Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2240 - 2259)



  Q2240  Chairman: I did not think I would be the one to have that put-down, Secretary of State. I walked into that pretty unwittingly!

  Mr Hoon: I apologise. It was not in any way meant to be a put-down. I simply think that the premise of your question depended on the results of an inquiry that is only just beginning, and given the inquiry, I am not sure it would be wise of me to anticipate its results.

  Q2241  Chairman: I thought you used that answer to the earlier questions. Following on from that very successful question—and I think I know the answer but I am still asking it—do you think the war in Iraq has undermined our ability politically to take the sort of pre-emptive actions which the SDR New Chapter identified as likely to be necessary against the threat from international terrorism?

  Mr Hoon: No, I do not believe that it has. We have made clear that in dealing with threats to the people of the United Kingdom, it is necessary to take action against those threats where they arise and not simply wait for them to manifest themselves in the United Kingdom itself. In a sense, operations in Afghanistan were an illustration of that, and the operations there, which continue, have not only destroyed the training camps that were previously available to Al-Qaeda, but they have also disrupted significantly their command and control and their communications. That continues to be operationally necessary, but it is a very good illustration, I think, Chairman, of precisely the point that you were making.

  Chairman: We look forward to seeing what recommendations the Committee of Inquiry makes to minimise the risk of any failures, if failures there were, in intelligence.

  Q2242  Mr Havard: Much of the discussion, obviously, in Westminster village is all about the things that happen in Westminster village, but I am interested in what intelligence and what advice was given to operational commanders on the ground from all of this, presumably expecting to go into a situation of present danger and a threat and all the rest of it on the basis of the intelligence assessment. We know you did not have "Jones the Spy", which is a bit of a problem in Iraq, because you could not grade a lot of the intelligence, but we have heard stories that this is the most photographed country in the world, yet when troops engaged, the maps were wrong, and boys were drawing things on bits of paper and swapping them around. There were serious problems with basic intelligence and information. What I would like to know therefore is what in fact was said to the troops and the operational commanders. Were they expecting the weapons of mass destruction to come via a boy with a bag on his back pretending to be a shepherd rather than it being a ballistic missile? In other words, I would like to know the advice about the asymmetric threat but also the direct military threat. What advice did they get?

  Mr Hoon: Troops were prepared to deal with a number of potential threats in the way in which weapons of mass destruction might have been deployed. I am sure all of us can recall some early television clips of missiles coming into deployed forces in Kuwait and people making the appropriate response by getting into their chemical protection suits. It was a very vivid image at the start of the conflict.

  Q2243  Mr Havard: Is that because they did not know?

  Mr Hoon: It happened on a number of occasions. It was clear that those people had been properly briefed to expect a threat from a weapon of mass destruction, and they took appropriate action. I can recall embedded journalists describing that process as their cameraman took the pictures, and we all saw those pictures on our television screens. It indicates that they were properly prepared for that threat. As the operation developed, there were examples, particularly affecting American coalition forces, of attacks of an asymmetric kind. By then I think we were more in control of the territory from which, say, missiles could have been launched.

  Q2244  Mr Havard: What you are really describing is they did not know so they tried to protect themselves against anything and everything.

  Mr Hoon: That is probably a prudent preparation for any kind of military conflict.

  Q2245  Mr Havard: Is that good enough though?

  Mr Hoon: I do not understand why you say it was not good enough.

  Q2246  Mr Havard: If you are an operational commander on the ground, you would expect you might get a little bit of graded intelligence as to what it is you are facing.

  Mr Hoon: I have indicated, I think, the clearest possible example of what they were prepared to deal with and why they did it.

  Chairman: We are coming on to this again, Secretary of State, on NBC defence.

  Q2247  Mr Havard: My question is actually about embedded officers in the process, and it does follow on, in a sense. What we have learned is we have had embedded officers in Tampa and then in Qatar as part of the planning process, which I think quite clearly was thought to be, in terms of what was described to us as a "bottom up" process, very successful and very helpful, I think, in terms of doing what one of the officers called "We influenced the planning for the better" and I think some of them were afraid of the planning that they saw when they started. They were quite clearly only brought into the planning at certain stages, and I wanted to ask you about the timing of that. We know they were there after 11 September, and they had been there for some time. We are told that they discovered a "no foreigners" planning exercise going on in May 2002, in other words the Americans were excluding everyone, including the Brits, from that process. They were eventually involved in June and July 2002, and they got some authority to then carry on and do some pre-planning. But what they also told us was that what they discovered was that there were two windows for this exercise to happen in, the spring or the autumn. We know the war happened in the spring. You know the suspicion is that the Americans were always going to go in the spring anyway, no matter what the intelligence told them and no matter what the planning was. The question we want to ask is how successful do you think they were in terms of not only the political activities that were involved in the planning but also the operational side of the planning, on matters such as targeting and so on? There are two questions: one is about the military efficiency of these people's involvement and also their political involvement.

