BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.02.02

Interview: GEOFF HOON, Secretary of State for Defence.

Describes the new context created by the events of September 11th in which The Strategic Defence Review will be changed.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first defence. The one thing on which all politicians agreed in those dark days following September 11th, was that things would never be quite the same again. All the old assumptions about National Defence would have to be re-examined. How could we defend ourselves against this new kind of threat? What extra demands would be made on our armed forces and on the taxpayers who'll have to pay for them? Well, this week the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, will produce a discussion document that will lead to a new chapter in the Strategic Defence Review; that was published three years ago and was supposed to take us through to 2015. Mr Hoon is in our Nottingham studio. Good afternoon, Mr Hoon. GEOFF HOON: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: The SDR, Strategic Defence Review, concedes it says, at the time it was written, that there's no direct military threat to the home land, but of course that's changed as a result of what happened on September 11th. So, we are going to have to reinforce our home land defences aren't we. HOON: Certainly, that's one of the issues that we will set out in this discussion document and I will set out to Parliament when we debate this document on Thursday. It is very important that we look at the implications of those appalling events in the United States as far as our own domestic security is concerned. HUMPHRYS: What kind of things are we going to have to do that we are not doing now? HOON: I don't believe that anyone should be concerned that we are not setting out the very highest levels of security in this country and certainly in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, we stepped up protection at key installations right across the country and we obviously continue to have special regard to any threats to the United Kingdom. But nevertheless, the purpose of this discussion document is to discuss in the round, the kinds of threats that we might face that we might not have anticipated before September 11th, to see whether it is necessary for us to adjust, not only our defence response but also how that works alongside the police and other security protection available within the United Kingdom. HUMPHRYS: I see there are stories today about bringing back Dad's Army, I hate to use that phrase, but everybody knows what we mean by it. HOON: Well, certainly, one of the concerns that I have as Secretary of State for Defence is that we should not be using regular Armed Forces, who clearly have a role and responsibility, both within the United Kingdom but also increasingly importantly these days overseas to protect installations where perhaps, there might be a role and responsibility for say, our reservists and that's something that I think we do need to have a debate about and I hope that after Thursday that will happen. HUMPHRYS: So, what, have more of them, or simply re-deploy the TA who are there at the moment, what sort of things are we thinking about? HOON: Well, it could be either of those things and I think that's why we do need to have this public debate. Our reserves provide an enormously important role in support of our regular forces. We have adjusted the way in which they are trained and operated in recent times to make them more usable, many of them for example, serve regularly nowadays in the Balkans. They are a tremendously skilled, complimentary force to our regular soldiers, I want to see whether we can use their skills as well in the United Kingdom more effectively. HUMPHRYS: So that might be a bit of a change of policy mightn't it, because we had been more or less running down the TA. HOON: Well certainly it will be a change of emphasis and I do believe that this is one of the things we need to look at in the light of those events on September 11th and I am keen to involve the reservists, as well because they have, if I can put it this way, a regional footprint, they are spread across the country, they are volunteers, they are people who give up their time, weekdays, weekends, to serve their local communities. It may well be, that if there is a key defence or other national installation, in their locality, that they will look forward to the opportunity of serving by offering their skills and resources. So I think there are a number of things that we have to look at, not least their attitude towards this, their employers, how the community believes that we ought to be providing this kind of protection. HUMPHRYS: So it would be in fact, it would be a bit more than a change in emphasis wouldn't it, because we were reducing them. Now, we are talking about augmenting them and this fairly significant change, if it happens. HOON: Well, certainly I think we have to learn lessons from September 11th. People wanted to rightly, be reassured that vital installations were being properly protected and it may well be that reservists have a role in this. So, certainly augmenting their existing role, I certainly don't see this as being their only responsibility, but it may be something that they could do alongside the other jobs that they do so