Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. We were told by Mark Grossman at the US State Department that he had toured ten European countries in five and a half days to make it clear to all the European countries that the American programme is not confined to the United States; it is on offer to allies and friends and it seems the Americans do not like others complaining about the Americans forging ahead with this whilst they themselves are not prepared to commit the funds. Do you not think we should be much more proactive with the Americans in terms of committing funds to this programme? There is no reference to this in this new discussion document[21].

  (Mr Hawtin) I do not think we are complaining about the Americans forging ahead.

  101. We are not; other countries are.
  (Mr Hawtin) I would not want to get into the position of articulating differences of view between one country and another. There is very clear understanding and recognition throughout NATO and throughout NATO European countries of the growing threat and the importance of the contribution that missile defence can make to it. That is a common position, not one of complaint. In terms of what we do, we are doing a number of things. We are contributing in those niche areas where we have the particular capability to do it, but we await with interest—and, to be quite clear and frank, the bulk of the money, as we have discussed, the expertise, the technology and research, is being done by the United States—further clarification and no doubt very considerable debate and consultation over a very long period of time about how what the Americans are doing in terms of missile defence can be extended to friends and allies collectively. As we sought to indicate earlier, this is not simply a question, if one is going to have a comprehensive defence, of picking a system here and picking a system there and fooling oneself that it provides a comprehensive defence. It does not.
  (Mr Helliwell) Starting 1 May last year when President Bush made his speech saying he wanted to see friends and allies protected, the US has explained this on many occasions. Clearly, their most immediate focus is how to defend themselves from the threat that they perceive coming from North Korea. They have not yet got to the stage of setting out in detail how they see the protection of friends and allies working. We are keen to get into dialogue with them on that. So far as the programmes and the money they are spending, they have made clear that where there is outside assistance that other countries can contribute they want those countries to do so and we, for our part, are very keen to promote that. As Mr Roper said, there are a number of niche areas where we might be able to contribute and our aim is to do so.

  102. If we were to seek to defend the United Kingdom mainland on our own, have you done any studies as to how much that might cost?
  (Mr Hawtin) I do not think we could give you a realistic figure because we are still at the stage of looking at the technical feasibility, rather than costing specific options but it would be very expensive.


  103. Could you give it to us within the nearest £5 billion? It may be above your area but somebody must have given some indication of what a possible contribution might mean technically and in terms of cost. It would be quite helpful to have ever such a broad figure which we are not going to tie you down to. I have not the slightest idea if this is a major investment or a mega investment.
  (Mr Hawtin) It is certainly a mega investment. It is not a question of pay grade; it is a question of giving you reliable data.
  (Mr Roper) The fidelity of this assessment is very low but providing a homeland defence of the United Kingdom, assuming we had access to information that Fylingdales provides and an upgrade had taken place and that we procured US ground based interceptors, five to ten billion might be the sort of regime.

  104. Compatible with the American system?
  (Mr Roper) Yes.

  105. Could that be done separately from Europe or would it have to be part of a European link into the American system?
  (Mr Hawtin) Your supplementary question, which is a perfectly fair one, indicates the difficulties of this. Mr Roper gave you a very broad order of magnitude, not based on specific systems or specific architecture. We need to be very careful about using that kind of indicative, broad order of cost to say can we link it to something else; would it be compatible to something else which has not yet been defined.

  106. Nobody is guilty then. If The Guardian runs it tomorrow, with the figure given, you will deny you said that.
  (Mr Hawtin) I do not wish to be unhelpful but—

  Chairman: It is impossible to say. At least it is useful to have a notional figure comparing it, say, to the cost of Trident.

Patrick Mercer

  107. Mr Howarth made the point that five months after the event we have a discussion document[22]11 as our answer to the problems of 11 September and yet nowhere in it is mentioned missile defence. It brings to mind that as long ago as the Gulf War it was a contentious decision at the time but armed forces serving in Cyprus were felt to be under such a threat during the Gulf War that they were awarded the Gulf Medal for Campaign Service, although they were a very long way from the firing line. Clearly, we still have forces there. We still have forces deployed elsewhere in the Middle East and yet your memorandum tells us that, for troops who are deployed in an area in which ballistic missiles are available, it is still premature to acquire an active ballistic missile defence capability. Why?

