Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)




  1. Mr Webb, Mr Mann, Major General, welcome. Would you like to introduce your team, Mr Webb. Although you are pretty well-known to us it may be there is somebody here who has not come across you, which I doubt.

  (Mr Webb) Good morning, Chairman, and welcome back. If I could just introduce my team and explain perhaps a little bit of their expertise because they go to some of the issues that we have been working on over the summer since the New Chapter White Paper was published. On my left is Major General Rob Fulton, who is a Capability Manager for Information Superiority. During the SDR work he led the latter part of the work on the overseas dimension of the project, so he brings expertise both in that dimension of the SDR New Chapter but also particular equipment issues and he is—I will make him blush—our leading expert on network centric capability. On my right is Bruce Mann, the Director General for Finance Management, who I stole from inside the Ministry of Defence to do the work on the home dimension of the New Chapter. I am going to give him back shortly because we now have an SDR implementation leader, who is sitting behind us, but Bruce led the homeland side and can talk about that but also about the financial elements, including things like the Conflict Prevention Fund and so on. That is our team.

  2. Thank you. We are publishing the Government response to our superb report, which I am sure went down really badly in the MoD, which is part of our purpose, of course, in the Select Committee and is coming out next Thursday. It should be a good read. Thanks very much for coming. Throughout your New Chapter exercise it was emphasised that the fundamental assumptions of the 1998 original SDR remain valid. May I ask first what steps did you take to test those assumptions?
  (Mr Webb) We had an element of the work which looked at the strategic context which involved talking to the Foreign Office in depth. Given that the SDR was a foreign policy led review we wanted to check that the foreign policy background still looked right and we engaged with a wide range of other experts to try and see whether the overall background was similar. We concluded that it was except for two dimensions really. Firstly, that the asymmetric warfare issue which this Committee itself spent time on after the SDR had manifested itself more directly and visibly than perhaps we had seen at that time. Secondly, the tempo of operations had been greater than we had perhaps expected but in a different way. Rather than having medium scale operations what we tended to have was rather more small operations. So there were those differences. Overall the context looked rather as we had seen it in 1997-98 with those variations.

  3. I do not want to be obstreperous on this occasion, it is a wonderful document, but do I recall the words "for the first time in a generation the UK home base is secure", but you got it wrong on the reserves, you got it wrong on the budget, you did not spend much attention in the SDR, as you pointed out, on asymmetric warfare and we are still waiting to see if Smart Procurement is as smart as it is made out to be. One should not become too self-congratulatory on that document. The reason I ask that question is whether the time you took, which was longer than one would normally have anticipated for a document the size that it was, did look in real detail? Was the reason for the delay that even though you may say, that the fundamentals were absolutely correct, that you were looking more thoroughly at what was in your document than even you are prepared to admit? Was it really a fundamental examination, if not a fundamental reassessment, whichever terminology you might wish to use?
  (Mr Webb) I might have misunderstood your opening question, Chairman, but what I thought you were asking about was whether the strategic context in which we did the original SDR looked the same and with the exceptions that I have mentioned it did look much the same. There may be questions about what has happened to the implementation of SDR since then but that is a slightly different point, if I may say so, although I am very happy to take questions on implementation. On the question of strategic context, I stand by what I said. One of the things we spent a good deal of time doing, and I said this when I came to the Committee last autumn, was to try to understand the problem of international terrorism. I am unabashed in saying that this is a complex and difficult issue to understand. What it is not is simply, if you like, symptoms and causes of violent people. You need to try to get under the roots and causes. The strategy which we laid out, which took some time to debate and involved us consulting a lot of experts, including people from the Muslim world, was to try and get a depth of understanding before we wrote up how to try to tackle it. That was why we took some months to debate all of that and I am unashamed. I would say that even now there are elements of our understanding of the problem of al-Qaeda that we do not understand yet. I think it was right to take time to think it through and then to have a systematic process for generating the key elements of our response, which was different from the conclusions reached elsewhere. To that extent we were doing some original work and to be confident about that takes some time. When we had done the first phase of that we decided to have a period of discussion and open up a discussion document and I think we got a lot out of that. I think a number of people have released their comments to the Committee and I think you will have seen how interesting many of those were. We then needed to do what you need to do in defence departments, which is to move on from a nice concept and understanding to actually making some plans to do something about it and that takes a bit of time as well. Before you make changes to the armed forces and their equipment programme and so on you need to spend some time getting it right. I feel that we did take the right amount of time. During that period in parallel we took immediate action to deal with some of the proximate threats, for example strengthening the air defence system in the UK and getting ready to deal with incidents. Of course, we actually had military deployments connected with international terrorism during the period we were writing the report, we had both ISAF and Operation Jacana. We were not sitting on our hands. I still stand by the idea that this is a difficult long-term problem and it was right to spend a reasonable amount of time thinking about it and hearing from other people.

