Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)




  20. You have 200 Muslims in the armed forces.
  (Mr Webb) I am coming to that in a moment. In terms of the feelings amongst the Muslim community within Britain, that really is a matter for the Home Office and you really do not want to get the armed forces involved in that issue. I just do not want to comment on that at all. What I will say is that of course the sense that we have is that the vast majority of Muslims through the world dissociate themselves entirely from terrorism. We have Muslims within the armed forces and I do hope that when we get to the stage of being able to put some material out for public comment people from all across Britain will come and join in comments about that. If there are issue of that kind around then we shall hear about them.

  21. The reason I mentioned Muslims was that any Muslim who joins the armed forces has shown their commitment by joining, which cannot be an easy thing to have done. I know Lewis Moonie has addressed that but this Committee would want to pass on our desire, nay demand, that everything possible is done to guarantee that those Muslims in the armed forces are not subject to any undue criticism by their fellow soldiers, sailors or airmen, that they are protected in some way and that the commanding officers do everything they can to ensure that those who have given a commitment to our armed forces are not in any way going to suffer for having made that commitment so obvious.
  (Mr Webb) I am sure we all shall.

Mr Jones

  22. We have to recognise, certainly from the United States and from the constituencies, that there is a sense of fear out there since 11 September.
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  23. I am not too convinced that your stiff upper lip approach is going to be very reassuring to many people in my constituency. Do you not recognise that an important part of the homeland defence is information in terms of involving, quite rightly in this situation, communities of different faiths. There is tension in those communities that we need to take on board because the information propaganda war in these events since 11 September is very important. More or less saying that it has not affected things will not go down too well with most people.
  (Mr Webb) I did not in any sense mean to downplay people's genuine concerns. I do have to say that the feelings of the British population really are something I shall go to talk about again with my colleagues in the Home Office and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, but that is very much a home departments issue. We are anything but complacent about the threat which we are responsible directly in dealing with in Defence which is from aircraft, ships, missiles and on that there is no question of lips of one kind or another. We are actively reviewing what is needed in that arena and taking necessary steps. There is no "let's just bear this" feeling. Indulge me with one thought, which is that part of what the terrorists are trying to do is to frighten people. If you are asking me as a Defence department official how we are going to deal with this problem, helping people not to feel frightened, but also helping the terrorist not to succeed in frightening people is part of our objective. I think that is right and getting these things into proportion, getting a sense of perspective without downplaying what are evidently risks which could materialise is all part of the job. Chairman, I heard you talking on the radio about this. If we overdo this then we give the terrorists a victory which we should not do.

Jim Knight

  24. I shall take you away from Home matters quickly because clearly you are more overseas. It was encouraging for many of us that the immediate reaction to 11 September was not military action but building a broad coalition. We have seen that in some ways overriding some previous disciplines and in particular we have seen some very positive US/Russian relations developed. Alongside that, one of the immediate responses was the invoking of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Yet we have not seen NATO directly involved in military operations as far as we can tell at the moment. Why is that? Is the US experience in Kosovo significant within that?
  (Mr Webb) No, I do not think so. It is just the way the initial campaign has unfolded. The sort of military forces which were applicable were best deployed by a relatively small number of countries. If I may just go over it, NATO has actually taken a number of specific actions. It released the NATO AWACS airborne early warning force to go to the United States to allow the Americans to deploy more aircraft to the region. They have redeployed the NATO standing naval forces to the eastern Mediterranean. They have helped the US in innumerable ways with overflights, access to ports and airfields and so on. The NATO planning machinery stands ready to help in other ways. There has been perhaps rather more going on less visibly. Funnily enough an American was saying to me the other day that in Los Angeles the NATO AWACS force is shown quite regularly on evening TV doing the job in the United States and that is seen as a great contribution. Curiously enough it is visible there. NATO stands ready. I have been to a number of NATO meetings, including the Defence Ministers' meeting, at which it was quite clear that a very wide range of countries was ready to act and to do so quickly. The decision on NATO AWACS was certainly within 36 hours and probably 24. The request came in, it went through the system. There really is no question of decision-making delay, it is just the nature of the initial part of this campaign that it has worked out like that. I do want to underscore the importance you have made on coalitions and all part of our job is that we can operate effectively in coalitions.
  (Major-General Milton) In many ways NATO acts as a glue in military terms. The fact that we are used to working together, have common procedures, have common doctrine, we know a lot of the people involved personally, means that even if we are operating in an operation without NATO, NATO still acts as a very powerful binding mechanism to enable us to operate more effectively. Sometimes because it is not visible that is not always understood but it is something I would give emphasis to from my point of view.

