Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520 - 539)



  520. It is the judgement you have to make about the endgame, is it not? ***. I cannot remember the exact words, but I do remember it was quoted recently at the Council of Europe when people were arguing about the legality of shooting planes down. I am interested to know where you have looked to make that judgement.
  (Air Commodore Cook) ***
  (Mr Davenport) ***. That must ultimately be a political judgement.
  (Air Commodore Cook) May I finish by saying that the whole procedure and process and this hostile intent, the legality of it, have all been tested at the highest judicial and political level. It is not just something that the Royal Air Force—

  521. I understand and accept that entirely. What are the manpower implications and the cost implications of keeping this up for a long period of time on an Air Force already over-stretched and financially suffering?
  (Air Commodore Cook) It is an unwelcome additional burden. If you look at the F3 force at the moment, not only is it holding two sets of QRA in the UK, it is holding QRA down in the Falklands, it is committed to the Middle East. You will be aware from our last session that we have just re-allocated the manpower and resources of 5 Squadron across the F3 fleet to enable it to continue with those commitments. It is a strain, but it is doable in the short to near term, providing we continue to retain our pilots and the pilot wastage does not get any worse.

  522. What have you done to give your pilots some help about what they might have to be confronted with? A pilot going in to fight against a known enemy is a different scenario to shooting down an aeroplane full of civilians. What have you done to help pilots come to terms in advance of that possibility?
  (Air Commodore Cook) December last year we held a very large seminar at Boulmer where we had both Cabinet Office members, NATS reps were there, weapons controllers from the CRCs were there and air crew from the front line were there. We had a very useful day going through a whole range of scenarios, some of them we touched upon today. That is the sort of level of teaching we have done. We had lawyers there to look at the legal implications and that will be a continuing process. As each new air crew, man or lady, comes through the process and has to be trained up to what we call combat ready status to hold QRA, he or she will be trained in the process and procedures of *** . It will be something which will have to be regularly practised ***.

Mr Howarth

  523. Could you say when you are going to do that?
  (Air Commodore Cook) ***.


  524. It is not just the problem of training the Air Force personnel psychologically, it is training the ***. These questions seem to show I am in an advanced state of paranoia. ***. There are lots of very, very sensitive targets, nuclear establishments, which will be vulnerable as well as central London because of its political targets. Where do Rapier batteries fit into this? ***, what thinking have you given and what are the cost implications and the technical implications of deploying around London, in central London or in Aldermaston or wherever in times of crisis? Are Rapier batteries available? Have you looked at the options?
  (Brigadier Houghton) The *** within this scenario. The manner in which they operate is that they ***, so there is no way of identifying the ***. The rules of procedure for engagement in war are that they declare a kill box and anything which comes into it, they knock it out of the sky ***. We do not entirely dismiss it as a capability within what we call layered defence *** and it would be conceivable to then communicate to***.

  525. You have given a perfectly rational explanation of how things should be done by the textbook. ***. The chance is therefore that it is heading for the Ministry of Defence, Downing Street or Parliament, the intention is pretty obvious. The police cannot do anything about it, Rapier batteries in an act of desperation by the authorities might be an answer. A dangerous answer but the alternatives seem even worse.
  (Mr Bowen) ***. At least with an aircraft you have some human contact who can relay to you as the decision maker what he thinks is going on, but an aircraft which just diverts and is found in the wrong place and the idea that you would be able to make a decision to launch a Rapier to bring that down is very much more difficult. These are—

  526. Terrible dilemmas.
  (Mr Bowen)—terrible dilemmas.

  527. But if it is heading for a nuclear establishment you have to balance the probability that it is a deliberate attack, because a 747 has not been seen within 20 miles of that establishment ever before. It is heading in a straight line. It seems to me a pretty reasonable grounds for suspicion, more than suspicion.
  (Mr Bowen) But knowing that is the fact, that it is heading in a straight line, that it is descending, that it is heading for Aldermaston, is a lot to know.
  (Mr Davenport) ***. You would not have been able to interrogate at an earlier stage.

Mr Hancock

  528. Would it not be better to break that up in the air than to allow it to crash, wherever it was going. A plane breaking up in the air would have a less devastating effect on Sellafield, say. A plane taking off from the Isle of Man would be at Sellafield in a matter of a very few minutes.
  (Air Commodore Cook) ***. The difficulties we see are the ones Nick has articulated. How can you legislate for the case where perhaps an aeroplane has suffered a navigation failure, so it is a purely innocent reason why that pilot and that aeroplane is in that piece of sky at that particular time. Would it not be an awful decision to make to fire that missile autonomously in that zone? That is what you would have to do. To use the Rapier system on its own, given the short range nature of it, you have to create an Air Exclusion Zone around the target to guarantee sufficient time to engage that aeroplane. That does not allow for mistakes which may happen.

