Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-199)



  180. That is the next one.
  (Mr Hoon) There is no doubt that in terms of conventional deterrence theory, there have been those who have expressed concerns that an effective missile defence shield would lead to, for example, China in particular increasing its defence expenditure and in trying to find ways of defeating any such shield. I think that is a debate we might properly have. As far as Russia is concerned, Russia of course does have missile defence and has spent some considerable time providing the technology to defend Moscow against incoming missiles, although presumably the attitude in Russia for such an approach would be different.

  181. So the question was do you think that Russia would see the new plans as a threat to their defences that they already have?
  (Mr Hoon) I think there is a very significant change in Russia and there are real issues as to the extent to which Russia poses a continuing threat of the kind you describe to NATO, to the United States and to the United Kingdom. That is not to say that we do not remain vigilant about any threats to our territory and our security, but I think undoubtedly we would have to say that there are significant changes that have taken place and are continuing in Russia which mean that we can look in a much more confident way to the future.
  (Mr Hawtin) May I just add a quote from President Putin in an interview to the Financial Times last December when he said, "Even if Russia goes down to a level of 2,000 weapons from a level which is much higher, it is unimaginable, totally unrealistic to think that such a number of missiles could be intercepted". I think that is a clear answer to your question.
  (Mr Hoon) And I think those who debate deterrence theory also have to look at the way in which the United States in particular has promoted a proposal to significantly reduce its own offensive missile systems as part of their greater confidence that missile defence would bring in terms of reducing threats as between in particular the United States and Russia, and that is also something that Russia has welcomed, so I think that is where the debate about the deterrence theory needs to go. It is not simply about saying, "Is any particular country going to increase its military expenditure in order to defeat missile defence?", but it is, equally, about ensuring that we look at this in the round and many people have looked for very many years at finding ways in which to reduce the stockpiles of those offensive systems and this actually looks likely to deliver that.

  182. Lastly, do you have any position of policy in relation to the X-band capability edge, bringing a missile defence template nearer the Star Wars scenario that we have heard of in the past?
  (Mr Hoon) I think it is important, as I have always sought to do, to distinguish missile defence, the current policy of the current Administration of the United States and indeed the previous Administration, from what was called Star Wars under President Reagan and the idea of being able to deal with a large number of incoming missiles simultaneously is not one which currently underlies the policy of the United States Administration.

Mr Crausby

  183. Mr Hawtin told us last month that we are being very closely informed by the Americans of what is going on, that we have very close links and contacts with them. Can you tell us anything about what discussions you are having with the US over system architecture options?
  (Mr Hoon) We are obviously aware of the various options that are being considered in the United States and we obviously do look at those options in terms of what might be our role and what might be the way in which American thinking is developing.

  184. So to what extent might we have an influence on those options and effectively on what infrastructure would be required within the UK as a result of those options?
  (Mr Hoon) Clearly as far as those options directly affect the United Kingdom, we have an interest, but I think, as I indicated in my opening statement, one of the most interesting developments with the new Administration was a clear statement by the President of his wish to see not only the United States, but also close allies protected with any such system and, therefore, that has obviously stimulated a further debate, particularly amongst European allies.

  185. Your officials also told us last month that you have already given permission for building the infrastructure needed for Menwith Hill to manage the space-based infra-red radar satellites. Now, I accept that these are the early-warning systems, but they clearly also play a vital role in a future missile defence system. When that time comes, will there be anything else for the Americans to do or will they just simply plug Menwith Hill into the missile defence system and thereby sort of approach this system by stealth?
  (Mr Hoon) It is an interesting approach to try and tie in two discrete issues, at least discrete for the moment. The project at Menwith Hill is a vitally important project, but it is being dealt with entirely separately from missile defence. It is a project which will go forward whether or not the United States decides ultimately to make a request to the United Kingdom in relation to its proposals for missile defence and it would go ahead whether or not missile defence ever actually occurs.