well. HUMPHRYS: And that might well help here at home, but overseas we are going to have problems aren't we, because we do have them at the moment, some people think, and the jargon that's always used, is over-stretch. There is a serious danger of over-stretch isn't there, Bruce George, Labour MP, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, himself, says that his committee believes that we are over-stretched. HOON: We're certainly stretched. I wouldn't actually use the word over-stretch at the present time... HUMPHRYS: ...what's the difference? HOON: Well the difference is that we are operating to our maximum capability, that we are not at the moment, at any rate doing more than I judge reasonably, I can ask of our armed forces. But obviously, it is something that I have to have regard to. I am not pretending that I am not aware of the criticisms and I recognise that it is my job to ensure that Britain's Armed Forces do as much as they can, properly and successfully, in the remarkable way that they have done so lately, but at the same time we don't ask so much of them that it leads to a situation which has occurred in the past, where perhaps people leave earlier than they would like, because we are simply asking too much of the individuals involved. HUMPHRYS: And clearly it limits what we are able to do, I mean we saw Mr Karzai the interim leader in Afghanistan coming here last week and saying please can we have more forces, staying longer, and we had to say to him, sorry, no, no chance. HOON: Well that is one of the factors that we have to take account of because clearly, what does lead to overstretch - and I found this in the Balkans when I first took on these responsibilities - is the situation where you go into a particular theatre for a period of time and then, at the end of four months or six months, it's necessary to replace those forces by others and it's that constant rotation of our forces that does lead to overstretch and it is something that we've had particular regard to as far as Afghanistan is concerned. HUMPHRYS: And all of these peace-keeping, or whatever they may be, missions, they always last longer than they were intended to when they were set up don't they - I mean a matter of historical record. HOON: Well, they don't always last longer. We had a very successful operation in Macedonia last summer where we said quite clearly that British forces would be involved for thirty days, and they were involved for thirty days, and at the end of that thirty days they were able to return to the United Kingdom. But I accept that generally speaking it does take longer to resolve the situation on the ground whether it's in Sierra Leone, the Balkans or for that matter in Afghanistan than we initially anticipate. I was in Afghanistan this week. It's a country that will require an enormous amount of help and support from the international community, and security support is one aspect of that. HUMPHRYS: And does Field-Marshal Lord Inge, the former Chief of the Defence Staff himself has said - I don't know whether you would agree with this statement - he said we are, and I quote him verbatim, or at least literally, "dangerously overstretched". Now, there's really little left to deal with the unexpected, although that's pretty much what you're just saying, isn't it. I mean that's it, there isn't much left now to deal with things that might crop up, that we might otherwise have hoped to? HOON: Well, I wouldn't accept his first comment, but certainly we are operating at the limits of our capabilities and it is important that that is recognised, that there is a limit to what we can achieve. HUMPHRYS: So when Tony Blair says as he did at the Labour Party Conference last year, talks about moral obligations to help in the case of another Rwanda happening for instance, the reality is, though we might feel that moral obligation,. The reality is we'd be able to do precious little about it isn't it? HOON. What is important is, that we strike a balance. We clearly do have to respond to catastrophic humanitarian situations, that's always been the traditional response of the United Kingdom, but equally we have to recognise that there are always limits. There is only so much that a country of the size and resources of the United Kingdom can manage, so it's a balance. It always has to be struck, that hasn't changed. HUMPHRYS: So maybe we'd better stop making such grandiose promises. HOON: I don't believe that we've made grandiose promises. What we have done is set out Britain's responsibility in the world. We do have a responsibility, and indeed broadcasters like yourself encourage it because these days it's possible to see live pictures of appalling events around the world. That means that people in the United Kingdom say we must do something about this we must help. Sierra Leone is a classic illustration of that. We saw appalling pictures of babies, small children, with their arms hacked off by rebels trying to intimidate the local population, and people rightly said in the United Kingdom, what are we doing to help, what are we doing to try and sort out that appalling situation. HUMPHRYS: And if you put that in the context that we've been talking about and future Sierra Leones or whatever it may be, what all of the points to is that we need more resources doesn't it? HOON: Certainly, if we are going to