  529. What would a Rapier do to a fairly substantial jet, say a 737? Would it blow it apart or would it just cripple it so it crashed? Would it actually take it out in the air?
  (Brigadier Houghton) The analysis is that ***

  Chairman: We shall be writing to the Secretary of State enlisting some fuller answers on this. ***, even for reasons of deterrence it would seem to be desirable at least to threaten a terrorist, because if Gerald can work it out with his Chipmunk experience, I am sure a terrorist with his training school in the United States or in Oxford will be able to work out the same thing we have managed to work out, *** It seems to me a Rapier battery might be a deterrent if nothing else.

Mr Jones

  530. I have read reference to some air defence systems which have been put in and around Washington all round the White House. What are they? Do you have any knowledge of exactly what the Americans have put around buildings in Washington?
  (Air Commodore Cook) They may well have put in place what they call a Patriot system, which is a medium-level battery which we do not possess in the UK.


  531. We shall certainly be watching. I should also alert you to the fact that whilst we would not expect definitive legal advice on what we were asking earlier about the legality of shooting aircraft down, we shall be seeking some form of briefing just to see what the difficulties are rather than ourselves engaging a barrister at enormous cost to find out what the legal arguments are.
  (Mr Bowen) We shall be happy to respond to that. One of the things we wish to emphasise is that intelligence, prior warning, defeating the threat away from the home land, is what we must try to do and we need to confront as last resort, but at the same time we need to be doing these things as far away as possible.

  532. And checking baggage. Whole courses are taught on intelligence failure. You can be pretty certain that whenever there is an incident the chances are fairly high that all these decent things you say might happen will not happen and that is why we are thinking the unthinkable. There is no point exploring that more fully.
  (Air Commodore Cook) I am aware that you are visiting *** later on this month and it may be an opportune time to offer to run through a couple of scenarios during that visit to bring out these issues and we may well bring our legal adviser along at the same time.

  Chairman: That would be amazingly helpful. Just because you are telling us now, does not mean to say it is going to be in our report, because there are some very sensitive issues and we will exercise a considerable degree of restraint and we certainly are not going to put pen to paper with every piece of information and provide a manual for Al-Qaeda or anyone else to read and find ways of scoring hits.

Syd Rapson

  533. I want to move on to the Senior Service and bring in the Commodore. One of the most lethal scenarios the US are talking about at the moment is the container ship terrorist threat. They have 50,000 container ships entering America each day. It must be very similar in this country but on a different scale. It is a big problem. A nuclear weapon could easily be hidden in a container and that could cause devastation. Only two per cent of American containers are checked because it is just too complicated and at Portsmouth where Mike and I have responsibility we are up to a *** and it is causing chaos. Are the Royal Navy—or hopefully the Royal Marines as the best part of the Royal Navy—or the other armed forces engaged in any special measures to protect the UK against the possibility of container ships being used by terrorists as a means of launching an attack?
  (Commodore Dickson) Thank you for your kind reference to the Senior Service, although you rather lost me later on. Sitting quietly for a long time now and almost losing the will to live, I hesitate to open by saying that unlike the business of rogue aircraft and the role of the Royal Air Force and UK air space and its role within NATO, all very clear cut, although you instantly relate maritime issues to the Royal Navy and what they are doing about it, I hesitate to use the words Home Office lead or other government department lead, but of course that is very much the case in this area. We have been working with all of those other departments on just that issue. Perhaps in due course Bruce Mann would like to say something about the work that is being done there as part of his own remit. The scale of the problem you talked about is absolutely correct. Even one or two per cent of the number of container units moving into this country—in 2000 it was around five million—is an enormous number. You made reference to delays and the Americans have the benefit of a Coastguard Agency.

  534. You were explaining that we are well protected and it is not going to happen.
  (Commodore Dickson) I was agreeing with you on the scale of the problem and I tried briefly to point out that although it is a maritime matter in fact the link with the Royal Navy and what specifically the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy as part of that is doing is rather less. We have been very much involved in the work which Mr Mann has been leading in working with those other departments, DTLR, HMC&E and so on, in just how best to address this. The key elements of that are going to be better intelligence, which is a feature of any aspect of counter-terrorism and the maritime aspects of that being then better able than perhaps we were before 11 September, although there were things in place at that stage, to deal with something when we have that specific intelligence. Perhaps the next strand then is being better able to deal with any incident that arises as a result of that. Our involvement is very much along the lines that you have heard quite a lot about already, through the whole business of MACA and being drawn into that counter-terrorist aspect. You talked about the fact that things have actually happened, there has been an increase, but this has to be an increase in searching containers to a level where it does not impact on our freedom of movement and freedom of trade because that runs completely counter and you can put in place all the damage and interference which the terrorists would be well satisfied with. In the work which has already been going on in terms of counter-terrorist activity, ***, we have had extensive dealings with all these other departments. It is really an extension of that, but the focus now is on the ***. We have brought in extra resources in terms of people into the *** outfit as well as other agencies. Some of those have been reservists too; I cannot remember the numbers but quite a substantial number of reservists have been activated and are now working for ***.