  186. Are there any aspects of research that have been done by the US that would present difficulties for UK policy? For example, would we object to putting weapons into space?
  (Mr Hoon) Again, there is a range of speculative suggestions as to what might constitute a missile defence system, and the use of space has been looked at, I know, as part of the range of options being developed. I think it is something that we would have to consider when and if there is some more specific proposal.
  (Mr Hawtin) On space, as the Secretary of State said, the missile defence proposals are fundamentally different from President Reagan's Star Wars and do not involve the use of space based weapons. As far as the UK is concerned, we are a depository state of the Outer Space Treaty which places limitations on the military use of space and, indeed, prohibits the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space. There is no suggestion that we are aware of that the Americans wish to proceed down any other road.

  187. Have the Americans given any undertakings that in the event of them wanting to proceed down that road they would seek international consent?
  (Mr Hoon) Which particular road are you envisaging?

  188. Space. It is quite a fundamental issue.
  (Mr Hoon) As Brian has just said, there is not any suggestion that they intend to breach the Treaty by placing weapons of mass destruction in space.

Mr Howarth

  189. Secretary of State, can we move on to the broader issue—or should I say the narrower issue—of local area missile defence options for the UK and Europe. If we start with Fylingdales and Menwith Hill, in the event that we were to be approached to upgrade those facilities and we agreed so to do, do you think that that might increase the vulnerability of the United Kingdom to attack, specifically because those key facilities had been upgraded? Would you have any plans for the protection of those facilities?
  (Mr Hoon) We have a range of facilities in the United Kingdom that are used by the United States and other allies as part of our commitment to NATO and our commitment to the international community. I do not see that any particular facility or its particular use is going to put us at any greater risk, particularly from states of concern who, if they were capable of launching a missile against the United Kingdom from whatever distance, I would have thought—especially given the events of 11 September—would be interested in as much the public effect rather than any specific military effect.

  Mr Howarth: I agree with you.

  Chairman: I am sorry, could you repeat that phrase?

Mr Howarth

  190. I agree with the Secretary of State very strongly, Chairman, over that. I think he is absolutely right.
  (Mr Hoon) Now I should start to worry.

  191. Good, that is excellent. I am pleased to hear that. If we move to the specific defence of the UK more generally and not individual targets, can I quote something that Mr Helliwell told us a month ago, he being the Assistant Director of Nuclear Policy for Missile Defence? In looking at the issue of the United States' offer of an extension of their system to protect friends and allies, he told us: "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 keen to promote that. . . there are a number of niche areas where we might be able to contribute and our aim is to do so." What is your assessment of the possibility of this US system providing a defence to the UK homeland? Can you amplify what Mr Helliwell told us last month about the dialogue that you are getting into with the United States and your keenness to promote the United Kingdom contribution?
  (Mr Hoon) I am delighted at your enthusiasm, but you use the phrase "this US system", and unless and until there is "a US system" we will not be in a position to be clear about how that is going to work, how it is working to affect the United Kingdom or European allies and, therefore, what kind of contribution we might be able to make, if that was judged at the time to be appropriate. Certainly, I think a great deal of thinking has gone on, and a great deal of discussion has gone on already, about the way in which any system might protect Europe, including within that the United Kingdom.

  192. You are keen, on the one hand, to tell us that dialogue is going on and that you are keen to talk to them, but, on the other hand, it is almost as though you are standing back with your arms folded and saying "Well, the United States has not defined its technology yet. We are just actually going to stand here on the shores of the Atlantic, look across the ocean and see what eventually they come up with." It seems to me that there is no kind of linkage between this dialogue that you are keen to try to portray us being involved in with the United States, yet there is a kind of complete passivity towards this huge debate that is going on in the United States on the technology. We do have some pretty capable technology people in this country, we have a £4 million programme but they have got a $7.8 billion programme. What are we doing?
  (Mr Hoon) I think you have rather answered your own question in the statistics that you have just set out. In fact, I was going to quote similar figures to you. Obviously, there is a discussion in the United States; we have excellent contacts between the Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon and we have a number of people who can certainly contribute to the development of US thinking. However, I think we have to be realistic; the United States has spent in the order of $50 billion already on this project, as you say, and they are spending almost $8 billion a year, and they are attempting to resolve an enormously challenging technological problem. We have a much more modest programme, we are able to fund and support that but, realistically, we are not going to be able to tell the United States how it should spend its $8 billion budget or, indeed, how it should spend its $50 billion.

