Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)



  200. In this document there are quite a few references to NATO's role in dealing with this threat; for example, in terms of capabilities your department says that "Foreign and Defence Ministers agreed at their 2002 spring meetings that a follow-on to DCI should be launched at Prague. Defence Ministers envisaged that it should seek specific improvements in the areas of: defence against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks". Does that extend to rogue states or is this simply a NATO role in dealing with small groups of ad hoc terrorists?
  (Mr Hoon) It applies to dealing with the threat from wherever it arises.

  201. In that case, do you envisage a role for NATO? Should we read in this document an enhanced commitment to working with the United States in the development of missile defence? You have come to this committee before and to the House, and every time you have been asked, "What is the United Kingdom doing to support the United States in that programme of missile defence?" You have always said, "We have received no requests from the United States", and that the United Kingdom has a very small role in this matter. Unless you specifically reject this, it seems to me that this document indicates an intention that NATO should do more , but we see no evidence that it will do more to deter rogue states.
  (Mr Hoon) You are trying hard to work the phrase "missile defence" into what you have said. As you will be aware, there is a range of means of defending against weapons of mass destruction. It is vitally important that NATO looks at those means of developing those defensive techniques. Missile defence is one of them which the United States is pursuing vigorously.

  202. What is NATO doing?
  (Mr Hoon) That is not to say that that helps you at all in the direction in which we want to go. I repeat that the United States has made no request of the United Kingdom for specific assistance in developing its specific missile defence capability.

  203. This document was delivered to the committee. What is meant by the phrase, "Defence Ministers envisaged that it should seek specific improvements in the areas of defence against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks"? If we are not talking about dealing with rogue states, and you are not going to identify individual states, what does that mean? Can you tell us what specific improvements you are intending to try to secure at Prague?
  (Mr Hoon) Again, you are inviting me to answer a question on which NATO has yet to start work. That is perhaps overstating the case a little, because obviously already we seek to develop defences against weapons of mass destruction, but there is a range of potential options available to us and that is why specifically we are looking to agreement at Prague for furthering that effort.

  204. We are trying to get specific answers, Secretary of State.
  (Mr Hoon) If you are patient and wait for the outcome of Prague, I may be in a better position to give you those answers.

  205. You say that, "The UK Government believes that the Prague Summit must build for the future by: Making the Alliance more effective against the new threats of terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction". What proposals will you put to our NATO Allies in Prague to achieve that outcome?
  (Mr Hoon) I am sorry. I am going to put those proposals to our NATO allies so I am not going to announce them today.

  206. Why cannot the House of Commons be told?
  (Mr Hoon) Because those proposals are not yet there.

  Chairman: I think we shall move on.

Mr Howarth

  207. I think we are entitled to know.
  (Mr Hoon) Let me make it clear, Mr Chairman. I am sorry that Mr Howarth chooses to make his comments in the way that he does. The Ministry of Defence will certainly inform the House of Commons, at the appropriate stage, but it is not appropriate, nor has it been appropriate for any government, for those kinds of suggestions to be made long before they have been prepared and submitted to our Allies. It would be totally inappropriate. If Mr Howarth gives half a second of thought to the matter, I am sure that he will agree with that.

  Chairman: Let us move on. We have half an hour left.

Mr Howarth

  208. I think this is a matter of concern. I turn to a suggestion that has been put to us that there is discussion in Washington on the development of the European strike force within NATO that will operate alongside US forces in high intensity warfare operations. Would you welcome that development?
  (Mr Hoon) There are certainly some emerging ideas. They have to be set out in detail. They are ideas of improving not only Europe's ability, but NATO's ability to deploy collectively a strike force more quickly than is the case at present and we strongly support that. That has been the thrust of defence reform in the United Kingdom since the Strategic Defence Review in July 1998. It is the thrust of the work that we have commissioned in the Ministry of Defence since 11 September. We shall be reporting to Parliament in due course. It is about NATO being able to respond effectively and quickly to the kinds of threats that exist in the world. We strongly support that and we strongly support the Alliance developing those sorts of capabilities.

