Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1120 - 1139)



  1120. Do you think we were in danger in future of the Americans doing the clean, relatively casualty-free air-power side while the allies grub around on the ground?
  (Mr Hoon) No, I do not, and that is why I emphasised, in response to your earlier question that this was very much a joint operation. Essentially, what happens in this kind of operation is that each country contributes its strengths, and one of the key equipment lessons we have to learn is that we were insufficiently strong in a number of key capabilities that are required in this kind of air campaign. That is something that we are, obviously, seeking to address. However, there is no doubt that the Americans are strong in this kind of capability, and they delivered that capability in the context of the campaign. They did so very effectively.

  1121. Are you confident that the SDR when implemented will enable us to, on a small scale, undertake the same range of activities that the Americans were able to do?
  (Mr Hoon) The same range? I have certainly commented, I think, even before this Committee, on the fact that the US budget this year is in the order of $291 billion, and certainly we could do far more if we had that sort of financial muscle at our disposal. What is important about the SDR is that it has set out from first principles what it was that a country like the United Kingdom could do in planning terms. It is not a precise blueprint, it is a series of planning assumptions that I am confident both provide an appropriate capability for the United Kingdom in national terms but, significantly, do allow us to contribute very substantially to the kind of multi-national operation that we judged then—and the Committee agreed—were likely to be a characteristic of future military operations around the world. It would be difficult to say that we could do the full range that the Americans could do because that would be approaching the ideal, but I have to say that even in conversations with the US they recognise that there are areas where they do not have as much capability as they might like. Even they are faced with budgetary restrictions on what they can do. I think our job is to ensure that we have sufficient capability to protect the United Kingdom's own immediate national interest, whilst, at the same time, make substantial contributions in the context of multi-national operations. I think, most recently, events in Sierra Leone demonstrate that many of our planning assumptions in the SDR can be achieved already, and certainly there is no reason why we should not deliver all of those assumptions in time.

  1122. We have all got to give credit, of course, for what air power did in Kosovo, at the end of the day, and we can quibble about whether it was too short, too long or indifferent—whatever. Do you think we handled the PR side of the air campaign very well in NATO? The impression given to me, on the first night, when we saw them going in was "Yes. Get in there lads and sort them out." As somebody said earlier "It will all be over by Easter" sort of thing. But it was not. Do you think that, perhaps, NATO press people were guilty of actually bringing forward expectations that could not realistically be met?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not think they were guilty of anything but I do think it is clear early on that insufficient attention had been paid to the importance of the media in this kind of modern operation, and that more effort had to be put into both explaining what we were doing and why we were doing it more effectively than we did in the early part of the operation. Certainly that was remedied and a much greater commitment was made. I think it is fair to say that as far as NATO is concerned, that is one of the lessons that we will have to ensure we implement in the future; that these kinds of modern operations do depend on explaining much more widely than has ever happened before what it is that we are doing and why it is that we are doing it.
  (Mr Webb) Can I make the point that in an air campaign, obviously, where the damage occurs is on the ground, a dictator with a controlled media—which we are talking about here and in some other theatres we have taken evidence on recently—has a bit of an advantage because they can always get the first story out alleging that something has happened. With the best will in the world, it may take a while before the military authorities can actually go and check the allegation, particularly if you have got a lot of operations under way, and say—as I hope we now would do—either "Yes, something did go wrong" or "Absolutely not, you are being had". One of the other dictators announced things happened on days when we have not got air operations, which is quite easy to deal with, but they have got an inherent advantage. We are conscious of this and we are trying to improve. I would just like to leave you with the thought that we all need to be very careful in these situations about publishing the first report that comes out, because there is a potential propaganda advantage, if they have a controlled press. That is the problem.

  1123. One further question, Chairman, if I may. Whatever anybody says, we were very reluctant, certainly early in the campaign, to put in ground forces. Essentially, was that a political decision? In other words, it would not have been politically very sensible to do it, or was it strategic, or was it the fact that you could not rely on the Americans to put in ground forces?
  (Mr Hoon) When you say "reluctant", what happens in this kind of operation—and it happened in this one, in particular—is that having signed up to a series of objectives military advice is then provided as to how to achieve those objectives. Undoubtedly, the most obvious way of achieving those objectives—which ultimately proved successful in this campaign—was an air campaign. The benefit of that is clear. If you have an air campaign the risk to your armed forces is less. However, I have to say, having seen some of the film of our pilots flying bombing missions over Belgrade, they were at considerable risk and displayed very considerable skill and bravery in what they did. Nevertheless, it is obviously less threatening to your armed forces than putting them on the ground to face a well-armed and well-organised opponent. Those are decisions that are taken in order, clearly, to achieve your objectives whilst minimising the risk to armed forces. That is precisely what happened in this campaign. There were options for the use of ground force, they were considered very carefully, they were available and we would, ultimately, have resorted to that should it have been necessary. Fortunately, it was not necessary. However, the benefit, as I said earlier, is that we now know that we were able to achieve our objectives successfully without loss of life.