  Mr Hoon: First of all, they did a tremendous job, and I think I need to distinguish between the regular liaison that takes place between Britain's armed forces and Centcom, not least after Afghanistan, where we again had British officers working very closely with their American counterparts in preparing operations. That cooperation continued, and involvement in the planning of specific operations, obviously, in relation to Iraq, where again—I do not actually have the exact numbers but wherever I went in visiting forces, in preparing for the operations, British forces were significantly represented, and whenever I have spoken to either military officers or their political leadership in the Pentagon, there has been great praise for the contribution British forces made, but I would not want to be nationalistic about that, and I am sure you were not being. The development of military planning is a process, and I am pleased that British officers were able to contribute significantly to that, but I do not think necessarily they were any better or any worse than their American counterparts. They did an extremely good job together.

  Q2248  Mr Havard: I am critical personally of the question about how they go about picking out targets, and I think the fact that the British were there helped that significantly, because they would have bombed a lot of things that otherwise they did not bomb because there was perhaps more intelligence from our side. It links back to the intelligence process. What I am really interested in is were they influencing that timetable, where they also being incorporated into the process, was this part of a political incorporation process or was it really about military planning for military effect? There is a tension between those two things, and it is quite clear that we are going to have to cooperate with the Americans for a long time in the future. Perhaps you can say something about how you see that moving on from the lessons learned here, how you are safeguarding, in a sense, against the incorporation problem whilst enhancing the real effect that they may have in terms of military planning.

  Mr Hoon: On the question of targeting, this was a completely integrated process. The air campaign was about as integrated between the US and the UK as it could be. Indeed, I can recall occasions on which aircraft were in the sky, receiving their orders to take out particular targets, and it depended entirely on which aircraft were available, whether they were US or UK. That demonstrates the level of integration of targeting. So I would not accept that there was any kind of difference in approach between the US and the UK in the planning or preparation or indeed in the execution of that process. As far as the embedding of officers in military planning is concerned, their job is to produce the best military plan available for coalition forces. As I say, I believe that British forces played a significant part in the planning and did a tremendous job.

  Q2249  Chairman: Is this likely to be permanent, Secretary of State, or just a series of ad hoc arrangements?

  Mr Hoon: I said in answer to the earlier question that there has been regular liaison and exchanges between Centcom, for example, and indeed other American command headquarters, and British forces. I do not think they are ever based on a permanent arrangement as such, but nevertheless, the level of exchange over the years is such that in effect there have always been British officers there, to the best of my knowledge, certainly in my time in this job.

  Q2250  Rachel Squire: First Reflections and your Lessons for the Future report highlighted the competing pressures of diplomatic negotiations and military preparations. It is clear that in seeking to avoid undermining the diplomatic phase of the crisis over Iraq, some decisions in respect of military preparations were delayed. Would you consider that it is inevitable that where military operations are just one part of the spectrum of diplomatic and political activity, the need to keep the political processes on track for as long as possible will act as a constraint on military preparations?

  Mr Hoon: It could. I do not believe that it did as far as this particular operation is concerned. Inevitably it is my job to ensure on behalf of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence that there is a consistent approach both to a diplomatic effort as well as to a military effort, and I believe that that consistent approach was carried through.

  Q2251  Rachel Squire: You say that you do not believe it did in relation to Operation Telic. Are you really confident that there was no effect of the political diplomatic process on the holding of stocks of military supplies or in being able, for instance, to place orders early enough for matters for urgent operational requirements so as to allow their delivery to be just in time rather than just too late?

  Mr Hoon: That is a perfectly proper question, which I will try and deal with. As far as stockholding is concerned, a judgment was made—the Committee has, I think, discussed this in the past—about the appropriate level of equipment in store immediately available for a rapid reaction in terms of an international crisis. A judgment was made that that should be sufficient to equip the rapid reaction force at around 9,000. Thereafter the judgment was made that urgent operational requirements and the process of supplying those extra pieces of equipment would require sufficient time in order to be able to put a larger force into the field. That judgment, as I indicated in my introductory remarks, perhaps required some updating in the light of the kind of operation that we have just carried out in Iraq, which is why I have decided that there shall be larger stocks immediately available. That is in the light of the lessons that we have learned from this operation. As the NAO, I think, makes clear in its conclusions, there is always a balance to be struck between having equipment available immediately, given the cost of that, as against the process that we went through in relation to making sure that our troops were sufficiently equipped to conduct military operations in Iraq. It is a balance. It is a judgment. I judged that the previous level was not sufficient, but it could be the case—and I well recall this when I was first appointed—that we end up not using stock because it becomes time-expired and the money is thereby wasted. One of my early jobs was to close down various warehouses full of spare parts for equipment that had gone out of service and that had never been used. I have a responsibility not only to the taxpayer but also to the armed forces to make sure that we spend scarce resources as effectively as possible, and destroying stock that has never been used because it is no longer relevant is not something that I think is necessarily the best use of those scarce resources, either from the point of view of the taxpayer or, crucially, from the point of view of the armed forces, because I could have spent that money on something more useful as far as they were concerned. It is a judgment; it is a balance. We have got to get that judgment and balance right. My view is that we did what was necessary in Iraq, but perhaps learning the lessons that we hold larger stocks for the future than we did at the time. Those judgments evolve in the light of experience.