  25. I can accept that and see that. It acts as a military glue. Are you confident that extends politically? This weekend we have seen rumblings in the media and now grumblings in Europe. Is NATO holding up, standing together in terms of political leadership feeling involved across NATO and consulted?
  (Mr Webb) I am sorry to keep tossing this in other directions, but I will give you my perspective on the answer. You will clearly have to ask the Foreign Office about that and we operate in groups within governments, so all these components are there when we are involved in managing crisis. The view of the Foreign Office is that the international coalition remains strong and that key countries right across the world—not just talking about European countries but also the Organisation of Islamic Conference, China, have all been very solid in their support. There are democracies. You hear views aired, but I thing "strong" remains the right word.

  26. In the war on terrorism, how do you see the balance of effort between NATO and the EU now? To what extent is the integrated military structure of NATO relevant to the military response? How might it do more?
  (Mr Webb) The declaration of Article 5 was important. The recognition that this scale of terrorism is a collective Defence problem is a NATO issue and a lot of the military capabilities required are high end military capabilities. They are intensive warfare in a way. I think that will take NATO into very much dealing with this as an external problem. The EU, perhaps less visibly, has done a lot of very good work under pillar 3 which is the international security dimension of the EU in knitting together the campaign against terrorism internally: police, borders, finance and that kind of thing. A lot of very good work has been going on there, perhaps less televisual but good work. The ESDP, the European security defence initiative, will probably not be particularly involved in countering terrorism directly, but has become in my view even more important since 11 September because the international security agenda is still full with other issues. None of the other problems we see around the world in Africa, etcetera, have gone away. You could argue the Middle East is even less settled than it was. Therefore we see an important role for ESDP in providing another avenue for crisis management and for tackling other issues which may come up. The key final point I want to make is that what is absolutely vital is that EU/ESDP/NATO work well together. There has been some good swapping of people at meetings and that is absolutely something which will be vitally important and I have seen that spirit there across most of what I have observed.
  (Major-General Milton) I come back to this business of enablers and the emphasis we gave in SDR to deployability, to joint rapid reaction forces. We very much created a model for other countries to follow in that respect and we are now seeing that. I would not pretend that we are there, but we are moving in that direction: a greater emphasis on deployability, deep strike, deep reach, so we can influence. The process was already underway but we gave added emphasis to it in SDR. We are moving. JRRF is a real concept. I have commanded the commando brigade, a member of those forces, and we are moving very much in that direction. That is an example we see for the rest of Europe and we are seeing great interest and momentum in that way.

  Chairman: We are awaiting the MoD's analysis of Saif Sareea and we shall be having a session to question them on the lessons they have learnt so far. We move on to another aspect of international developments.

Syd Rapson

  27. May I go back slightly on the NATO involvement and the take-up and why they do not seem to be involved? We read today that Germany has committed 4,000 troops and about 100 of their special forces to the campaign. It would appear, if you read the papers, that Tony Blair has squeezed Schröder to do something and he has reacted. Tony Blair will be in the United Nations on Saturday urging other countries to do more than talk to add to it. While it might well be easy to say that NATO reacted straightaway and are participating, it would appear that the Prime Minister has been the catalyst to draw it out. Would you agree with that or do you go back on your previous statement that everything is rosy?
  (Mr Webb) The Prime Minister has played a leading role, but these are countries who reach their own views as well. I would commend to you an important speech which Chancellor Schröder made, it must have been about the beginning of October on these matters and Germany's role. I think that indicates that there was a clear sense of renewed commitment there.

