Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-238)
RT HON GEOFFREY HOON MP AND MR BRIAN HAWTIN CB
WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002
(Mr Hoon) There has been no specific discussion but there is no specific threat.
221. Can I ask you about passive protection against weapons of mass destruction on deployed troops? The inaccuracy of the current generation of rogue-state missiles is not much comfort if they become armed with weapons of mass destruction. Are you satisfied that "passive" defence measures will be sufficient on their own to protect our forces?
(Mr Hoon) Yes.
222. Have there been any upgrades in that inaccurate use in recent times (?)?
(Mr Hoon) We are constantly looking at the kinds of threats. I assume that specifically you are referring not to missile-delivered threats but the use, for example, of chemical or biological weapons. That is something that a great deal of work has gone into in terms of protecting UK forces in the field, but it is an enormously difficult issue, not least because of the limitations it places on individual soldiers and their ability to do their job. We have the equipment, it is constantly trained and exercised, it is something that we have as a very high priority in terms of deploying those forces in particular theatres, as was the case, obviously, during the Gulf War.
(Mr Hawtin) We have a whole range of individual and collective protection measures as well as detection monitors which we are improving and we have a research programme. I think I gave the Committee details of that when we last gave evidence.
223. If I can just carry that on, do you not even consider that there is a possible threat from Iraq of short-range missiles armed with nuclear or, more likely, biological and chemical warheads, frankly?
(Mr Hoon) We all know that there is a threat of a short-range missile from Iraq because, in the past, they have launched such missiles.
224. So our troops have no active defence. For instance, the threat was considered—
(Mr Hoon) When you talk about a threat, are you talking about a threat in Afghanistan?
225. I am talking about in the Middle East. I was about to say, during the Gulf War our troops in Cyprus received a medal for being under such a threat. Yet we still have no active means of defending against such a threat.
(Mr Hoon) It depends what you mean by "active". We have a range of means of dealing with that threat and I assure you that they are extraordinarily active.
226. We have no means of interdicting a missile that is fired at our troops.
(Mr Hoon) We do not have a missile defence system to deal with such a threat, if that is what you mean, but there are other means of dealing with that kind of threat.
227. Such as?
(Mr Hoon) There would be a range of military actions that could be taken in order to render that threat not as effective as those responsible for it might think.
228. I follow the logic of what you are saying without putting too fine a point on it. European nations consider the threat to their deployed troops as sufficient to go ahead and certainly look at buying these sorts of weapons, or indeed have bought them. Should we not be doing that?
(Mr Hoon) Which countries are you—
229. I am talking about Germany and Italy and the PAC system they are looking at.
(Mr Hoon) Obviously those are issues that we regularly consider in terms of the nature of the threat to our deployed forces. Since we are not currently engaged in military operations involving Iraq I think it is a little premature to think about developing such a system or purchasing such a system.
230. Should we become involved in operations against Iraq, will we have time to acquire such systems?
(Mr Hoon) I think it would depend. In the event of us one day becoming involved in military action against Iraq that involved ground forces, it is obviously something that we would have to consider, but our assumption has always been that if there were any such operations (and I am not concentrating on Iraq for the moment) they would be conducted by an international coalition and, therefore, we would contribute to that coalition our particular specialist capability and, in return, we would expect the protection of those kinds of systems. That is precisely what is happening in Afghanistan today.
231. We are content to shelter under somebody else's umbrella?
(Mr Hoon) You put that in a rather pejorative way.
232. It is not intended to be at all.
(Mr Hoon) We are a good ally. We bring to the alliance various kinds of highly skilled, highly capable military forces that have a range of equipment that is often in short supply elsewhere—as, again, operations in and around Iraq—I am sorry, in and around Afghanistan—have recently demonstrated. That was a slip, was it not?
233. I will not exploit it.
(Mr Hoon) The point being that if you look at the kind of contribution we were able to make—air-to-air refuelling, for example, and some of the search and reconnaissance equipment that we made available—even the United States was delighted to receive that kind of practical contribution. That is increasingly the way in which the alliance will develop, because no country is going to have a full A-Z capability to deal with every possible contingency that might arise.
234. Just a quick one in the last couple of minutes. Traditionally, we have had our nuclear deterrent and we have regarded that as an effective way of deterring others from sending ballistic weapons towards us. From a UK standpoint, to what extent does maintaining that nuclear deterrent mitigate the need for a missile defence system?
(Mr Hoon) In terms of deterrence, clearly, our nuclear capability deters those who might threaten the United Kingdom with a weapon of mass destruction. I think we would have to have a rather longer discussion about whether that, for example, might work in relation to a failed state or a country like Iraq that, for example, places the lives of its own citizens at little value and might be prepared to contemplate taking on a nuclear power like the United Kingdom and accept the consequences. I think in terms of deterrence there is clearly an effect that our nuclear weapons have, but the reason and justification for the argument about states of concern is that some of those states would not be deterred in the way in which conventional deterrence theory assumes.
235. Do you think that states such as, let us say, Iraq—which seems to be on our lips.
(Mr Hoon) On yours, anyway.
236. It seemed to stumble across yours. Do you think such a state would be deterred by our deterrent from using weapons of mass destruction against our forces in the field?
(Mr Hoon) I think, again, the same argument arises, that there are clearly some states who would be deterred by the fact that the United Kingdom possesses nuclear weapons and has the willingness and ability to use them in appropriate circumstances. States of concern, I would be much less confident about, and Saddam Hussain has demonstrated in the past his willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people. In those kinds of states the wishes, needs and interests of citizens are clearly much less regarded and we cannot rule out the possibility that such states would be willing to sacrifice their own people in order to make that kind of gesture.
237. Is it a confidence about whether or not they believe you would use them or confidence about whether or not they would care about whether you use them?
(Mr Hoon) They can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons. What I cannot be absolutely confident about is whether that would be sufficient to deter them from using a weapon of mass destruction in the first place.
238. Thank you very much. I cannot say the sum total of human knowledge has increased significantly, Mr Hoon. You "out-Boycotted" Boycott, and all I can say is that if you were playing for Derby County this season in goal then Derby would be up with Manchester United and going into Europe, because you did not concede many goals. However, we will ask you exactly the same questions again in due course, when we will expect totally, totally different answers. So thank you very much for coming.
(Mr Hoon) Thank you very much indeed.