Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1140 - 1159)



Dr Lewis

  1140. But on 12 April 1999 the Chief of Defence Staff said publicly: "I wish to make it clear, absolutely clear, once again, what our position is of today. Neither NATO nor the United Kingdom have any plans for a proposed invasion of Kosovo by force." When I challenged him on this, when he gave evidence on 15 March, his reply was: "We obviously had to go along with what the market could bear."[4] So I come back to my original question: would it not have been a lot better if the market had been able to bear telling Milosevic at the outset what you evidently told him later, quite rightly, that ground forces might be used? Was not NATO undermining its deterrent capability by sending him a signal, at the outset, that this was the one thing he did not have to worry about?
  (Mr Hoon) The most important phrase in what you quoted was "of today". I have made it clear that there is throughout a campaign—and this has been true of almost any campaign in any war that I can think of—there is an inevitable tension, where you have a number of allies seeking to work together who are democracies; who have to have regard to public opinion; who have to have regard to the stated foreign policy position of those countries to work together in this kind of military operation. That is quite a difficult and demanding process.

  1141. If you had to do it again, would you say that again, at the outset?
  (Mr Hoon) Let me finish. The reality is that graduated responses will change according to the circumstances; according to what is necessary. What I was asked—and I could not deal with the specific question of the date—but what I can emphasise is that had it been necessary, we had a plan that would have allowed the ground force option to have been deployed and to have been used successfully.

Mr Hood

  1142. What would have happened to the coalition then? Would you have kept the 19 together?
  (Mr Hoon) I am pretty confident we would have done. I think there was a growing recognition that this might become necessary. Frankly, in the course of the bombing campaign, at each stage when we thought that Milosevic—because we assumed that he was a sensible rational leader of his people, who might have some regard to their welfare—we assumed he would back down.

  Mr Hood: Where was the evidence for that?

Dr Lewis

  1143. After Bosnia!
  (Mr Hoon) The reality was that it did not prove to be the case for longer than we had anticipated but in the end he did back down. One or two people—I think Julian made the point earlier—gave an explanation. I do not think that, in the end, any of us knows precisely what it was that persuaded Milosevic to back off. No-one knows what was the single most important factor or whether it was a combination of factors, or which factor it was, but the reality was that he did back down. That is why the questions about the resort to ground forces can only be speculation.


  1144. Do you think NATO's credibility, internally and externally, has been enhanced as a result of the Kosovo operations?
  (Mr Hoon) I think it has been greatly strengthened. It has demonstrated our ability to work together. It has demonstrated that this ability ultimately was successful; and crucially that we were able to be successful without loss of life on our side. On any test of a military campaign, this is a pretty remarkable result.

Dr Lewis

  1145. Last February you gave us evidence on European security and defence. You told us then that the Kosovo operation, Operation Allied Force "could have been" one of the so-called Petersberg tasks undertaken by the European Allies. What you actually said though was that this was not likely to have been the case in the near future. What you said was: "It could have been but I think it is realistic to say that the scale of that operation was such that it is not something which today, given the present level of European capability, European nations could have conducted outside NATO and certainly without the United States assistance".[5] Do you still hold to the view conceptually, as opposed to the question of capabilities, that an operation such as Operation Allied Force could have come up under the category of a Petersberg task; that is to say, a task that could be undertaken by the European nations outside NATO as crisis management, without the United States being directly involved?

  (Mr Hoon) I agree with what I said on that previous occasion. I am not sure I could improve on what I said to you. What I said to you was that I felt that the Petersberg definition was sufficiently broad to incorporate the kind of activity that we were involved in, in Kosovo, but it was clear from all the lessons that we have learned and clear from our reservations of our European capabilities, that Europe as of today is not able to mount the scale of operation that Kosovo required. I do not think there can be any argument about that. In a sense, I am standing by what I said. That I am confident that Kosovo does fall within what is a very broad definition of the Petersberg tasks, but that we need to do a great deal more before the European nations could be in a position to carry out such a campaign without resort either to NATO assets or, frankly, to the United States.