  28. We have gone through a process with the ESDP of honing it and getting it better and after the capabilities exercises we know that the conventional structure was in place, although there is some doubt about the satellite centre being available and being good enough and intelligence, etcetera. Do we really need to review the ESDP to make sure it fits in with the present international situation? The review needs to take that into consideration. There must have been a sea change and we are learning fast and it has overrun the ESDP planning. I hope that the review will take into account a need to look at that, even if you did not think it was necessary.
  (Mr Webb) I did not say it was not necessary to look at it. We will certainly look at it as part of this overall review. I mentioned that we have a whole segment of the review looking at the international organisations. We need to take a preliminary review because there are decisions this autumn, there is a capability improvements conference and various other important ESDP events coming up. My first take on this is that the ability to undertake a limited range of the task set up under Petersberg is going to be a very useful addition to the capacity of the international community to manage a range of international security problems. My first cut at it is that I do not think that we need particularly to adapt the ESDP. What we need to do is to get it in place.

  29. One of the best things is the international coalition. Out of all bad things come good things. That is one of the binding things we have: global acceptance by certain nations that we need to come together in stress and to do something positive. Is it beginning to wobble? There is a great deal of pressure on certain states because the bombing campaign has appeared in the press to be causing great resentment amongst their people, but is it likely to break up? If it does, what diplomatic arrangements can we take to replace it?
  (Mr Webb) We need to continue to discuss the situation with coalition partners but I remain where the Foreign Office remains which is that the coalition is still strong. All coalitions require continuous attention, talk to people and go over the issues with them and exchange views and so on. I remain of the view that it is strong.

  30. If it is not? If there were a problem with it, is there a plan B?
  (Mr Webb) Ministers have told me about speculation and I do not need to go off down that direction.

  31. Has the crisis brought about a fundamental, long-term change in the situation in the Middle East and the Gulf and in the relationship between Russia and the US? How will this shift affect UK defence interests? That is quite a big one.
  (Mr Webb) I shall take it in two parts. We would all like to see renewed progress on the Middle East stability peace process. It is too soon to draw any long-term conclusions beyond that. On Russia, this has certainly turned out to be an area in which there is a spirit of co-operation with Russia which was evident when I accompanied Mr Hoon to Moscow in October and there was certainly that spirit of co-operation and a willingness to reach new understanding there. That could be important in the medium term. We do not need to jump into anything. It is an area where one could find options to work together. There are questions on which we can get together and talk about some more of the detail with Russia which we perhaps were not able to do before. It is encouraging and you are right to put your finger on that as something which over the medium term could be quite a significant development.