  (Mr Hawtin) Because, as we have sought to explain, the precise technology is still evolving. A decision on which would be the right system or systems to acquire is not one that we believe sensibly we have reached. If we are going to take such a decision, it is important given the resource implications that one gets it right. We still do not think, given the changing nature of the threat and technology, we have comfortably reached that position. That is not to say that we are complacent or that the other means of protecting British forces deployed within the spectrum of activities we have described are being left on one side. If it would help, I can give the Committee the main elements of our non-missile defence, passive defensive measures that we have in place, ranging from the timely identification of detection arrangements for biological attack, rapid reporting and warning of it; secondly, physical protection, of which there is a variety, individual protection, respirators, protective clothing and equipment and collective protection; hazard management to ensure that any contamination is minimised and controlled. Chemical agent monitors, for example. Medical counter measures which are in place, including for those deployed at the moment the voluntary anthrax arrangements. We have set up the joint NBC regiment which provides a very real increase in capability and we are continuing to develop those passive measures. They were set out in rather more detail in a publication that Lord Robertson issued a couple of years ago, on which I remember briefing Mr George on the day of issue, Defending Against the Threat[23], which we can make available to the Committee. A lot is being done in that area but we do not feel we have reached the stage at which we could sensibly take a decision on active defences. Finally, when it comes to deployment in the Gulf or any other area of the kind of operations you have in mind, we would expect to be operating as part of a coalition operation, so it is not simply a question of the United Kingdom over here, unprotected.

  108. Trenches and Noddy suits is what we are saying really. It is all reactive stuff and the containment of a problem. Against an explosion or fall out of a chemical weapon, once it has happened, we have nothing. A very short warning perhaps is the best possible thing we have. With the way that missiles are developing at the moment apace, why is our thinking therefore at such variance, say, from the Dutch, the Germans and the Italians with some of their proactive weapon systems?
  (Mr Helliwell) First of all, in terms of it just being trenches and Noddy suits, passive defence comprises a wide range of things that are not just trenches and Noddy suits. Passive defence is only one of the four potential pillars of our defensive posture. There is also deterrence and counter force and active defence. Just because we do not currently have active defences, whether or not we are operating in a coalition, does not mean that our troops are entirely vulnerable. In terms of why other countries have a missile defence capability and we have not, that just comes down to different approaches. Specifically, the Dutch and the Germans have Patriot missile batteries and they are acquiring PAC-3 which is the more capable successor. Those are the only two countries in Europe that have an active missile defence capability. Other countries are involved in collaborative research on specific systems with the US, such as Italy and Germany. We are involved not in specific systems but looking at the overall concept on our own, with NATO allies, with the US. Just because we are not at the moment involved in the development of specific systems, it does not mean that we are ignoring the issue or not developing our understanding to enable us to make sensible acquisition decisions when we judge the time is right to do so.

  Chairman: That is a brilliant answer, worthy of the Secretary of State.

Patrick Mercer

  109. It is interesting that a country such as Germany which has been, no disrespect to the Germans, cautious in the deployment of its troops and military expenditure, unlike ourselves who have taken a major role in expeditionary warfare, believes the risk to be sufficiently high to start substantial investment in this form of defence. I appreciate you cannot speak for the Germans, but the seesaw of reasoning must be tipping, surely. When does it tip to such a degree that we need to start acquiring these forms of active defence?
  (Mr Helliwell) I cannot give a specific answer to that but the follow on work to TRRAP that we have underway concludes in March next year and at that point we will again be closer to being able to take informed decisions.

  110. It is not going to tip finally once we are attacked, is it?
  (Mr Helliwell) Sorry?

  111. I wondered if we would wait until we were attacked and then we would say, "Yes, we jolly well need this." We have heard so much of this, with respect to yourselves, over the last few weeks and months, people saying, "It will be fine. Stiff upper lip, chaps. Do not worry." All of the threats we have heard about, for instance, from the Metropolitan Police about attacks that have come within a hair's breadth of happening. My greatest fear is that we will at some stage in the future be sitting here saying, "If only" rather than, "Let's go and spend the money and protect ourselves now."
  (Mr Hawtin) It is a question of making sure that when we take those decisions, assuming we do, we get it right and we get the right systems. Mr Helliwell said the fact that the Germans are investing is in part a reflection that they have had this capability for some time and they are going into the next generation of systems. We have not in that particular area of capability and we need, if we are going to get into it, to make sure we acquire the right systems at the right moment.

