Alliance, there is inevitably discussion and debate as to the best way forward. I am not pretending that there are not those kinds of discussions—they must take place. That would mean, in any given situation, there would be some countries who want to go further and faster than others. Again, I gave one example earlier, and there are many others, of this not being a new feature of multi-national operations in times of war or in times of campaigns. It is necessary to reconcile those issues, but this is where, I think, there is a degree of sensitivity that inevitably arises. It would not be good for our ability to deploy forces and our ability to maintain the appropriate morale if, every day, there were screaming newspaper headlines suggesting, for example, that there was a difference of opinion about how and when we should deploy force. That would not be helpful in terms of achieving our ultimate objective. I am simply suggesting to you there is a balance to be struck there. There must be a vigorous discussion but we must achieve a unity of purpose because that, I think, is a pre-requisite of success. Nevertheless, there is a limit to how far those issues need to be broadcast as and when they occur. It may be that that is something that needs to be left to historians or, possibly, even select committees to investigate.
  (Mr Webb) I think the facts of the situation are that the international community decided to have another go at diplomacy in February 1999. The Rambouillet talks took place, and they went on through into March. The Rambouillet talks were accepted by the Kosovar Albanians on 18 March, the Serbs declined to accept them and the talks were adjourned on 19 March. Within three days NATO had sent Holbrooke to Belgrade in the final warning—on 22 March—and on 23 March the Alliance decided to act, and on 24 March military operations began. So the real timetable for NATO—NATO—military decision-making, I would say, is from 19 March when diplomacy ended to—

Mr Hancock

  1109. Absolute rubbish.
  (Mr Webb)—24 March, when the bomb hit the ground.

  Mr Hancock: That is absolute rubbish.


  1110. Gentlemen, this is not the Women's Institute. Mr Webb, the Foreign Affairs Committee has a rather longer perspective. It starts off: Kosovo crisis, September 1997. Contact group discusses Kosovo. So we would see the process not when NATO came in but when the international community came in. We may have moved fairly swiftly within the Alliance, but the whole process, prior to NATO coming in, was a very elongated process.
  (Mr Webb) With respect, Chairman, the point is being made about NATO's military involvement. I was making the point that when you get to the end of diplomacy, NATO acted within a week.

Mr Hancock

  1111. They were planning a year before. They told us that.
  (Mr Webb) Military contingency planning should go on all the time.

  Mr Hancock: What, to attack Kosovo?

Laura Moffatt

  1112. Can we return to the political aspect of this, because the important part is that there was a collection of nations, primarily NATO, who felt that what was going on was wrong. They had absolutely laudable aims, but then there was a gap while, I presume, the process of making sure that you could fulfil anything that is threatened is achieved. So was that the difficulty? I take your point exactly, when the chips are down, it just happened. However, there was a gap where, really, I figure, there was a lot of negotiation going on with NATO nations to make sure that they were able to fulfil our obligations.
  (Mr Hoon) I do not think there is any doubt, in that period, that we already knew that we could fulfil our obligations. I do not think there is any doubt about our ability to use force. The question that always arises is "Have we given our opponent enough time to consider carefully the implications of what we know we can do? Is there a political agreement that this is now the next stage that we should take?" Certainly, across an alliance of 19 sovereign nations, there must be detailed discussion to ensure each of them supports both the objectives which we had already agreed and the means by which those objectives are to be achieved. I do not think that is at all surprising. You referred to political analogies, but in democratic societies it is right that there should be that kind of discussion before there is a resort to force and before 19 countries engage upon military action to support what is ultimately, obviously, in the longest term, a political objective.


  1113. Secretary of State, we were at NATO the day after General Naumann came back from one of his abortive meetings, and he reinforced the impression we had when we met him. We felt a sense of enormous anger and, I suspect, humiliation at being a top military man, Chairman of the Military Committee, going out with Wes Clark, banging on the table, knowing that behind him was not overwhelming political force but underwhelming political force, and that he could not, at that stage, back up his threats and warnings to Milosevic with anything other than empty rhetoric. That is our concern. You have to sustain the consensus, but if that consensus takes so long to create, we have to accept that though that might be political reality it does have a down-side, and the price could have been paid by our pilots and others who were put in a wrong situation, pursuing a wrong strategy. This is because we have to recognise that a very, very, very heavy price has to be paid, and was paid, for maintaining Alliance political cohesion.
  (Mr Hoon) Let me say this: in our society, at the end of the last century and at the start of this one, the armed forces and military decisions are firmly, and rightly, under ultimate political direction. The achievement of the political goals of countries, both as nation states and collectively in an alliance like NATO, must be subject to that ultimate political decision-making process, because that political process reflects the democracy in which we live. I could have had some sympathy with your criticisms if, for example, we were having an inquiry into the failure of NATO to achieve its objectives in Kosovo, or if we were having an inquiry into why it was that, ultimately, we did not use force. But we did use force, so we did back up threats in a military way. I could understand the reservation if, for example, we had lost a great number of our armed forces in the process, and that you could point to some delay contributing to that. The example I gave a few minutes ago, about a botched operation in Brittany, actually did lead to the death of British soldiers. None of those occurred. It may be that you might have differences, with the benefit of hindsight, as far as the timetable was concerned, but, nevertheless, I can say, with some confidence, that we were successful and we were successful without loss of life, which is quite a remarkable achievement in a military campaign.
  (Rear Admiral Moore) Chairman, a point, surely, is that Milosevic, throughout this preliminary period, was not playing a straight line, or a direct agenda; he was changing all the time. He was playing chess with NATO and he, when Holbrooke went out in October to talk over the Verification Mission and the political process, agreed, and then reneged. So it was not as though we were dealing with a steady stream of refusal from Milosevic, against which we could have taken more direct actions. We were having to adapt what we did in the face of a very cunning diplomatic plot.