  32. Despite the spirit of amity, indeed co-operation exuding from this Committee towards you, I really feel I cannot allow you to get away with that answer to Mr Rapson on whether the coalition will hold together by saying it is speculation. When we bring together the Policy Director, head of Joint Doctrine and Concepts and the Chief of Defence Intelligence, perhaps we could have a slight re-definition of your limited answer to the question on whether the coalition is holding together that it is not really something for you or you do not want to speculate. You can perhaps go a little further to reassure us what is being done to keep the coalition together and a slightly longer answer than you gave, please.
  (Mr Webb) Okay. A great deal of work is going on to maintain an international consensus. I am sure the Foreign Office will forgive me for going through what has been in many ways good work done by them. Let us begin with the UN Security Council. In response to the attacks the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on states to work together to bring justice to perpetrators and organisers and sponsors of terrorist attacks and stressed that those responsible for aiding, supporting or harbouring the perpetrators or organisers would be held accountable. A further resolution, 1373, went further than any UN resolution has gone in this area before and imposed mandatory obligations on all states to tackle the terrorist menace worldwide. It is the first resolution which imposes obligations on all states to respond to a global threat. At that level, within the highest level of the international community there has been a unanimity of purpose which has been recognised in those two resolutions. In other fora, in the G8 for example, the heads of government of the G8, which includes of course the leading Europeans, US, Russia, Japan and Canada, agreed on the need to strengthen the fight against terrorism by cutting off financing, to strengthen aviation security, toughen up arms export controls, enhanced co-operation on intelligence and security. Within the Middle East area the Organisation of Islamic Conferences at a meeting of Ministers on 10 October provided unqualified support for the military action and was explicit in condemning Al-Qaeda and asserted categorically that terrorism was against the central tenets of Islam. An extremely important statement by a very important organisation. Looking more widely, China has said that she opposes terrorism in any form, hoping that relevant military strikes on terrorism would be targeted at specific objectives, so as to avoid hurting innocent civilians. Japan strongly supports the action taken by the US and Britain and said that we must co-operate with each other and fight against terrorism dauntlessly. I have already mentioned some of the action by the EU. These are democracies, so you will hear views, you will hear debate, properly so. I think that the evidence of that action in international fora, the statements of leading countries, do underpin that the coalition is strong. All coalitions need work. Mr Hoon has done a lot of visiting and is visiting the Middle East this week. The Prime Minister has travelled, the Foreign Secretary has travelled. We are on the phone to our contacts in many fora continuously. Yes, coalitions like families need work. I stand by my appraisal that the situation remains strong and I do not think therefore I am in a position to start sketching out how it might become weaker.

  33. We know about the visits made by Ministers. Just give us some sort of indication of what sort of level of contacts there would be between the UK and coalition partners at your level, at a lower level, a military level, just to give an indication of how an informal alliance under pressure is able to carry on its activities to enhance the overall advantage of the alliance. Do you have meetings with policy officials?
  (Mr Webb) On Monday we had a meeting of what are called the strategy directors of the ESDP countries. Although we were actually pushing forward a range of ESDP business—and it was an informal meeting so there was no communiqué but I am sure my colleagues would not mind me saying—we took time during that meeting to have a discussion about our perspectives on international terrorism. We talked about some of the issues we have talked about this morning. We have had similar discussions between military colleagues and between the military commanders of countries involved; at SHAPE, where military staff gather together, these issues are discussed a lot of the time. It is not just at ministerial level, we have a range of contacts across the piece.
  (Air Marshal French) If I may put that into a specialist field, the nature of my own business demands strong liaison throughout the year. There is very much a unanimity of purpose in this. That is not to say we do not have different interpretations occasionally of what has actually gone on, perhaps also different interpretations of the effects of military action which stems from actionable intelligence. Part of our understanding of countries is to understand the sensitivities of countries which have large Muslim populations and that perhaps the line they are putting to the public media is walking a very thin tightrope between keeping their own country coherent but also to support the international fight against terrorism. Part of that process is a very intricate network of liaison both at my level and my subordinates. I was in Australia and Singapore only last week to get a different perspective and a broader understanding of this situation worldwide. We have to be careful that we have the correct interpretation of sensitivities and we do not perhaps too readily take the media interpretation of those sensitivities. We do not always see eye to eye but there is very good and strong co-operation on this issue.