  Q2252  Rachel Squire: Can I then ask you whether, in terms of learning those lessons, there was any consideration of whether international political processes could impact on the urgent delivery of supplies and equipment that had actually been manufactured outside the UK.

  Mr Hoon: I do not think we had a particular problem on this occasion, but there will be plenty of people in this room that can recall the difficulties that we had on previous occasions in securing ammunition from particular countries. I had probably better not name those countries, to be diplomatic, but I think everyone knows what I am talking about. Obviously, the reliability of supplies is crucial, and that is again something that has to be taken into account as part of this process.

  Q2253  Chairman: We are just trying to remember. Switzerland and Belgium. Apologies to any Belgians and Swiss.

  Mr Hoon: So much for diplomacy, Chairman!

  Chairman: I was never skilled in that, Secretary of State.

  Q2254  Mr Blunt: Secretary of State, before following up on issues about equipment, can I just say that I spent two and a half years as a special advisor to one of your predecessors, and I have a vivid memory of reading a cutting from the Sun in Warsaw about a story about a Wren who had gone AWOL and was causing some concern, Wrens having just been introduced to the ships. It would be extraordinary, given the sensitivity to the press of the administration that you represent that your cuttings service is not being sent out to your private office on a daily basis when you are overseas. Not now, but could you please investigate and confirm that your private office received the cuttings service in question on those dates that you were away in Warsaw and Ukraine?

  Mr Hoon: I will certainly investigate that.

  Q2255  Mr Blunt: Let me begin with something that I hope we all agree on. I want to declare my interest as the son and grandson of two senior military logisticians, who I think would have taken huge pleasure from the unprecedented achievement in modern military logistics, which you described in your opening statement as heroic, in getting the equipment out to the Gulf for Gulf War II. Would they be right to take huge pride in that achievement, if they were still alive, and would they also be right in saying that the scale of their achievements—including all the civilian agencies involved—exceeded everyone's reasonable expectations?

  Mr Hoon: I am grateful for that observation, because it is my view that the logisticians have not always been accorded the praise that I think they rightly deserve. They tend to be people who are rather taken for granted in the process, and I must say I was particularly impressed when I went to exercise Saif Sareea.

  Q2256  Mr Blunt: I fear we do not have very long, so "yes" will do.

  Mr Hoon: It is important that I answer the question. I recall going there towards the end of the exercise and at that stage there was the process beginning of getting the equipment and people back to the United Kingdom, and I must say that was a remarkable effort and, as you have properly said, this was something which was duplicated in our operations in Iraq this time.

  Q2257  Mr Blunt: Therefore, Secretary of State, it is correct that the failures of supply that have been identified by the NAO are actually rather more to do with the strategic issue of the timetable to which the logisticians were working than any lower order issues such as efficiency in the supply chain about asset tracking that you are talking about. You have talked about the sheer volume of matériel that the logistic chain is having to deal with in a very short space of time. You, as Defence Secretary, were responsible for the timetable. Is that correct?

  Mr Hoon: Yes, but if the implication of that is that there should have been more time, then I am sure your father and grandfather would have recognised as the logisticians that they were that the time is the time that you have available, and the job of a logistician is to ensure that the equipment is moved from, in this case, mostly the United Kingdom to theatre in the time that is available. That is the job they did, and that is why they did it so heroically.

  Q2258  Mr Blunt: The point is, Secretary of State, that you were responsible for the timetable by the political decision that you took as Secretary of State for Defence for when preparations could begin. Could you turn to the chronology in your First Reflections document on page 73, the second booklet: Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future. As far as you are aware, the chronology is accurate?

  Mr Hoon: Yes.

  Q2259  Mr Blunt: There are no dates in this chronology that the MoD appears to regard as significant between 17 December 1999 and 12 September 2002.

  Mr Hoon: I am sorry. That is a completely open-ended question. I would be much happier if you were rather more precise as to what you mean by that.

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