  1146. I will come back to the broadness of definition in a second, if I may, but let us move the timescale on a bit and suppose that this so-called European Security and Defence Identity has become more of a reality and that we are indeed, as European nations, able to put into the field at relatively short notice some 50 or 60,000 personnel and keep them in action for, I believe, a year, which means presumably similar numbers to be in training and similar numbers to be resting. It is a very big commitment. Let us suppose that this so-called headline goal is achieved by 2003. Do you think then, if we had that force, that we could, as Europeans, undertake a similar operation without United States support, although admittedly using NATO assets?
  (Mr Hoon) There is little doubt, at the moment, given what we know about the Kosovo campaign and the kind of equipment assets that were required, that even then we would not be in a position, given the capabilities we are setting out in the headline goal, to be able to conduct precisely this kind of operation. This is because very many of the assets, particularly in the air campaign, are simply not assets that European nations for the moment have available.

  1147. That is a very frank and helpful answer. It pretty well anticipates the next question but I would like to put it to you for the sake of confirmation. One example obviously in a campaign of this sort, which was primarily an air campaign, was the crucial ability, which your own document Lessons from the Crisis[6] points out, to suppress enemy air defences. Do you think Europe will ever have the sort of specialist aircraft that is necessary for such a task? Do you think, for example, even if we wanted them, that the Americans would be willing to supply them to us for our own purchases?
  (Mr Hoon) That is something that we set out very clearly, as you fairly say, in the report. It is something that we have to look at. It is not only the United Kingdom that is doing that. You concentrated on the headline goal, but you will be aware there is a parallel process in NATO to enhance Alliance-wide equipment capability; and the suppression of anti-aircraft equipment is part of that process. So it is not simply in the context of a headline goal that we are identifying the shortfalls. Across NATO there is a consideration that allies must do more and that we should not be dependent solely on the United States supplying that kind of equipment. That is something we are examining and something which is being looked at in the context of NATO.

  1148. Would you at least agree then that if we are going to be dependent for some considerable time on the United States for the ability to suppress enemy air defences, there can be no question of us undertaking another aerial campaign without the United States capabilities for carrying out that vital task?
  (Mr Hoon) That is a very open-ended question in the sense that it clearly depends on the scale. I would agree with you that if you had said, for example, another Kosovo style aerial campaign—

  1149. Okay.
  (Mr Hoon) It is perhaps trivial in the context, but we did have some aircraft over flying Sierra Leone. Fortunately, they did not have to use any weapons but they were there. Whether I could describe it as an aerial campaign might be something of an exaggeration. It depends on the scale. There are undoubtedly air campaigns that we could conduct as a country on our own. There are other campaigns that we could conduct with appropriate European allies. If you had said to me, as I have already conceded, "Could we conduct tomorrow, or even in the near term, a Kosovo style air campaign?" I would say we could not without involving the United States.
  (Rear Admiral Moore) Just to go further with that. Of course, some NATO allies do have significant SEAD capabilities, which they used in the context of Kosovo. it is predominantly American but it is not, by any means, totally American. The Germans—and, I believe, the French too—have got significant air capabilities already.