Mr Roy

  34. May I ask you to look at the memorandum which was sent to the Committee on the need to revisit the SDR post-11 September? We heard you earlier on talk about the Cabinet Office's Civil Contingencies Secretariat. You said they were going to try to study a series of events. Could you elaborate more on that? Can you tell us what has been done so far since 11 September?
  (Mr Webb) There has been a variety of gatherings. They are of a brainstorming nature. In trying to guess what kind of events you might face, you need to get imaginative people in a room and let them bounce ideas off one another. There have been several brainstorming events and we are getting to the stage where we shall start to draw those into a catalogue. I hasten to say that this is not supposed to be some prediction, it is an analytical tool which allows you then to work out how you would counter such attacks and what sort of generic capabilities you need in terms of forces on our side or consequence management in the case of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in order to deal with these issues. I would say that we have a string of possible events and we shall need to hone those down into some which will form the basis for our analytical effort.

  35. Still on the same paragraph, you spoke earlier about the need for different government departments to be involved; the Treasury would obviously need very much to follow those plans because no matter what you do you have to be prepared to pay for it; someone has to pay for it. Your memorandum does not mention the Scottish Executive because obviously the Scottish Parliament are the policy-making body for home affairs and law and order. Would the Scottish Executive and even the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Assembly be brought into it as well?
  (Mr Webb) Absolutely; yes. This is an interface we are reasonably used to on the Defence side because Defence covers the whole of the UK, but we have found interaction of that kind and the civil contingencies machinery does include those departments or in the case of Wales the Assembly itself participates in the way you understand. Yes; absolutely.

  36. Therefore it is not only government departments, it is Executive and Assembly departments too.
  (Mr Webb) Yes, in Wales there is that special situation in which those two things overlap. We have had some practice in this on foot-and-mouth.

  37. We are acutely aware that the original SDR report slipped very badly. Is there a time limit for this report to be published? Are you going to guarantee it is going to be published early summer, May or June or can we expect it earlier?
  (Mr Webb) That is Mr Hoon's choice finally and he saw this note and there is a timing in here of spring/early summer. If action is needed, we want to get this done at the right pace for that. I would stand by my point earlier that getting perspective on 11 September and the ensuing events is important, in particular if we end up having to make some important investment decisions, you want to make sure those are well founded because you will live with them for a long time. There is a kind of balance in there. One other thing we ought to be doing one way and another is getting some thoughts from us about the studies we have been doing out and about. How hard the conclusions and decisions are is another question. I do take very seriously the point that the public should expect us to be addressing this seriously and I take Mr Jones' point about that. Therefore we are certainly scheduling to be able to publish something by spring/early summer. The slight qualification is that if big military operations of some kind were under way at the same time it might feel wrong. The other qualification is that if there is anything which needs to be done urgently on homeland defence in the areas where the MoD leads, then it will happen at the pace it needs to happen and we shall not wait for the studies.

  38. Paragraph 6 of your memorandum also says, "We obviously have separate mechanisms for seeking, as necessary, more rapid adjustments to our defence posture or operational capability which may be required as a result of current operations". Could you speak specifically on those mechanisms and what use you have been making of them so far?
  (Mr Webb) If we need to make an adjustment to our defence capacity to deal with the current problem, then we have a procedure called urgent operational requirements, which describes pretty much what it is. We have a very good understanding both within MoD, but also if necessary with the Treasury, about handling that and making sure that we deal with it in the way that is required. We have a process which as you see is slightly separate from the policy and long-term capability development. The difference is that sometimes you need something for a particular operation which is only really needed for that operation because it happens in a part of the world where you did not necessarily expect to be doing it again. To put it bluntly, in that case you buy something cheap and cheerful to do that job. If you are going to build military capability, then you have to have the full logistics and backup so it stays in service for many years. The approach to procurement can be somewhat different; people would rather have something quickly that does not have a long life than wait for something which is very robust to arrive later. That is the characteristic of urgent operational requirements. We have a well fashioned system and if we have to go to the Treasury and talk about that then I would invariably expect to get a sympathetic reaction.


  39. Have you had any previous experience of a sympathetic response?
  (Mr Webb) Yes, for Kosovo. These are things which happen within the campaign cycle, things you do very quickly in order to plug gaps you find out about when you go to a particular scenario. It is different from the long-term capability issues.

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