  535. May I get back to the containers? ***. Containers are a new phenomenon and the real worry is the containers themselves because we do not check inside the containers. Should we be doing something about having a system of checking containers or X-raying them or something. It is probably too great a job in reality but it worries me that that scenario is not being covered, whereas we know the systems are very well in place for interception at the moment for other things if you rely upon intelligence. Containers are a real worry. Terrorists could carry a small nuclear device or something else within a container and we have no means of detecting it if we have not picked it up with intelligence.
  (Mr Bowen) Some work is being done.
  (Mr Davenport) Yes, there is. The work is focused on what is called the CBRN Sub-committee of the Civil Contingencies Committee and the sub-committee is chaired by John Denham the Minister of State at the Home Office. It has been looking very closely at improved detection of CBRN devices, in particular at ports of entry. ***. Depending on the results of that, which should be available some time in the summer, then Ministers will want to consider whether there is a case for devoting more resources to this sort of protection, given that it is potentially pretty extensive in terms of places you need to protect. There is this programme of work which is being carried forward.


  536. You have given me a lead and inspiration now as to how I can bring DERA into my speech on terrorism tomorrow. Thank you very much, I really appreciate that. So now DERA is being retained we do really need it more to provide you with the research. I owe you a debt of gratitude. I was going to gloat tomorrow in a speech on terrorism.
  (Mr Davenport) I should underline of course that what I said is fairly highly classified.

Jim Knight

  537. My recollection of when we first had our conversations with MOD officials in this area of investigation was that the responsibility of the armed forces was the defence of the UK from air and sea and that the civil powers did the land in broad terms. What you said, unless I have misinterpreted it, was the lead has been taken by other departments in terms of the sort of stuff Syd has been talking about. Where does that begin and end? How does that work?
  (Commodore Dickson) It would be very clear cut in defence. In the course of a war that is very straightforward, if you are dealing with enemy naval forces. Essentially terrorism is a criminal offence and if it is terrorism you are dealing with, then because it is a criminal offence, that takes the lead for that in the UK to the Home Office and those other government departments. In terms of looking at the monitoring of merchant shipping or the searching of containers and security in ports, then that is not a Royal Navy task drawn down from a Ministry of Defence remit. We had quite a discussion on this the last time and I understand very readily that when you use this words "defence against something" it is the Ministry of Defence who must be involved in this and if it is on the sea then it is the Navy and if it is in the air it is the Air Force. But we are not dealing with a wartime threat to the United Kingdom and home waters.

  538. It is not clear cut but ultimately it helps us to be clearer and I am sure it helps everyone operationally.
  (Commodore Dickson) The point is that we are hugely involved. We are very, very much involved with all of those departments, agencies and so on and there has been an enormous amount of activity. In the areas we have been talking about we are very much part of the organisations, the various committees which have been looking at this and how best to do something about it. The key element is intelligence where that is very much the sort of things we can pull together and which we need in order to be able to play our part .

Mr Crausby

  539. What general lessons were learned from the MV Nisha incident before Christmas and how have these been implemented? Can you tell us the nature of the threat that the Nisha was suspected of?
  (Commodore Dickson) Because it happened at sea I will kick off on that. I mentioned briefly to Mr Hancock after we had finished the last session that I was looking forward to the opportunity in closed session to being able to correct one or two of the inaccuracies, although you explained to me later that you had been given that information by a naval colleagues, although you divulged no name so I have not been able to do anything about it. It was introduced by the Brigadier the last time as a successful run-out of the counter-terrorism machinery and that is exactly what it was. In terms of when the Ministry of Defence was alerted to this, that happened *** that the Ministry of Defence and its *** were alerted to this as being a possible threat. We then went into the process which we have or we took part in the process which exists through COBR which has already been referred to. The initial meeting took place *** and put in place the chain of events which led to the military agencies involved, *** , a frigate from the Royal Navy, the fleet ready escort which was sent to sea and sailed at 2000 hours and intercepted the ship just a few hours later that evening. *** at a later stage and there was an *** which had been escorting this ship as well. A decision was taken that the right time to do something about this would be at first light the next day because *** . So we shadowed the ship overnight. She was shadowed by the fleet ready escort and *** and then *** launched the operation to gain access to the ship ***.

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