Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. Can you tell us a bit more about this? I want to question you in more detail about this. If your slide is appropriate, then fine.
  (Mr Webb) Two very important roles are played by the armed forces here, but they are different. The first of them is the actual defence of the homeland in the sense that the armed forces have always defended Britain from attack from the sea and in the last century by air and missiles. That is a straightforward defence task. It is listed amongst those the Chairman enumerated at the start and is a direct defence responsibility which is why I said that such steps as were needed to strengthen that are being and have been taken. Let me just say that on the air defence side assets are in place and at readiness to respond to a threat with RAF F3 Tornado fighters and a command and control system is in place to take the necessary decisions. I would rather not get into details. It would actually be helpful to potential adversaries for them to know much more detail about how we do that. The professional people who work on these issues at RAF Strike Command, who are participating in a study, know all about evaluating the various ways of doing this as between surface-to-air missiles and fighters and so on. This is a professional air force business and they know how to get the right answer. Yes, we take that very seriously indeed. That is a specific defence task and we shall as part of this review be saying that we have done some immediate steps on that, but asking whether there is a longer-term dimension to this which would imply not just making best use of assets we have instantly available, or quick upgrades, but what about the longer term capability. Yes, that will all be part of the study. The second thing we do is what I have on this slide here which I stole from something else so it is probably not beautifully designed for the occasion. What that talks about is military assistance to the civil authorities. (It is actually from a press briefing I gave earlier in the year.) What that is about is where there is not a specific Ministry of Defence responsibility to lead on the subject, but where we support either other departments or the civil power. I shall come on to more detail. The bottom two items on this list—which is why it is not perfectly organised—show you what the military could do and you have been familiar with this on foot-and-mouth and so on, to support other government departments or to deal with military assistance to the civil community which includes emergencies. If, God forbid, we had some terrible incident in the UK, local police, the so-called blue light services, police, fire, ambulance, can apply immediately to their local military command and if life is in jeopardy, they do not need to ask the Ministry of Defence but they will get straight on and provide that assistance as they have done. Those are the bottom two items. If the police, or some other government department responsible for security at some establishment, came and said they were worried about their ability to defend this against a terrorist threat established by the Security Service, they really either lack resources or they just do not think they can cope or they need to have a lethal force on a scale which cannot be provided by armed policemen, then they would apply to a military command and I know my Ministers would be immediately inclined to render such assistance and that could, if it were appropriate, involve the reserves. We would call up reservists and ask them to come and join in on that task, if that were necessary. It has not got to that point so far but the mechanism is there. Certainly, as part of this review, we will want to ask whether we need more of this on a long-term basis. That is where you get to the reserves. Yes, looking at whether there is an increased role for the reserves in this area will be part of this study.

  61. Mr Mercer is going to deal with the downstream consequences of military involvement in some kind of terrorist attack which you describe as an emergency. What I am really anxious to look at and I know I am pressing on the boundaries of what you are prepared to release, but you did say earlier, that countering public fear is an important part of the task of the Ministry of Defence. Those images of 11 September are burned in people's minds throughout the world, not least of all in a major country like the United Kingdom where the public do perceive that we have put ourselves perhaps more in the firing line than others by our stalwart and right support of the United States. They then look around, they see the Tube, they see power stations and they ask what steps the Ministry of Defence are taking to ensure that we send the clearest possible signal that these are not going to be vulnerable targets. Everything you have said so far has been in the conditional tense. We would, we might.
  (Mr Webb) No, we are.

  Mr Howarth: Can you tell us what you are doing now. You have told us about the F3's and I would just make one observation, if I may, on the F3. I do not believe they are stationed at Biggin Hill.

  Chairman: We do not want to go into that.

Mr Howarth

  62. There is the question of just how realistic this defence is, but Mr Webb may not want to go into too much detail. Can you tell us as far as you are able what actual steps are being taken?
  (Mr Webb) May I go back to what I said before? Air defence assets are in place. I said nothing about would, should or anything else. They are in place and at readiness at this moment. They are currently, at this very moment, at readiness to respond to a threat. If you went to RAF Strike Command this morning—I do not think they would mind me saying the role they play in this—you would find that in their air defence centres there they are geared up for precisely this issue. In terms of that being a specific Defence responsibility, we are geared up for it. Ministers have said on the floor of the House that we are geared up for it and we are. I really think the detail is not helpful. This is a somewhat different point. I am sorry to keep coming back to this but there is a constitutional point here about defending say a power station on land from a terrorist threat, where the constitutional position is that either the government department or the police take the lead on that. I have said already, and I know that troops are available if required to help with those Defence roles, that if we cannot cope with it or it makes more sense to use reserves, then we would use the reserves. As part of a study which I am privileged to lead, we shall be looking at whether, in the long term—set aside the arrangements which are in place for the short term—we need more of that. We need to analyse what the job is though. It is easy enough to say, "Let's have more people", but let us be sure we have a job for them to do and that they are trained and equipped to do it.

  63. What about Rapiers used by the TA?
  (Mr Webb) If that were the best solution to the problem, I am sure we would provide them.