  1124. May I just follow that up, Chairman, very quickly? We spent the first half of the air campaign, at least—maybe two-thirds—trying to fight tanks that were very carefully hidden. Why did we not go straight for Belgrade, in the first place, and the economic targets?
  (Mr Hoon) Because there were clear constraints in international law, as far as the way in which we were able to select targets. Whilst there may be, today, with the benefit of hindsight, some reservations about the number of targets actually destroyed, the reality was that whilst those targets were not actually destroyed they were, in effect, put out of action, because they were so well hidden that they could not be used—which, I suspect, to the military mind, is just as successful, and I am certainly not going to quibble over that. If the armed forces of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia were not prepared to bring their tanks out of pretty deep bunkers, that was a success, on any view; they could not be used against our forces, and that is all that is necessary in a military campaign. So I am not unduly concerned about that. The reality was that we were able to achieve what we did very successfully, and I think that is sufficient.


  1125. If the United States provided, as you said, Secretary of State, the overwhelming majority of aircraft and an enormous amount of fire-power, is it true to say it was a NATO strategy? It appeared to me, when we went to AFSOUTH last week, it was an American air strategy, not a NATO strategy. If you only bring a certain number of aircraft to the party there is a relationship—a correlation—between the aircraft brought and the power and influence you are able to exert over the overall strategy. Was it a NATO strategy or was it called a NATO strategy but, in reality, reflecting American strategy?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not think there is a neat distinction to be drawn. You make a sound observation when you say that if you bring large amounts of equipment and personnel to the party you undoubtedly have a very considerable degree of influence as to how that equipment and those personnel are used. If I were sitting here having made that kind of contribution and put the lives of British service personnel at risk in that way, you would expect me to have had a very considerable say in how they were used and deployed. Nevertheless, there was an absolute determination on the part of the United States to operate as part of an alliance and that, undoubtedly, was the case. There are tensions in that kind of process, and I do not think anyone living and working in a democracy should be in any doubt about that.
  (Rear Admiral Moore) The strategy and the planning was being worked through in a NATO headquarters, which was American commanded but not American dominated. Indeed, there were UK officers as well as those of the other allies who were working in those headquarters and who did have an important role to play in planning.

Mr Brazier

  1126. Just going back to ground forces for second, a couple of nitty-gritty questions, and then I want to come back to the big picture. Your own report comments very briefly on the reserves. That almost a third of the ground forces, had we gone in, 12,000 or 14,000 out of 50,000 would have been the reserves. This is no surprise because it has been known in the media for some time. The final sentence says: "Our experience in the Kosovo campaign has underlined the importance of reserve forces and supported our decisions to enhance their flexibility and responsiveness."[3] Leaving aside the fact that two of the four main categories we have been talking about, they were the areas that took the largest chunk of the task, the Infantry and the Sappers, you refer to "decisions to enhance flexibility and responsiveness". Given that almost all reserve units now have less training days, less permanent staff, and many of them are now operating in a structure which prevents all infantry units from training together, which means we are producing officers who do not have such a broad experience now, how would having the SDR improve what is left of the reserve forces for that scenario?
  (Mr Hoon) I simply do not recognise your description of the reserves. I spent Friday evening with a TA unit who were just setting off for a weekend of training; something that they do every three weeks, together with longer periods of training during holiday periods. Frankly, I doubt whether anything you have said would be recognised by any of them. I spoke to each person who was going off on Friday night, and each of them said how much they were getting out of the enhanced training they had lately received, and how pleased they were to participate. So I suspect you and I disagree over the interpretation of the modern TA and role of the reserves.

  1127. Just on three points of fact. You will confirm that there are now less permanent staff in the Signals, which was one of the four key categories you mentioned. A lot less permanent staff. There is now no longer any proper headquarters in Infantry battalions. The overall level of man training days is now less than it was three years ago. Those are all matters of fact. Could you write to us on each of those.
  (Mr Hoon) Yes, but those are decisions which have been taken as part of the reorganisation. What we are interested in is operational capability. What I am saying to you is that in those changes we have made, we have improved their operational capability. There are always those—and I accept that you have been consistent in this argument—who do not like to see change.


  1128. The whole Committee, not just Julian Brazier.
  (Mr Hoon) Is your constituency Canterbury?

Mr Brazier

  1129. Yes.
  (Mr Hoon) The honourable Member for Canterbury has consistently raised this with me and has articulated a view of the TA, which I respect. I simply do not believe that it reflects the reality. That in terms of judging the operational capability of the reserves—that simply because there are alterations, for example, in the headquarters structure—does not, in any way, affect their ability to be deployed. Indeed, other changes we are making enhances their ability to deploy. Should we need to rely upon them, their skill and training will be better now than it has ever been.