  112. Ought there to be more urgency and energy?
  (Mr Hawtin) I think, in terms of where the technology is, where the threat is, and looking at the spectrum of deterrent measures, we believe—I do not wish to sound complacent—that our approach at the moment is right but all of these studies are moving towards a direction that if we decide—if the government were to decide—that this was a capability we should acquire the ability to do that and to pick the right system, for example, off the shelf would be much better informed. One faces a difficult decision about whether to decide something early on, before you have the full facts, or to wait until the information has matured; the judgments will be better placed. That is a balance to be struck.
  (Mr Helliwell) I can provide some assurance that the key factors in making a decision are our assessment of the threat and our assessment of the feasibility of the technology to counter it. If we do decide to buy something, we want to buy something that works. If we are going to spend the money, we want to be sure that it is defending against a threat that we cannot counter or we feel we cannot counter sufficiently by other means. All of these factors come into the equation.

  Patrick Mercer: More than ten years ago, we had servicemen in fear of their lives in quiet, sleepy holts like Cyprus and nothing has been done.

Mr Hancock

  113. Do you not think that PAC-3 is a suitable weapon for the United Kingdom to have as a defensive system?
  (Mr Roper) It is a very short range system capable of defending an area of about 20 kilometres across against short range missiles.

  114. The Germans, the Italians and the Dutch have bought it for protecting their troops. They are not protecting the homeland with it, are they? They are protecting deployed troops or they are protecting themselves from seaborne attack. If they can fire missiles out of the back of a truck up Whitehall and into the back of 10 Downing St, somebody can shoot a missile out of the back of a ship parked in the North Sea at London. What would we knock it down with?
  (Mr Roper) All the studies in TRRAP suggested that a system like PAC-3 on its own would not be good enough. You would need a layered defence, so you would need in addition a rather longer range system.

  115. What are you planning to defend the United Kingdom from? We spend a fortune supposedly defending oil rigs in the North Sea. I am interested to know what you are doing to defend me and my constituents in Portsmouth from a seaborne attack from a missile being fired at fairly short range, 100 miles, somewhere up the western approaches, coming straight down the throats of the people of Portsmouth. What can you do to stop that happening?
  (Mr Hawtin) We have no evidence of such a threat. Secondly, our deterrent posture covers a range of measures from the deterrent capability that the strategic deterrent provides through to the kind of more practical, passive defensive measures that we have been discussing.

  116. Correct me if I am wrong but you talk regularly to your American colleagues about potential threats. The Americans made it quite clear to us they do see a threat of a missile from a ship off the coast of the United States. How come we do not and they do, or have they not told us about the possibility of a threat?
  (Mr Hawtin) We are not aware of such a threat.

  117. Or even of that scenario being a possibility? Nobody suspected people would use aircraft as human bombs, did they? If we are to believe that 11 September has changed thinking on these things, we now have to think about the least viable option that people are considering, so they will not fire from Baghdad but they might fire from a container ship somewhere.
  (Mr Hawtin) The development of the threat is a matter of concern, something that we are looking at very closely with the Americans and others, and we hope we remain alert to the possible threats and developments of them. I am sorry if it is repeating what we have said but active defences in the terms you are describing them, of protecting Portsmouth against this putative threat, are not a simple issue. They are not something that necessarily features in terms of urgency and requirements compared with the other measures for dealing with the potential threat, ranging from export controls, arms control, diplomacy, through missile defence and through deterrence. We are looking at a spectrum of activities of which you are singling out one particular element.

  118. The question we are facing is that we have not enough resources to protect the United Kingdom from a possible close range missile attack on us, or is it that we feel it is so much a remote possibility it is not even worth considering?
  (Mr Roper) Are you talking about ballistic missiles launched from ships?

  119. I was talking about a missile being fired from a ship. That is an obvious capability that is available to people. I spoke to a general who had fired missiles from the back of a truck, from a transporter, a sophisticated bit of kit, and I was surprised that he said there was not a problem about putting that on a ship and firing it. There is not a problem if you have the thing and you have the ship. If Howard Hughes could build a ship to lift a Russian submarine off the sea bed and nobody know about it except a few people on the inside track, I am sure it is possible for someone to acquire a transporter with a ballistic missile on it and put it inside a ship. Then I was told it took fewer than six people—five minimum, comfortably, ten—to handle the whole operation, firing a missile off a mobile transporter, off a ship.
  (Mr Roper) The chance of that hitting Portsmouth is slight. There is a problem. Already, the emergent missiles are not particularly accurate in spite of the fact that they are all lined up very precisely on terra firma. If you put one of those on the back of a ship which is moving and you think you are going to hit something, I think you are deluding yourself.

21   Mr Howarth referred to the Strategic Defence Review New Chapter Back

22   The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter Public Discussion Paper. Back

23   Note from Witness: The publication is "defending against the threat from biological and chemical weapons" published in July 1999. Back

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