  64. One of the many criticisms we had of the SDR was the downsizing of the Territorial Army. There were reports that only half the members of the Territorial Army were available for service. Is that report correct? If so, does it mean that the new strategy and policy post-SDR is not working?
  (Mr Webb) I do not recognise that in a precise sense but I confess I am a non-expert on the detail in that sense.

  65. Will you write us a note on that please?
  (Mr Webb) Yes, I shall be happy to do that. What I am trying to do is prejudge our long-term view. Let me just come at it from this point of view. We talked earlier about this question of whether you can rely on intelligence, in which case under the manoeuvrist principle you might be able to get to it before it got to you, so you would not have to go through this. If you felt a long-term vulnerability and you thought that some level of increased deployment of the armed forces in support of the police was helpful, perhaps if only to provide public reassurance—Do you recall some years ago when aircraft hijacking was fashionable we used to do deployments to Heathrow, used to send light armoured vehicles down there and that was probably a bit about deterrence and a bit about reassurance and we used to do that and that is a role we could undertake again if it were relevant. You could see, could you not? I know my Ministers have seen that the public at large might be quite happy to come into a reserve and take on that job. It would not necessarily involve overseas service because that would get you into some complicated military money questions, but you might have people who would like to come and help in that, to play a part in the homeland defence themselves. That is the sort of thing we shall be looking at. I do not want to jump into something when it may not be necessary. If something needs to be done now, if a request comes in from the Chief Constable today, we will meet it. I am looking at the longer term and we need to mull it over. One of the questions is whether people, members of the public, would like to contribute in that way.

  66. I am sorry to bang on about our SDR report being better than yours, but I will. We said, ". . . the cuts in the Territorial Army infantry, engineers and yeomanry are shortsighted. The TA are still a valuable resource as long-term insurance against the unexpected, and re-roling should be considered before cuts". We urged the MoD to reconsider the level of cuts proposed and that was ignored. We went on to say, "In an asymmetric contest it is quite possible that, in addition to other asymmetric weapons', the UK homeland could be targeted by terrorist action designed to disrupt civil society directly, using high technology instruments such as chemical and biological agents, electronic attacks on computers and command and control systems, and attacks on major public utilities. The SDR does not address the capacity to deal with such a threat" and it goes on. You can see why I have a degree of cynicism about the last SDR, because many of the things we raised have regrettably come true. We would want assurances that critical infrastructure, buildings, I shall not go into those areas of public life and public structures and private structures which would be vulnerable but people need assurances that they are being adequately protected as in the Cold War the Territorial Army had a substantial role, not a very exciting role, of guarding such buildings and structures as reservoirs, bridges, power plants, government buildings, etcetera. I do not have any inside knowledge, but I should have thought that we were entering a very difficult phase in terms of the threat to this country. The last thing I would want to do is to wake up tomorrow morning and find that such an attack has taken place and we are still talking or beginning to talk about whether the Territorial Army, the police or whoever are going to be standing outside major structures which have already been attacked. I do stress, not in any aggressive way, but I really do hope that the Government will look very, very quickly at who is going to stand outside buildings. It cannot be the police, they are overwhelmed. It seems to me that many of the Territorial Army personnel who have left because they were no longer required, could be a resource not just this week, next week and the week after, but in any crisis environment that we are likely to find ourselves, which, as has been said by many, many people, is an environment we are going to be in for the foreseeable future. I hope that this review will look again.
  (Mr Webb) It will.

  67. And remind Ministers that the departure of Julian Brazier does not mean that this Committee is any less interested in the Territorial Army and the reserves than it was when he was a member of the Committee.
  (Mr Webb) We shall be looking at it. It is a specific part of the work programme to look at that. Forgive me for working with other government departments and not just ploughing a furrow of Defence on our own. It would be very foolish, given the very good working relationship we have with the police in these areas, for us to say we will come forward and do that when it is actually a police responsibility or a civil department's responsibility. You have to be careful also that you are asking people to do a valid job. You would not necessarily be very sensible to have a reservist standing outside on the ground if the threat were coming from somewhere else. You need to do something which is relevant to the scenario and this is why we need to do some detailed work on it. I absolutely assure you that it will be part of the study, including the role of the reserves.

Jim Knight

  68. I want to follow up something you said about needing to understand whether or not people would want to perform such a role. Obviously if they are working, similar to retained fire fighters, it is whether their employers would want them to perform such a role. What are you doing to ask that question?
  (Mr Webb) That will be part of the study. We have very good relationships with employers. You probably know that there is a national employers' liaison committee. We have ways of talking to employers about this. If there is a requirement which it looks as though reservists would be helpful in meeting, we would have to think through all that. In some ways I was perhaps groping inadequately because there is the point about whether the nation wants this or not, is there not? Employers also live in a society and their view may be tempered by what the country wants. You can think of countries where a rapid call-out of military personnel is all part of life. We have tended to think of it in the NATO era as being a response to a big war. We need to work through this and the debate, which I hope this Committee's interest and the fact we are doing this in the study will stimulate, will itself help answer some of these questions about how people feel about it. If it is the right answer we shall recommend it.