engage more fully in the world, then obviously we will need the resources to achieve that. The balance will then change. There's always a balance to be struck between the available resources and what we can achieve. It's my job to do that on behalf of the government, I have to try and get that right and try and balance the resources against the kind of commitments we have. HUMPHRYS: And you don't inherit a very encouraging picture really do you really given what's been happening with defence spending over the - as I say over the last few years But if you look back, we are now spending less on defence as a proportion of our gross national product than we were in the twenties, and it's forecast that, that spending as a proportion of GDP is going to continue to fall, not by very much admittedly, but continue to fall over the next couple of years. HOON: All I would say in response to that John, you've concentrated on what is going in, I would ask you to at least concentrate equally on what has come out in the last twelve months... HUMPHRYS: ...yes has come up, but that's the whole point, we're talking now about the future and you concede that we are stretched. You wouldn't go as far as saying over-stretched but you concede we are stretched. You also concede that we should continue to make the sorts of promises or statements that Tony Blair made with the implications that has, that people expect us, given our history and given our skills at it, to intercede when things go terribly wrong in other parts of the world. Therefore, we are going to need more, not less, in future, that's my point. HOON: And it's a fair point, but what I meant by talking about what's come out, I was referring in fact to the achievements of the Armed Forces of May and over the course of say, just the last twelve months... HUMPHRYS: Sure. HOON: ...helping at home in United Kingdom with floods, with foot-and-mouth, helping overseas in places like Sierra Leone, the Balkans and more recently, in Afghanistan. Tremendous achievements with a limited budget and something that I expected to be able to continue to achieve, but recognising that I also have to strike this balance between the resources we have and what we can expect to take on around the world. HUMPHRYS: Indeed and nobody would gainsay the tremendous things that have been done by our Armed Forces in many parts of the world, but the thing is, what we're now seeing is that you're already having to do the odd nip and tuck here, where you ought to be sitting there confident, saying yeah, I got the resources that I need, we're seeing things happening like the mothballing of the Tornado Squadron that was protecting London after September 11th, that sort of thing. HOON: Well I think that was somewhat overwritten. The specific reason for that was actually a shortage of pilots, not actually a shortage of resources. We'll have the same number of aircraft in the sky, we'll have the same level of protection for London and the United Kingdom that we ever had, but over a long period of time, long actually before this government came to power, we faced a shortage of pilots, they're being recruited into the civilian airlines, often with very considerable financial inducements and we need to train more pilots. That process is under way, but like training any highly skilled people it does take time to deliver. HUMPHRYS: And as Lord Guthrie said, the last Chief of the Defence Staff, he said our Defence programmes were under-funded before the eleventh of September, there is now a new commitment, the eleventh of September, the result of that, and we can be sure new threats will appear. You wouldn't argue with any of that I suspect, would you? HOON: Well I think you'll find that all Chiefs of Defence staff and Sir Charles was a very distinguished one and all Defence Secretaries want to see more resources going into Defence, wouldn't be a surprise if I said that to you. But obviously there is a balance that has to struck not only within Defence in terms of our commitment, but across the government as well. We have to make sure that we allocate the right amounts of money for Defence, as against the Health Service, Education, Public Transport, all of the other priorities that government obviously has to respond to. HUMPHRYS: And the right amount in your view clearly is that the Defence Budget should increase as a proportion of our GDP? HOON: I'm sure that all of my colleagues in the Cabinet as we start a new spending round will be arguing for more resources for their particular departments, I will be no different from that. HUMPHRYS: As a result of everything that's happened in the last six or seven months, is this peace dividend that we were promised and indeed experienced at the end of the Cold War, is that over now, is that finished? HOON: Yes I think it is and I think most countries have recognised that. There was a period under the last Conservative Government where Defence spending declined very significantly, as a result of the peace dividend. Something that actually occurred in most other countries at the same time, so I make no political point about that. But I think what we saw during that period was a world that, I suppose in a sense was more safer, but was probably more uncertain, and what we're seeing now, we saw it in particular in the Balkans, the outbreak of a number of regional conflicts, a