  1130. Well, we will have to agree to disagree. I want to bring you back to this issue of the mismatch between political ends and military means, which dominated two of the earlier exchanges, and discuss how we can avoid painting ourselves into a similar corner in the future without abandoning the ambition to be a "force for good". The debate this morning has followed exactly the same format on perhaps five or six hearings of the Committee. We have had the same factors introduced. On the one hand, the acceptance that the military advice was not followed in the early weeks because of the political reality that it would have been impossible to keep the NATO Alliance together, if it had been allowed to go in, with the best military option earlier. That has been recognised as factual on both sides. The issue really seems to me that there is a disagreement across the floor in just how close the call was. It has been acknowledged that we were two or three weeks from a point where had Milosevic held out just another two or three weeks, you would have had a straightforward choice of a ground option, which you have acknowledged earlier this morning would have been deeply unattractive, or accepted the absolute humiliation of having to back off and having to see the winter take place with Milosevic still on top in Kosovo. So my question is this: should we not next time, before we embark on an operation, ask ourselves: do we have the political consensus to go in, in the manner in which the military advises is the best manner? Or would it not be wise to think again?
  (Mr Hoon) Let me make it clear. I did not use the phrase "deeply unattractive". I pointed out that inevitably, it is hardly surprising that the use of ground force against a well armed and well organised opponent carries with it a much greater risk of larger numbers of casualties. That any responsible military and political leader must take that into account before taking any such decision. That is not to say that we were not resolved to use that option should it have been necessary. Fortunately it was not necessary. I suspect that if we had worked out every precise detail of every aspect of the operation before we set off on, for example, coercing Milosevic, then I would have faced still further criticisms for delay. The reality is that what we were seeking to do was, in the first place, to negotiate with a man who, as events proved, whose word could not be relied on. Then to threaten in the hope that he would react in a sensible way, having regard to his own people. Most of us would have assumed that that would have been the case. Sadly, it was not. Finally, to resort to force. That force, in most military campaigns that I can think of, is graduated. There are different degrees of force that can be used in different stages of a campaign. In each stage of this campaign we still hoped that Milosevic would recognise the reality of what was happening and back off. Eventually he did.

  1131. Yes, but with only two or three weeks. The final point is this. With only two or three weeks to go—and that is widely accepted timing because we obviously needed room to get in before the winter—he backed off after the critical visit from Mr Chernomyrdin. Now, however one weighs up the various factors, that was the key part of the scales. Had this visit not occurred; had he held out for another three weeks; we would have had an option of either absolute humiliation or struggling to put a coalition together. So the final question is: are you really confident that NATO would have had that coalition? That even if we could have produced our 50,000, we would have had the 150,000. Are you confident that would have happened?
  (Mr Hoon) That planning assumption was there and could have been delivered had it been necessary, yes.

  1132. Which countries do you think would have participated?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not think it is necessary to go into these details at this stage. The reality was that there was an agreement to deal with that option, should it have proved necessary.

Dr Lewis

  1133. Just on that then, would it not then have enhanced NATO's position if such an agreement could have been reached much earlier, so that it would not have been necessary to say, at the outset, that there was no question of ground forces going in?
  (Mr Hoon) All options were kept open as far as the military activities was concerned but, as I indicated a moment ago, in this particular campaign—not dissimilar to many others that I can think of—there was a graduation. There was a process that allowed Milosevic at various stages of intensity (if I can put it that way) to back down. We did not know, at the outset, what level of pain for his people he was prepared to sustain.

  1134. Yes, but we helped him by saying at the outset, "Don't worry, old chap. We are not going to send in ground forces."
  (Mr Hoon) That is simply not true. That was not said.

  1135. I could quote you the press conferences at which it was made abundantly clear, and they have been quoted in these hearings. In no circumstances were we going to send in our troops to an opposed environment. A great mistake.
  (Mr Hoon) The reality was that that option was kept open. It was made clear to Milosevic on more than one occasion that we were willing to use ground forces, should it prove necessary.

  1136. When was it made clear to him?
  (Mr Hoon) It was made clear in the announcements that the Alliance made.


  1137. I had the distinct impression, looking at the literature from the United States, that the United States was not only not at all enthused by the ground option, but that it had been removed. It seems to me it just depends on what speech you look at. One speech keeps it open. The other speeches forecloses that option. Maybe we should trade quotations with each other, Secretary of State.
  (Mr Hoon) I do not think it should be at all surprising, again in modern democracies, that there are debates about these matters. I do not think you can assume that we operate in quite the militaristic way that your questioning implies. The reality is, as I have said over and again today, that there is an ultimate political control in these decisions; and that different countries will put a different emphasis, at different stages in the process, on what is necessary. It should not come as any great surprise.

Mr Hancock

  1138. Are you satisfied that on 1 June 1999 NATO had a workable, deliverable plan for a ground attack on Kosovo?
  (Mr Hoon) I certainly cannot give you the date. I can have that checked, if necessary. I cannot answer your question as far as the date specifically is concerned. But I am confident that there was a viable option to put ground forces into an opposed environment, should it have been necessary.

  1139. An agreed option?
  (Mr Hoon) Yes.

3  Cm 4724, p 47. Back

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