Mr Hancock

  1114. General Naumann came here and told us that when he and General Clark were with Milosevic, Milosevic told them that he was going to deal with the Kosovars as they had done in 1945, which was to get them together and kill them—shoot them. When were you told that Milosevic had told the Supreme Commander and the Chairman of the Military Committee that his intentions were quite clear to them? General Naumann sat in that seat and he said he had no hesitation in believing that Milosevic would do it. That was two and a half months before you took action. They were not words that were invented, Milosevic said it to them.
  (Rear Admiral Moore) Then they were willing to engage in the Rambouillet process. So they were coming back.

  1115. You seem to think this guy was some sort of humanitarian, who was suddenly going to be converted, but he had already told your Supreme Commander that he intended to kill them.
  (Rear Admiral Moore) If he was bowing to the threat of military force from NATO, you had to allow him to prove whether he was going to do it.
  (Mr Hoon) I have, perhaps, the advantage in this context that I was not engaged in the process at the time, but looking at the process from the perspective of—admittedly a Government Minister—someone not directly engaged in the political decision-making process. I hardly think, at that time, that there was a settled will in the United Kingdom that we should resort to force at that stage whilst the process of negotiation still continued. That is, really, the point I am making about the relationship between the political process in a democracy and the decision to resort to force. It has to reflect a willingness in a democracy that force should be used on behalf of that democracy.

  1116. He told the Supreme Commander that he intended to kill people. That would have helped the democratic processes no end.
  (Mr Hoon) However, the reality is that in this kind of situation countries do give the opportunity to those who they want to coerce—and, frankly, we were seeking to coerce Milosevic—to back down. That would have saved lives. It may be that you can say, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that we could and should have moved more quickly, but the reality was, at the time—and my recollection of this is pretty clear—that there was a strong view in this country and elsewhere that Milosevic should be given the opportunity of backing down without actually using force; that the threat of force might well be sufficient.

Mr Cann

  1117. Secretary of State, General Wesley Clark, on 8 June, said that historically air power has been the unique strength of the United States, and, effectively, what he was saying was that they brought the air power and the Allies brought the ground forces. Does that mean, therefore, that because air power was predominantly used they dictated the strategy totally?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not entirely accept all of your premises, in the sense that though the reality was that they provided the greater part of the air power, nevertheless, there were significant contributions, not least by the United Kingdom, and, equally, had there have had to have been a ground force those allies willing to participate, I am sure, would have included the United States. So there is not quite the neat distinction that your question implied. Nor was there a clear distinction in the way that you suggest as far as the United States and other allies were concerned. This was very much a joint operation, and I think what is significant about the British contribution, in particular, is that we contributed from our strengths. Air-to-air refuelling, for example, is one of the things we are very good at and did extremely well. We made a contribution that, perhaps, in many ways in this kind of campaign, is not as dramatic or as high-profile as others, but we made a contribution that was absolutely invaluable. So this was very much a joint operation.

  1118. I am not going to quibble words with a very sharp lawyer. Significant is what you said we put in. Could I say the American's air effort was predominant. Would we agree on that?
  (Mr Hoon) Certainly there is no doubt that the US provided the overwhelming part of the air campaign. No doubt about that. They flew the most sorties and they provided the most aircraft. I think it is important to look at it in the round. The contribution, for example, of air-to-air refuelling allowed many of those sorties to take place that might not otherwise have done so.

  1119. How many of the sorties, in percentage terms, were American aircraft?
  (Mr Hoon) We have got those figures in the Lessons Learned document.[2] I will get them out for you.
  (Mr Webb) Two-thirds.
  (Mr Hoon) Something like two out of three were undoubtedly carried out by the Americans. I have got the figure somewhere because I have been looking at it this morning.

2  Cm 4724. Back

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