  4. The original document was foreign policy led?
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  5. Was the New Chapter foreign policy led? Was the Foreign Office consulted?
  (Mr Webb) Very much so. They were not only consulted but involved in the working groups. Of course, in the course of last autumn the Government itself produced a strategy for dealing with international terrorism and we were very much locked into the process of producing that. We helped produce it but we also drew some material out of it. It was not just the Foreign Office but also the Cabinet Office and other elements of Government, including the intelligence community. Absolutely it was foreign policy led. We have checked it out and as we go forward we will continue to check that we are in line with the Foreign Office. This is very much the new way of doing things.

  6. Was this document Treasury led as well?
  (Mr Webb) No, but the Treasury participated in the work and came to a number of the working groups. If I may say so, by the time we got to the question of resource allocation, which we did by early summer, I think that the Government had a better internal debate because officials from the Treasury had participated in some of our earlier work.

  7. Positively, I hope.
  (Mr Webb) Very constructively. They contributed in a collegiate sense to the debate that we had.

  8. I think you should look behind you when you look left and right, I am sure they are pretty close behind you! Will the New Chapter process ever be completed or is it like the war on terrorism, an activity where you can never stop examining and never declare victory?
  (Mr Webb) Thank you, that is an important point to make. I think I am going to say that we should go on with it if only because, as I think we have been reminded over the last week, we need to somehow capture a sense of continuing vigilance. That is not always easy because events move on and people's memories fade away. Somehow one of the things which we need to do, certainly inside the defence area, is to have that sense of continuing vigilance. One way you keep vigilance is to keep coming back and restudying the problem. When I said I do not think we have got to the bottom of understanding al-Qaeda, I spend time myself and others more specialist time on trying to go on understanding and assessing the situation and seeing what might happen next. That was very much a feature of the Government's updated strategy document published last month. I think we should see it as a long-term campaign and I think we should maintain an agility to deal with it. To that extent I agree with you but in another sense we have to make decisions about force structure and about equipment choices and we need to get those right, so while agility and flexibility are in our mind, as I say, in the defence department you have to choose what forces you are going to have and you have to make decisions about what equipment to give them. We need to capture both of those things. It is not to get yourself into limbo, you need to take decisions about what you are going to do but you also need to keep an agility and be prepared to say that is not looking like the right way to go about it, let us try something else. We need to have that flavour and we should come back to you honestly and say "we did not get all this right first time, we are going to try a new route here" or whatever.

  9. Thank you. Why was the New Chapter White Paper published before the consultation on the reserve forces which was a key element of the New Chapter package?
  (Mr Webb) You were teasing me a moment ago about not getting it out early enough. First of all we needed to think before we asked people to come and give their time as reservists to the issue. As Bruce will explain we have asked a lot of people to give their time. You need to be sure you are putting a good question, so we took quite an amount of time talking particularly to the police and other departments and to the local authorities world about that. We needed to talk about what we were going to do before we talked to the reserve community about whether they would do it. There is another very practical issue which is that reservists are most available to be consulted during the summer when they do their big exercise season and there are more of them available, so we actually timed the consultation for that to run over the summer period. I think you would not have thanked us if we had held up the whole exercise until now so we did it in two parts.

  10. Lastly, does the MoD intend to release any further documents other than the conclusion of the reserve force consultation before the White Paper promised for next year?
  (Mr Webb) On this subject we may. I think we should keep in the habit of open consultation. I do not think there is anything in Mr Hoon's mind at the moment on this subject. He may have some other things that he thinks we ought to get some discussion going on.

Mr Jones

  11. I am interested in the point you were making about possibly changing policy. I accept that the war on terrorism means that as things develop possibly policy is going to change but is that not going to mean a change of mind set or a change in culture not only in the Civil Service but also the MoD? Does it not need to admit it has got things wrong or adjust to the changes that you have described?
  (Mr Webb) I think the first thing I say to people when I am talking to internal training courses, and I did one on Monday, is to talk about agility. I do not think I am probably talking about major changes in policy but I do not want to feel that we have got ourselves on a rigid track here. We certainly need to adjust to the lessons that we routinely do of individual operations. Every time we do an operation we have a lessons exercise and we make changes. My guidance both in terms of the armed forces future planning and also to individual civilian and armed forces people is—I keep saying, it is rather repetitious—agility is something we need for the future and I think the Committee's understanding of that is helpful to us so we feel we can change if we need to without feeling necessarily we have done anything wrong, we have simply learned and moved on in a different direction.