  1150. Finally, on this question of definition, you will recall, Secretary of State, that we had discussions along these lines in February. Petersberg tasks are suppose to be tasks of crisis management, whereas the operation in Kosovo was something very close to being a war. I still put it to you again today, as I did then, that when we consider that at least one of the two World Wars started with an incident in the Balkans, that gave us less than a fortnight's warning that we were going to be involved—as the inquests into the origins of the First World War later showed—and the assassination of an archduke by a Bosnian was not even raised in Parliament until less than a fortnight before the outbreak of the First World War: do you not feel that it is dangerous for something along the lines of the Petersberg tasks, which are supposed to be deal with crisis management and peace keeping, to embrace something like the Kosovo operation which could escalate into something so much more serious?
  (Mr Hoon) I cannot fault the logic. It certainly could. Those are circumstances which could occur. I cannot deny that. At the same time, I am not sure we learn much from it, frankly. Those kinds of historic comparisons really do not assist very much. I was tempted earlier, when we were talking about political control over military decisions, to say that I recently visited the Somme. I doubt today that any government could survive very long if it allowed 50,000 of its troops to die on the first day. That reflects a very different kind of world in which information and communication are supplied very much more rapidly. That is part of the discussion, in a sense, that we have been having already. So I am not sure those comparisons help. The reality is—and this is, in a sense, what I hope I have been saying throughout this morning—we have to deal with a situation as it confronts us and take appropriate decisions in the light of those circumstances.

  1151. I am grateful for that. My last point is just this. Surely we ignore history at our peril because if we look back, for example, at the appeasement years, we constantly draw lessons from that as to why appeasement does not work. Surely we ought to look back at the way in which crises can escalate out of control and draw lessons from that when we are constructing things like a European security defence identity, which is purported to deal with a lower level of operation but which could see us sucked into something, which if NATO dealt with, might have been deterred.
  (Mr Hoon) I think in one sense you make a sensible point because undoubtedly with the benefit of history—and I am certainly not going to ignore the lessons of history, we ought to learn something from it—but the reality is, especially in the modern world, that we are aware of crises, almost instantaneously, that would not have even registered a flicker, even say 25 years ago, and certainly not 50 or 60 years ago. We are aware precisely what is happening in Fiji or the Solomon Islands almost instantly. We have live television footage from crises. It appears in our living rooms instantly. In those circumstances that undoubtedly has an effect on public opinion; and in a democracy that is something which governments rightly have to take account of. Therefore, the consequences for the decision making process are significant and we have to allow for those. So I am not saying we do not learn lessons from history but those lessons are brought into much sharper focus, particularly because of the very significant changes in the way in which information is available to all of us now in the modern world. That is why actually those historical comparisons are quite difficult, because they were operating in a very different world where information simply did not travel as rapidly.


  1152. I think it would be physically impossible to lose more than 50,000 British troops, as we only have 100,000; so two days' worth and you would be down to your Reserves. As Mr Brazier has gone, we are not going pursue this any further. I would like to come back to what you said about electronic warfare and suppression of enemy air defences. In this excellent report, Lessons from the Crisis, it was saying how the United States provided the bulk of this capability. This is paragraph 7.43 at page 42. That the United States provides almost all that capability and our aircraft are limited in number. Why has it taken so long for Europe or for the rest of NATO or for the Ministry of Defence to be considering a capability other than that of the United States? If we are considering it, how long will it take before that consideration is translated into a capability similar to the Prowler aircraft that the United States has?
  (Rear Admiral Moore) I think that we have had a SEAD capability of a sort for many years. SEAD now means a very high-tech electronic means of waging war but it did not before. The suppression of enemy air defence could be a well targeted bomb or a rocket. It is perhaps, as a result of the on-rush of the availability of technology, that the United States has been able to harness this, because of the money they can throw at it in a way that Europe cannot. But it is not a new thing. It is just that now the possibilities are so much wider and so much more expensive.

  1153. Could we lease them from the United States? Could Europe lease them? It is something that we would need to acquire off the shelf or wait ten, 15, 20 years to be able to replicate, by which time technology would have marched on even further.
  (Rear Admiral Moore) I am afraid equipment is not my area but we are examining exactly those options.
  (Mr Hoon) There is very considerable work underway on looking at this but in a sense, it is partly your point, technology moves on very quickly, we have to make a judgment at what point we have the right technology, and the best technology so that is not superseded by developments elsewhere. Work is underway in a vigorous way to get this right.

