Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 129-139)




  129. Welcome, Secretary of State, to the Defence Committee again. This morning's session is about missile defence. It is the second session the Committee has had on this subject and it certainly will not be the last. Missile defence raises issues of fundamental importance not just for the UK and the United States, but for global security. We discussed missile defence issues during our visit to Washington in early February. The debate there has clearly moved from questions of "if" to questions of "when" and "how", and we will be raising missile defence questions when we visit Moscow later this year. The debate on missile defence is entering a crucial phase and, as a Committee, we believe that we must be involved in that debate, so we are grateful to you for appearing before us today for a session which will be part of our long-term commitment to monitor and comment on missile defence as it develops. Having made my introductory statement, Secretary of State, I understand that you wish to make some introductory remarks.

  (Mr Hoon) Thank you, Mr Chairman, and could I say how grateful I am to the Committee for this opportunity because the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of ballistic missiles as a means of delivering them is a matter of very great concern to us. Whilst we as of today see no direct threat from these weapons to the United Kingdom, we obviously do monitor developments very carefully. The fact that if certain states of concern do acquire complete systems of sufficient range then they might be capable of targeting the United Kingdom within the next few years is something that we consider very seriously. Moreover, we recognise that some states of concern would already be capable of targeting United Kingdom forces deployed in areas close to them and of targeting the territory of some of our friends and allies. We, therefore, believe that it is vital for all responsible nations to try to tackle the potential threat. We believe a comprehensive strategy is necessary, a strategy that encompasses diplomacy, arms control, conflict prevention, non-proliferation, counter-proliferation, export controls, intelligence co-operation, law enforcement, deterrence and defensive measures. We will continue to work closely with the United States and our other allies, partners and friends in all of these areas. We understand the role that missile defence systems can play as one element of a strategy to tackle the potential threat, but we believe that it is for the moment premature to make decisions on acquiring missile defence for the protection of our deployed forces, which, as set out in the Strategic Defence Review, remains our priority. But the threat and, in particular, missile defence technology continue to evolve rapidly, and we need to have the fullest possible understanding of that technology before making specific decisions. We also need to look further at how active missile defence might fit into a balanced spectrum of defensive capabilities which also includes deterrence, counter-force and passive defences. These are areas where we already have capabilities in both quantity and quality. We, and NATO, have programmes taking forward the work that will underpin any future decisions. The United States leads the world in missile defence technology. We have a longstanding technical dialogue with them on the subject. They have themselves made no decisions on what systems they will seek to deploy to defend US territory against emerging threats. Before making such decisions, they are conducting an intensive programme of research, development, testing and evaluation to determine what will work and what will not. As the Committee will be aware, we have so far received no requests from the United States for the use of sites in the United Kingdom for missile defence purposes. We do not know exactly what might be involved in any such requests, nor when they might be made. If we are asked to make such a decision, we will of course do so on the basis of our own national interest. That is obviously based on considerations of our own national security, which include the security interests of our closest ally. The United States has made clear that it wants to see the territory of its friends and allies protected from the emerging missile threats, but it has not yet said how this might be achieved. We are ready to engage positively in a dialogue on that question. Although the Cold War is over, today we face new and emerging threats. It is right that we should consider all possible elements of a comprehensive strategy to deal with them. Thank you.

  130. Thank you very much. You mentioned that we anticipated, to use the phraseology, the "emerging threat" within the next few years. Can you give us a little more information? One thing that is certain about intelligence is that it is almost invariably found out to be wanting. Are you happy that the fairly relaxed approach that we have taken to this issue, waiting for the Americans to approach us, et cetera, et cetera, is sufficiently robust to ensure that if intelligence is wrong, if a country, which is estimated to take a number of years to develop a capability, somehow acquires additional resources or additional skills, that our timescale for if we decide to develop a capability to deploy against it is not going to be available in a period after a potential adversary has actually acquired that capability, so is it possible for you just to explore a little more closely what you mean about the evolving threat "within the next few years"?
  (Mr Hoon) The last part of your question, Chairman, actually indicates why we are not relaxed. I do not accept the word "relaxed" at all. The Government has been vigilant in monitoring the developing threats and we continue to be vigilant. I can assure you that we are not taking this potential threat at all lightly and we will take whatever decisions are necessary to be able to deal with it in time. As far as the timescale is concerned, it is important to emphasise that the threat is not only the development of any particular kind of technology that could be used to threaten the United Kingdom from any particular country, but that obviously must be accompanied by a particular intention and it is the coincidence of the development of the threat in a physical sense together with the development of an intention that is ultimately a matter of concern to the United Kingdom. Our judgment for the moment that there is not that coincidence of both the ability to deliver a threat as well as an intention means that for the moment, and I emphasise that, we do not need to take these particular decisions, but we do ensure, both in terms of monitoring technological change in any given country as well as ensuring any change in intention is kept a close eye on, that we are in a position properly to take the decisions that would require the protection of the United Kingdom.