number of conflicts within particular countries, Afghanistan the most recent of them, where in fact the international community does have a responsibility to play a part and does need to make available the Armed Forces to be able to provide safety and security. So there has been a change, the world is a more uncertain and more unpredictable one and we have to respond to that. HUMPHRYS: So at the very least, Defence cuts will end? HOON: Well that has been the case already, we have... HUMPHRYS: ...not quite... HOON: ...a budget for Defence at the moment which is seeing an increase in Defence spending over a three year period. Obviously as Secretary of State for Defence I would like to see that continue. HUMPHRYS: How long are we going to, given that the war on tterrorism is going to last for a very long time, as we know, because the present Chief of Defence has said so apart from anybody else. How long are we going to rush around chasing Bin Laden, because we've got forces involved, or had forces involved in that as well as the Americans of course? HOON: Well we still have forces involved in that and my guess is, as long as it takes. This is a man who has perpetrated some of the most appalling deeds in our history and we need to ensure that he's not capable of delivering that again. So as long as it takes I think is the answer to your question. HUMPHRYS: And the war on terrorism clearly itself will take as long as it takes, that's stating the obvious, and when President Bush talks about apparently threatening half the world, he talks about fighting his axis of evil. I see reports this morning that we are now saying that we agree with him, that Iraq, which is part of that axis of evil according to President Bush, should be attacked, is that the case, are we now saying, right, we are with you, we are committed, we are shoulder-to-shoulder with you on that, as well as on everything else? HOON: Well, please remember that one of the operations that British Forces are engaged in is protecting the no-fly zones in the North and South of Iraq... HUMPHRYS: ...I'm talking about something different though, attacking Iraq? HOON: Well we are there as part in fact of a significant humanitarian mission to protect the population in Iraq against the appalling activities of Saddam Hussein. At the same time, over a long period, we've had concerns about Iraq continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, something that they've tried to do in the past. We've also obviously had concerns about the threats to their neighbours. They've been engaged in war in Iran, they attacked Kuwait, we responded as part of the international community... HUMPHRYS: are we going to try to bring down Saddam Hussein with the United States if that's what they decide to do, I'm tempted to say, 'when?' because it's perfectly clear what they intend to do, look at the way they've increased their Defence spending and all the rest of it. Are we going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them trying to bring down Saddam Hussein? HOON: I'm not aware of any present plans in the United States to do that. Certainly the events in Afghanistan demonstrated that before the United States takes that kind of action they will consult with their closest allies as they did then and I anticipate that will be the same again as far as any action in Iraq is concerned. HUMPHRYS: So do you agree with Peter Hain, the Foreign Office Minister, who says we shouldn't be a 'patsy' of the United States? HOON: We're not, we're a close friend and ally of the United States, we listen, we debate, but I assure you in the regular exchanges that take place at all levels between the American Administration and the British Government there is an exchange of views in both directions and it's not simply the United States saying what should happen, this is a discussion. HUMPHRYS: And does that mean that that includes thoughts about NMD this defence system that President Bush wants, are we moving closer, indeed, is it imminent that we will say, okay, we'll help you provide that missile defence shield that you want by using your Fylingdales station? HOON: If the United States has yet to take a specific decision as to the way forward... HUMPHRYS: But have we agreed that when it does, and I say when advisedly, are we agreed that when it does, we will go along with them? HOON: Well since they haven't taken any specific decision as to what kind of system they anticipate developing, it would be premature for me to respond to what is still a hypothetical question, but obviously we have made clear, as the Foreign Secretary made clear this week, we understand the position of the United States, we understand why they are so concerned about these kinds of threats and indeed we recognise that September 11th demonstrated that if there are other countries or other organisations that are capable of getting hold of weapons of mass destruction, clearly they are prepared to use them, as those appalling events demonstrated. HUMPHRYS: I think I could take that as a 'yes' couldn't I? HOON: You can take it that we perfectly well understand that we live in a dangerous and uncertain world and we understand why it is right that we should defend and protect ourselves against it. HUMPHRYS: Geoff Hoon thank you very much indeed. HOON: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.