  193. If the United States came up—or when the United States comes up—with a system (which it is going to do), in principle is the United Kingdom, the British Government, keen to accept the United States' offer of that system being used to protect the people of this country, on the assumption that the system the United States produces is capable of doing that? Is there any reason, in principle, why the United Kingdom would not accept such an offer?
  (Mr Hoon) No.

  Mr Howarth: Excellent. Going back to what your official said last month, we did press—and if I may say the Chairman was particularly forceful with one of your officials—as to how much it might cost for Britain, as it were, to go it alone. The rough figure we were given was £5 to £10 billion for a UK missile defence system riding on the back of a US programme. Has your—


  194. It was an immensely speculative figure, and I am sure the gentleman is here to defend himself.
  (Mr Hoon) I would not want Mr Howarth to mislead anyone that there was anything like as precise a figure as that. Clearly, the relevant figure, actually, Mr Chairman, is the figure that the United States has so far spent and the figure that it is continuing to spend, because that is the size of the technological challenge that they are seeking to address.

Mr Howarth

  195. Let me tell you what Mr Roper told us a month ago. He said: "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." Nobody is trying to hold Mr Roper to account for that figure precisely, but it was helpful in giving some kind of ballpark figure. If there is this thinking going on and—going back to my earlier question—if the United Kingdom were prepared to accept an offer from the United States to extend their system to us, are you in discussion with the Treasury about the implications of that?
  (Mr Hoon) Again, I think it is remarkable that you are building your question about funding a system that has not yet been decided on by the United States and, therefore, by definition, has not yet been decided on by the United Kingdom, not least because (and I do want to say this to you quite seriously) if today the United Kingdom wanted to develop a stand-alone system it would have to spend in the order of the kind of money that the United States is spending. No one has solved this technological challenge as yet. The Americans have clearly gone a long way towards understanding what might be necessary, but they would be the first to concede that they have not resolved all of the questions. Therefore, until we know the final bill for the solution that the United States achieves, it is difficult to even begin to say what our costs at that stage might be. For example—and I am treating the question perfectly properly and seriously—the question might arise as to what contribution the United States would require allies to make to that enormous research cost, or whether the United States instead would simply look at the cost of providing, if you like, the hardware that would make the system work. That is, writing off the costs of research and development. Those discussions have not even begun to take place.

  196. Can I put it to you, Secretary of State, that any responsible government and any responsible Ministry of Defence, recognising that there is a threat out there, even though there is no evidence of any intention immediately to exercise that threat, ought to be looking at making some kind of contingency provision for the future? I accept all your arguments about the United States hoping to find the technology; nevertheless, you know there is a threat, you cannot quantify exactly when that threat might crystallise, but surely there ought to be some longer-term thinking.
  (Mr Hoon) I have already indicated there is a great deal of thinking going on, there are significant discussions taking place but no policy decisions have been taken. All I invite you to do is just consider carefully what I have just said to the Committee, which is that unless and until we know the final size of the bill faced by the United States, the likely contribution that allies might have to make towards the research and development involved in any such system, all this is pure speculation, and trying to put aside a contingency—which I think is what you suggested—for such a speculative decision is absurd, frankly. I am sorry to be so blunt.

  197. That is somewhat intemperate of you, Minister, if I may suggest, because the department, as you know, has long-term costings on major items of expenditure. Given the fact that you told us and we all accept that there is a real risk out there, I am surprised that no discussions have been engaged in with the Treasury on that point.
  (Mr Hoon) Can I just say this, Chairman, that the department certainly has long-term costings but that is precisely what I am objecting to about your question; no one knows what the cost might be. Therefore, no responsible department and no responsible government can put aside an unknown contingency for an unknown policy decision.

  198. But we know that there is a technical threat out there. What we do not know is whether any of those rogue stages which we have identified as being a threat is going to turn its aspirations into action. The moment they do that we will then be faced with the need to defend our people.
  (Mr Hoon) If I have understood precisely what you are suggesting the Government should do, it is to put aside an unknown amount of money to support a system that has not yet been decided on and not yet been perfected for, presumably, the indefinite future until such date as a real threat emerges.

  199. No, I was asking you if you had had discussions with the Treasury to consider these issues. You have said you have not because you only cost long-term projects which are actually on the books, if you like.
  (Mr Hoon) All I can say is that I assure you that, on the basis of such a series of speculations, going to the Treasury for such a provision would be something that I would find difficult.

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