  209. At the risk of sounding impertinent, how do you see that European strike force being composed?
  (Mr Hoon) Perhaps you did not listen to my answer. It is important that NATO develops those capabilities and those capabilities are wholly consistent with the kinds of reforms that the United Kingdom and indeed other NATO nations have been engaging in since the end of the Cold War. Some of those reforms have gone more quickly in some countries than elsewhere, but clearly our ambition is to ensure that each nation reforms in that direction. Everyone agrees that rapidly deployable forces are where we need to go in a military sense. I hope that what I have said to the committee today about the kinds of reforms that we want NATO to engage in are wholly consistent with that. It is about being able to deliver military force quickly to wherever it is needed.

  210. You are in favour of these discussions continuing?
  (Mr Hoon) Strongly in favour.

  211. And in favour of the development of a European strike force.
  (Mr Hoon) Can I try again? I have said that I am in favour of NATO developing those capabilities.

Rachel Squire

  212. I want to carry on with a few more questions about capabilities. You have said that reforms have been taking place at times somewhat slowly since the end of the Cold War among NATO allies.
  (Mr Hoon) I said that it was less quick than in some countries.

  213. Indeed. I gathered that discussion about the gap between the defence capabilities provided by the European members of NATO and the United States is a discussion that has been taking place since the 1950s, so it is not exactly a brand new concern. Clearly, in recent years we have all spent a lot of time talking about the need for European allies within NATO to provide more. We have had the Defence Capabilities Initiative and we have now the European Security and Defence Initiative and the European Security and Defence Policy. Recently, the NATO defence ministers had a meeting in Brussels to talk about the progress and how to move it on further, as did the North Atlantic Council. I am interested in what makes you confident that the willingness and determination is there to deliver an improved European defence capability within NATO, especially as I confess that when I have spoken to some of my parliamentary colleagues from other European nations about this issue, I have at times reached the point of politely or less politely saying that it is time to talk less and do more. Why are you convinced that there really is the determination this time to deliver?
  (Mr Hoon) That is a fair question. Implicit in your question is the suggestion that somehow these initiatives have failed. I would not accept that. The Helsinki Headline Goal Catalogue process, for example, is already delivering improved capabilities and I am confident that it will continue to do so. The Defence Capabilities Initiative of NATO has had some significant successes, but while I recognise what I say, more still has to be done. We either reinvigorate the existing process or we more narrowly focus our targets for the future. There are successes and capabilities in Europe that have improved, but it is a moving target and we have to maintain the pressure. That is why we strongly support the emphasis on capabilities. As I indicated earlier, it is Europe that has to improve.

  214. Are you aware that one of the areas of discussion has been that NATO allies should look at greater role specialisation and pooling arrangements. What is the United Kingdom Government's view of that? Also what are your own views as to the future direction?
  (Mr Hoon) There are a number of aspects to it. I gave the example earlier of perhaps a smaller country, historically keen to provide, say, an infantry battalion that generally speaking is readily available from any number of other countries. That is a practical problem that I had to deal with during the vacation last Christmas when we were preparing for ISAF to go to Afghanistan. Any number of infantry battalions were available, but not so readily available were some of the specialist functions that we required. Therefore, we can discuss with aspirant nations—it applies equally to established members of NATO—the development of niche capabilities, particularly where those capabilities are in short supply, even among the largest military nations. Even the United States will recognise that there are areas of its military capability where it would like to have more capability. If an ally is capable of supplying a particular capability at short notice that can be rapidly deployed and sustained, that will be welcomed as a contribution to a military deployment. In that sense it will give a smaller country an edge, a capability that will allow it to sit at the table, as I said earlier. At the other end of the spectrum—there is a whole range in-between - there are those high-technology capabilities that are increasingly expensive and require research and development in the first place that a number of countries working together may seek to develop, whereas individually they would not be capable of doing so financially. Therefore, that is a way in which countries may want to pool their resources, as we are doing already with strategic airlift, in order to make available a capability that was not otherwise readily available to them. Between those two extremes is a whole range of different kinds of co-operations that are happening already and that I envisage will happen more in the future.