  131. Mr Hoon, the memorandum from the MoD and the Foreign Office cites North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria as states of concern. I have a couple of questions on North Korea and Libya. In what sort of timescale do you think North Korea might develop the capabilities of producing missiles of inter-continental range?
  (Mr Hoon) I am not going to answer that question directly because in any event it would be a judgment about their particular ability and our concern largely about North Korea is based both on the potential threat to our closest ally, the United States, and some comments from time to time made in North Korea about that relationship with the United States, but equally, and perhaps more significantly as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the threat from North Korea posed by their willingness to sell that technology to anyone who appears to have the money available to purchase it. North Korea is a particular problem in that sense in that their threat is a threat to the stability of the world because they are clearly very determined to sell their equipment to anyone who has the cash to buy it.

  132. That has caused us some anxiety and the reason I asked that question was, and I am sure we will be able to go to unclassified sources to have a judgment of the current state of North Korean technology, but the further problem is that if they develop a capability, it need not be inter-continental to threaten us because how long would it take, would you estimate, if North Korea decided to sell this advance in technology to another state of concern, and it could be a country in the Maghreb, in the Middle East, which would then really mess up your calculations as to how long it would take for a threat to emerge? Is there anything you can say in open session or would you like to write to us afterwards on how long North Korea, having developed a missile system that works, how long it would take, if it decided to sell to a country much closer to us, for that capability that has been acquired to threaten directly not just the United States if that country chose to use it, but Western Europe and ourselves in particular?
  (Mr Hoon) That is really the concern about North Korea, that they are not appearing to discriminate as to who they would be prepared to sell the technology to and that is a matter of considerable concern both here and in the United States.
  (Mr Hawtin) Again I do not think it is a question we can give a precise answer to unfortunately in the terms you have described.

  133. A precise answer in open session or you are not able to give an answer at all?
  (Mr Hawtin) Not able to give a precise answer in the sense that they are developing a technology and they have made technology available to a number of other countries, including Iran. We are, as the Secretary of State said, also very concerned about Libya, but there are so many imponderables in the question you pose that one cannot answer it in precise terms.

  134. Libya features as one of the UK's four main countries of concern, yet it does not appear in the Americans' list. What is Libya doing which is of particular concern to us?
  (Mr Hoon) Well, there is no doubt that Libya is a cause for concern both as far as the United Kingdom and the United States are concerned

  135. So they forgot to put the name on the list, did they? "I cannot answer for the United States of course", okay.
  (Mr Hoon) All I would dispute, Chairman, is any suggestion that the United States is any less concerned about Libya than we are. I assure you that the United States keeps an eye on developments in Libya just as closely as it does in the other countries on the list that you have given.

  Chairman: Maybe we will have to write to the US to ask why Libya was omitted.

Mr Howarth

  136. Secretary of State, if I could pursue that a little bit further, you have said a moment ago that the threat was effectively a combination of capability and intention and that you did not see any immediate intention on the part of any potential rogue state to threaten us, but there is the old adage that capabilities take time to develop and intentions can change overnight. As far as Libya is concerned, although you say that there is no immediate evidence of any threat from Libya, in the latest memorandum we have had from your Department dated last week, you say, "We believe Libya also has weapons of mass destruction aspirations". Perhaps we can explore that a little bit further because I think, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, it is obviously very much closer than North Korea. If North Korea is making available its equipment to anyone who is prepared to buy it, and we know that Colonel Gadaffi has funded terrorism in the United Kingdom through the IRA, there is a real risk here, is there not, that if the North Koreans can deliver a system and Libya has the aspiration and it has the money, then that threat could suddenly change into being a very serious one and a very immediate one?
  (Mr Hoon) There is certainly a risk if those contingencies were satisfied that Libya could pose the kind of threat that I at the outset indicated was a matter of concern to us, yes.

  137. I am not suggesting that the Ministry of Defence is being complacent, but we could be faced with a real prospect of an immediate threat to the United Kingdom of weapons of mass destruction from Libya and we do not have any strategy in place to deal with it.
  (Mr Hoon) Well, I do not accept that the contingencies are satisfied. Therefore, I cannot accept that there is a real prospect of an immediate threat, otherwise I would have set out the evidence to the Committee at the outset in a different way.

  138. I do not want to prolong this, but may I just ask you one final question then. If you say that you believe that Libya has these aspirations to produce weapons of mass destruction—
  (Mr Hoon) Well, there are a considerable number of countries around the world that have the aspiration. That is a completely different thing from being able to deliver it.

  139. Well, we know that the delivery systems could be available in North Korea. You have just told us that they will flog them to whoever is prepared to buy them, so if Libya has got these aspirations, and you have told us this actually as recently as Monday, what is the basis of this and do you have any kind of timetable to put on it or are you telling us that these are long-term aspirations in the assessment of the Ministry of Defence and they are not immediate?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not want to mislead the Committee in any way. They are not immediate, but long-term depends on your assessment of what you mean by that. I am sure Libya has an aspiration to develop a weapon of mass destruction and, equally, would like to purchase the necessary technology to allow it to deliver it. That conjuncture is something we keep a close eye on.

  Chairman: For the benefit of Committee Members, the MoD's supplementary memorandum of 18 March goes into quite a lot of detail on this and, as it is unclassified, it will be made available when we publish our Report.

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