  12. Does that include ministers as well?
  (Mr Webb) Ministers already have this capacity in my department.

  Chairman: Absolutely.

  Mr Jones: There was certainly no evidence of that when the Secretary of State was before this Committee.

  Chairman: We will have Mr Knight before Kevan digs a deeper hole for the Committee.

Jim Knight

  13. Mr Webb, I am interested in the process that you went through in order to do the review. I gather there are work streams or work groups that were set up and it was a two phase process.
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  14. Can you just talk us through briefly how that worked?
  (Mr Webb) Yes. We had work streams which looked at the strategic issues. One of my deputies, Air Vice Marshal David Hobart, Chief of Defence Staff (Policy), led work which looked very conceptually at how you deal with this. It is very important in terms of getting the armed forces structure and clear about the roles which the Government wants for them to think about the high level operational concepts, in other words how you are going to engage terrorism. Out of that came this very important thought that there were two real underlying dimensions. One was to go after the roots and causes, the other was to deal with the violent terrorists themselves, what we call sometimes "stabilisation" on the one hand and "find and strike" on the other. That was one group of people which had all sorts of sub-dimensions. There would be, for example, a legal international dimension, there would be people from our joint doctrine centre, a wide range of people on that. A second group run by another colleague, Brian Hawtin, was to look at the international context because, of course, we were not just doing this as the UK but as part of a big international community and so they were looking at the relationship with the United Nations, the military coalitions, the roles of international organisations and our bilateral relations and what you needed to think about in terms of relations with countries where terrorism might find a home again. There were those two work streams. We then had a work stream under Bruce Mann looking at the home dimension, how to deal with the specific threats to the UK homeland, and then we had a group which originally was led by Major General Tony Milton who came and gave evidence here which looked at overseas engagement. It took the international concept and then turned it into practical military effect, what military effect are you trying to create. Tony did the work on that and he has now gone off to become Commandant of the Royal Marines. We had those four elements and we drew them altogether. I ought to say I think I said to the Committee last year there were some other secret elements of the work and I ought to mention that. I said there was going to be that and there was a secret dimension to it.

  15. Did that amount to a fifth work group?
  (Mr Webb) Yes, more or less. We then drew it altogether and we wrote something up for ministers saying "this is the overall shape, let us now go out and do some discussion on it" and then we overlapped it a bit, we moved ahead and said "that is the overall shape of what we are trying to do now, let us turn it into force structure and concepts and so on".

  16. So that structure of four/five work groups at the outset was specifically tasked with, if you like, the bolt-on to SDR in terms of the asymmetric threat, it did not do any kind of review of where the forces were at the moment and the wider brief that the SDR as a whole had covered?
  (Mr Webb) No, except where you were prompted to look at things that had been in the SDR.

  17. We will be talking about Saif Sareea and the lessons from that a bit later on.
  (Mr Webb) They certainly had access to the Saif Sareea—

  18. Sure, and we will discuss that, but there is an argument that the United States, for example, when they had their large increase in defence expenditure spent a fair amount of that on people, on reimbursement of the armed forces for example. There is an argument for saying that in the context of things like Saif Sareea investing, reviewing whether or not we have got the people stuff right, things like armed forces pensions, things like whether they are properly equipped, the level of recruitment and retention and whether they are properly manned up could have been part of that review and you could have had a work group just assessing whether or not you had got things right within the existing work as well as the add-on.
  (Mr Webb) That was the bit we did in the second phase. We decided in the first phase what we needed to do. The moment you say "how are we going to do it", you do not start with a blank sheet of paper, you start off with the force structure, equipment programmes and people that you already have. As we got into the second phase where we looked at the implementation we had, as well as the homeland and the overseas dimensions, a specific people cell looking at the interaction with people issues which are obviously a key element of defence capability and also science and technology and a range of other things. We did do that but we just got to it in the second phase.

  19. When you moved to the second phase there were some work groups which closed down because they were no longer required, is that right?
  (Mr Webb) Yes. The people who had been looking at the strategic concept and the very conceptual work, they had written their report and done their bit. The other three ran on, as did a bit of tidy up of the secret area.

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