  215. Clearly, you are saying that there is widespread recognition that in today's modern world, with the type of threats that we now face, it is unrealistic to think that any individual nation can provide absolutely everything.
  (Mr Hoon) That is absolutely right. If you asked that question of the United States, I believe that they would be the first to recognise that the United States has an enormous range of military capabilities and is committed to operations right around the world, but undoubtedly it welcomed, and continues to welcome, the contribution that Allies can make in Afghanistan, with the particular requirements of that deployment and elsewhere. It follows what we have been discussing all morning, that in an increasingly uncertain world, the chances are that you will not make just one deployment and may have to face simultaneous deployments of forces in different parts of the world, as we do at the present time. In those circumstances, what is initially a scarce supply will come under real pressure. The more countries that can develop some of those important niche capabilities the better things will be.

  216. The last point brings us back to the harsh reality of defence spending. There is the matter of agreement among the European NATO Allies that more needs to be spent on providing defence capabilities. The point has been made that it is not only how much is spent, but how the money is spent. Could you comment on that and the extent to which your discussions with fellow European NATO allies has focused on the level of expenditure and on the way in which the money is used?
  (Mr Hoon) I strongly agree with that. Ideally, we would like to see countries spend more, but equally we would like to see them spend better. That means looking at lists of capabilities, at what we need to develop and agreeing how that should be done. Some time ago my Dutch counterpart said publicly that in his view future Dutch defence spending would address the shortfalls identified in the Helsinki Headline Goal Catalogue. That would be his priority. Obviously, we have to maintain the pressure in terms of encouraging other countries to spend more on defence and we must encourage them to spend it more effectively.

  217. I am prompted to ask you whether you want to make any comment on Britain's defence expenditure.
  (Mr Hoon) Britain has been increasing its defence expenditure in recent years, after a long period in which defence expenditure was seriously reduced. I hope to see that trend continue.

  Chairman: That is a statement! We had some good preparation for your session as we went to Russia last week.

Syd Rapson

  218. The Bush administration increased its defence budget by $48 billion in the wake of 11 September and we understand the support that that received. That is one-and-a-half times our budget. They said that most of it would be used on research and development in the high-technology field. Some of the explanations are simple. They said that they would throw money at developments and if it does not work they will try again. That is a very nice position to be in. A lot of the capability is in the hands of the private sector. It seems that with all that money forced into the American chosen private sector of defence manufacturers that their capability will get better and better and we in Europe will not receive the benefit. Is there a real danger that in the end we shall have to buy off the shelf the Americans' chosen systems to maintain the capability, so undermining European-based manufacturers and severely undermining European industrial policy? That is my worry. We cannot keep up as a European or a British nation and we shall have to buy off the shelf because the Americans will own their equipment in communications, sensor to shooter technology and unmanned vehicles. It will be a real worry for us and will undermine our industrial policy.
  (Mr Hoon) I think you have set out clearly the dilemma that has faced governments over a long period of time. I am just about old enough to remember the debate about the TSR2. I am not sure that at the time I knew what the TSR2 was, but I remember that being debated as you have set out: whether we should invest significant sums of money on developing capability for ourselves or whether we should buy American aircraft off the shelf. That is still an issue today and it will continue to be an issue. We have to make judgements. If all the research and development produced equipment that worked first time and on time, it would be much easier to deal with. As you fairly set out, research and development does not always produce results on time, and sometimes research and development will undoubtedly fail and cost the taxpayers a great deal of money. I suspect that this committee will be among the first to criticise any government that spends large amounts of taxpayers' money and fails to produce capabilities. It is always tempting to buy proven equipment off the shelf. Given the sophistication of Britain's equipment and armed forces, the likelihood is that most of that equipment bought off the shelf will come from the United States. They are devoting the necessary research and development to providing those capabilities and they are prepared to accept the cost of failure. That remains a dilemma for the United Kingdom. We shall continue to make our judgments as we think appropriate. There will be times when we develop equipment ourselves. The A400M developed in conjunction with our allies and the Meteor missile for the Eurofighter are examples where we are engaging in some leading-edge technology along with our European partners. Equally, there will be other cases where we judge that it is appropriate to buy off the shelf generally because of the pressing need to have the equipment in service in order to participate in appropriate deployment. There is no easy answer to your question. The only comfort I can draw is that it has affected every defence minister in our history. I suspect that at one stage blunderbusses were probably cheaper on the Continent than they were to manufacture in the United Kingdom.

  219. Let us hope that the Treasury reads the minutes of this meeting.
  (Mr Hoon) I am sure that you could use your influence in that direction just as much as I can.


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 31 July 2002