  69. The question of civil emergency planning is going to dominate what we are going to do and strictly speaking it is the Home Affairs Select Committee, although I am not certain whether the Home Affairs Select Committee has sole responsibility for the Cabinet Office; the Public Administration Committee think that they have a central role. Well, so do we. Perhaps I could visit whoever the anonymous Ministry of Defence official is who has the lead in this question, perhaps with the Clerk, just by way of preliminary discussion prior to a public session later on. That would be really helpful so you can go through organisational charts, what you do, what the Home Office does, what other departments do, the Wales Office, the Scotland Office, whoever is co-ordinating within the Cabinet Office, etcetera. That would be really helpful.
  (Mr Webb) I should start with the Cabinet Office because on this end of it they have a leading role.

Mr Jones

  70. May I pick up on something you said about perception? Would you agree that in the events since 11 September, and you have already referred to the fear which is out there, public perception is very important? If President Bush's appointment of Tom Ridge did one thing, it was a clear public demonstration that something was actually being done as opposed to what you have described as this faceless bureaucrat sat somewhere and no-one knows his name. I do not think that is going to give a great deal of confidence to the public in terms of thinking that the Government are actually doing something about it.
  (Mr Webb) I am just checking whether we can find out whether I can give you the name.

  71. We are intrigued to find out who he or she is. The key point, whoever he or she is, the important thing perception-wise for the public, is that they feel there is actually someone there, that we are not having endless committee meetings and civil servants shuffling paper but that things are actually being done. To be fair to President Bush's appointment, he has given that very clear demonstration to boost confidence which we do need in this country.
  (Mr Webb) I know that senior Home Office Ministers are engaged day to day on this and they are certainly publicly known.


  72. Name them.
  (Mr Webb) Messrs Blunkett and Denham. Those are the two who are working on this subject. I am sure they will not mind me saying so. I agree with you that we need to be convincing. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat was itself established, in August if I recall, because we wanted to improve the situation after foot-and-mouth, fuel and floods. It brings to it a lot of our experience. We have actually spent a lot of time with them on crisis management because we are now used to rapid reaction and this Committee knows about how quickly we have deployed troops in Sierra Leone and so on. One of the first things they did was to come across to us and ask us to tell them all about how we manage these things in real time and what my military colleagues sometimes call battle rhythm, which is about how you organise your day so that you are on top of this at the pace required. They are definitely on the case and have built up their staff. We have lent some people from the armed forces to help serve in that organisation, including a senior figure in it. They are on it and I do not think that in our system appointing somebody for the name would improve on having a Minister who could take responsibility for it.

Mr Jones

  73. Would it be an option then to appoint a specific Minister to have responsibility for this area?
  (Mr Webb) I have traipsed well across the Prime Minister's responsibilities for organising central government this morning but starting to decide ministerial appointments is probably just a touch beyond my boundary.

  74. I was not asking who, but whether should it be a separate Minister perhaps of Cabinet rank who would have responsibility?
  (Mr Webb) Where I would end up is by saying that we need to be clear what the system is, how it works and who are the key players.

  75. Which it is not at the moment, is it?
  (Mr Webb) I think we are absolutely clear.


  76. You know, but we do not know.
  (Mr Webb) That is what I am saying: we ought to make that public.

Patrick Mercer

  77. The language of manoeuvre warfare which General Milton used earlier and the words "Maginot Line" approach, but our rear operations are our opponents' deep operations. We seek to shatter his cohesion and seek his centre of gravity. Speaking from the constituencies, if I may, our centre of gravity needs to be defended and needs to be reassured. Surely that is as manoeuvrist as anything else we might expect and therefore were forces to be put in place, as we saw at Heathrow, particularly to reassure and to deter, that would be appreciated hugely.
  (Major-General Milton) I should be very delighted for all the doctrinal staff if we could get more people speaking in these terms; it would be very helpful to my cause. The comparisons are not exact but may I dwell on many years' experience of service in Northern Ireland. We used to commit people in the early days to guarding static key points, as you may recall. Actually it was a pretty ineffective use of the armed forces. We were in the business more of reassurance and deterrence and what actually was a much more effective use of the armed forces was getting out and trying to interdict terrorists before they attacked those vulnerable points and using other operations particularly intelligence led operations which acted in a deep manner. I am not saying the comparison is exact. There may well be, as we have agreed with you, a case for reassurance operations, but do not let us kid ourselves that this may be necessarily the most effective use of scarce resources. That is all I am saying.

  78. Conversely, I do think that there is a place for it.
  (Major-General Milton) You may well be right.

  79. It is interesting people in the wilds of north east Nottinghamshire.
  (Major-General Milton) It may well be that you have to spend a certain amount on reassurance, but it is a judgement. I have been twice to the United States in the last month and certainly now as you leave an American airport there are large numbers of National Guards there. Perhaps that is reassuring, perhaps it is not. You see far less of that at Heathrow. You do see armed police. It is a judgement. In many ways you are better placed to make it than we are.

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