Mr Hancock

  1154. I have got some specific questions but I would like to go over two points, one you made, Secretary of State, and one Mr Webb made. The first one is to you when you answered Jamie Cann's question about targeting and you said that there were legal constraints about the targets that he suggested should have been hit first, but you subsequently hit those targets around Belgrade so what were the legal constraints that were lifted? Was the law changed, did something happen, because you subsequently went on to attack the very targets that some people were suggesting were the right ones in the first place?
  (Mr Hoon) When I said there were legal constraints, I was not referring to any of the particular targets that we hit. All of the targets we hit were on the basis of appropriate legal advice which was very carefully considered. So none of the targets that were selected were selected other than following careful legal advice. What I was indicating in answer to Jamie earlier on was that there were some targets that we would judge were contrary to international law and we did not attack them. We did not attack, for example, civilian targets, pure and simple. We did not conduct any kind of terror campaign which has been a feature of aerial warfare in the past. We did not seek to damage the civilian population of the former Republic of Yugoslavia because we judged that would not be consistent with principles of international law.

  1155. But Mr Webb said a significant effort was being made on the media front and it was many weeks into the campaign when you considered that targeting the television station was a legitimate target. If you believe what Mr Webb said that Mr Milosevic was very adept at using the media and giving his message across pretty quickly, that surely should have been a target from day one?
  (Mr Hoon) I indicated to you, and I do not think there is any argument about this, that this was a graduated campaign. A range of targets was selected and judgments are then made as to the military benefit of hitting any given target bearing in mind as well, as I said earlier, that the situation over Belgrade in particular, but also in other parts of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, was not benign. This was not a safe theatre in which to operate. This was a remarkably dangerous place for pilots to operate in.

  1156. But you had Cruise missiles at your disposal.
  (Mr Hoon) These are judgments that are made according to the military benefits that follow from striking particular targets. We do not strike all of the targets on the first day. This is a process and indeed in this particular campaign there was a graduated process, again because we hoped that Milosevic would recognise that we meant business, and it took him longer to do so than we thought was going to be the case.

  1157. Can I go to the specific point directed to Mr Webb. In your comments you talked about the ability of people closest to the action to have first bite of the media response to it and I think one would be right to interpret what you were saying as the truth counts so you had to verify before you made responses. Why was it then that the Ministry of Defence and NATO were so adept at putting out misleading information about what we had succeeded in hitting in the way of armour day after day if you were not so concerned about verifying whether that was actually true or not?
  (Mr Webb) The point I was trying to make earlier on was not about media facilities.

  1158. No, use.
  (Mr Webb) It was simply the point that there is an inherent advantage on the part of the person on the ground being able to get the story out first. I think the answer is that the Ministry of Defence was trying extremely hard to verify and then to report what it thought the position was and sometimes it happens that subsequent reports lead you to change what you say first off, but the intention to tell the truth about this was, I think, part of the overall campaign if only because it is in our own interests that people believe that we are telling the truth or at least trying to tell the truth, sometimes in a situation of uncertain information.
  (Mr Hoon) And the very considerable detail of the battle damage assessment details are published and they are available on NATO's Internet site with some very considerable information supplied and published by General Clerk. So this is information that is publicly available and you will know, I am sure better than I, that battle damage assessment is not an exact science.

  1159. Having been to Kosovo very shortly afterwards I for one did not see too much evidence of damaged armour. It must have been in the bunkers where he hid the other tanks and he must have hidden the damaged ones away as well. The interesting thing is that I have never met anyone who found the bunkers that all these things were hidden in.
  (Mr Hoon) I say it is not an exact science because, for example, we are not in a position to say precisely how many tanks were withdrawn, when they were the withdrawn, whether those that were withdrawn were damaged and how they were damaged. What I can say is what I said earlier on, our campaign was successful in ensuring that those pieces of equipment did not threaten our forces and that seems to me militarily quite a sufficient degree of success.

4  Ev p 7, para 28. Back
5  HC 264 p 8, para 35. Back
6  Cm 4724. Back

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