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Ballistic Missile Defence

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2009

It is a pleasure for me to state my case before you in this short debate, Mr. Cummings. I am particularly pleased that the relatively new Armed Forces Minister is here to respond on a subject that I have taken up with several of his predecessors.

We are here to talk about UK policy, but in a sense, that cannot be divided from American Government policy. By way of background, I should like to put on the record some comments that were made recently by the American deputy Defence Secretary, William J. Lynn III. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that missile defences

“are affordable, proven, and responsive to the threat.”

He later went into great detail about such defence systems. He was talking about the additional budget requirements that had been set out to include things such as terminal high-altitude area defence, the Aegis ballistic missile defence ships and standard missile 3 interceptors.

Those details are important, because we tend to think of missile defence as being some kind of science fiction or that it comprises initiatives like star wars, which involved popping things out of the sky. In fact, an array of weapons systems come under the broad aegis of missile defence. If I recall, the figures that were bandied about when the current system was first proposed were enormous. I had never imagined such figures at the time, but since the banking crisis, they have become everyday. People were talking about $500 billion for the total cost of the defences, but they were pie-in-the-sky estimates—guesstimates—simply because the technology was not known and nobody knew what to expect. What we do know is this: the systems are very complicated and very expensive.

I should like to go back to that first quote that said that the missile defences are

“affordable, proven, and responsive to the threat”

because, frankly, I was mystified when I read what Mr. J. Lynn III later told the Armed Services Committee—that missile defence is expensive. He recognised that although it is affordable, it is a very expensive exercise. Having said that it is “proven,” Mr. Lynn emphasised the need for robust testing. At the same time, he terminated the troubled kinetic energy interceptor and the multiple kill vehicle programmes, and returned the airborne laser to a technology demonstration programme. He said that some facets of the programme that had been shown to be unworkable and untenable had to be cancelled.

That outcome was postulated a long time ago by experts in the field such as Ted Postol and Richard Garwin. Not only are they eminent scientists, but they are former presidential advisers, and they said it was unworkable. They said that the technology was not only unproven, but that it could not be proved. I still argue that we do not have a clue how effective the proposed systems are or might be in future. The common metaphor is a bullet hitting a bullet at 15,000 mph. That is the kind of objective that the technology seeks to achieve, and frankly, it does not seem to work.

The final part of the quote is “responsive to the threat”. I got a research paper from the Library and was particularly taken by its account of what is happening on the other side of the globe, in the far east, in relation to North Korea. Wallace Gregson, a senior US Defence Department official, was quoted as saying that the present policy on containing North Korea has not worked. Responding to the renewed debate in Japan about whether that country should develop its own nuclear weapons capability, Gregson said:

“Japan certainly has the right to consider all available options”.

That is at the heart of the whole question of missile defence. If it does not work, what is its use? Is it a deterrent? Does it in any way inhibit the likelihood that nuclear weapons will either be acquired by other states or be used by rogue states or terrorist organisations? Yet a senior official is actually suggesting that it is perfectly well and good for Japan, or indeed South Korea, to go along the road of acquiring nuclear weapons, at a time when one of the great challenges is to prevent nuclear weapons from getting into the hands of, for example, Iran.

There seems to be a contradiction. If a country’s face fits in the higher echelons of today’s nuclear-capable powers, it is okay for it to have nuclear weapons; but if a country has been deemed, for whatever reason, to be an unacceptable or rogue state—the definition tends to emanate from Washington—it cannot have those weapons. It is those very rogue states against which ballistic missile shields are supposed to defend us. That is where I have some concerns.

Anybody reading the papers today would have been absolutely convinced that the meeting between Presidents Medvedev and Obama in Moscow was a great success for the whole question of reducing the nuclear threat, which I imagine is a prime purpose of our foreign policy in that area. Of course, it depends what people read. The BBC online news headline reads “US and Russia agree nuclear cuts”. The Times shows that that is plainly untrue; I will explain why in a moment. The Times headline is “US and Russia to cut nuclear warheads—but no deal on missile defence”. That is partly true. The Guardian headline is “US and Russia agree nuclear disarmament road map”. We are getting nearer to the truth.

The truth is that what has actually been agreed is the aspiration that when START 1 ends in December this year, there will be a commitment to commence START 2, in effect, to reduce the number of warheads. I seem to recall the rather improbable figure of 1,675 warheads apiece. That is still many times the number required to smash each other into smithereens. Nevertheless, that is going on.

The other side of that equation is missile defence, because there is no agreement on that. That is at the heart of my concern about our policies and our connection with missile defence. I am not trying to raise the global issue; I am talking about what is happening here in Europe. After all, we are members of the European Union and NATO. What happens in terms of missile defence proposals, particularly in Poland and the Czech Republic, impacts strongly on the United Kingdom and its interests in the wider European sphere.

There is little doubt that there are grave concerns in Russia about the current American proposals. Where do we come into that? We are an integral part of the ballistic missile shield. The shield, by the way, has nothing to do with Europe. It does not even pretend to be a protective shield for Europe. Whatever it is, it is supposed to protect the United States. Nevertheless, two sovereign bases in the United Kingdom—Menwith Hill and Fylingdales—are meshed into the system. In the case of Menwith Hill—it might be the other one—that was agreed without any reference whatever to Parliament. It is a matter of record now that the former Prime Minister was prepared to base interceptor missiles in the UK, certainly without any reference to Parliament. It is that uncertainty—the ability of missile defence to destabilise—that ought to be a matter for concern in this House and beyond.

I return to the development of missile defence, because we must contextualise it. It took off when the United States withdrew in June 2002 from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, ensuring that it could embark on a missile defence scheme legally in terms of international agreements. Many believe—rightly or wrongly; it does not matter whether it is true—that the system, placed in Europe as envisaged by the Bush Administration, would give the US the capacity to attack another country without fear of retaliation.

Both Russia and China expressed fears along that line. That does not necessarily mean that they were obsessed by the idea that it was an offensive system, but they saw the concerns registered by academics and many others about the siting of the system, because it was not just done in splendid isolation; it was done in conjunction with NATO expansion, and it created serious tension between the US and Russia and, by extension, us. It certainly increased the possibility of a new arms race. Right up to today, in what Medvedev says and what has been issued officially from the meetings in the run-up to the summit, the Russians still hold that view. They are concerned.

In my view, whatever has been proposed and aired in the press in recent days holds no water if there is to be no agreement on missile defence. It is to be hoped—there is room for optimism—that the Obama Administration have their own reservations and recognise the destabilising effect. If that can be translated, against other elements in Washington and beyond, into some sort of positive action to allay the fears of people in Russia as well as many in parts of eastern Europe and the United Kingdom, that would be welcome. It would certainly be welcomed by most people in the Czech Republic, who, as has been shown time and again in poll after poll, want no part in having any trace of a ballistic missile screen in their country. Over a long period, we have had a lot of concerns about the circumstances facing us in eastern Europe, not just because of the missile defence proposals but because of the seemingly concomitant expansion of NATO.

Today’s Times said:

“Mr. Obama insisted that it”—

that is, the missile screen—

“was directed against potential threats from Iran and North Korea and could not affect ‘a mighty Russian arsenal’”.

It is one thing to say that, but the perception is another thing. The missile screen was likened in one colourful metaphor to a 21st-century Maginot line, meaning that the real threat could come around it. That has certainly bothered a lot of military thinkers in a time of asymmetric warfare, as it is known: there is far more likelihood of a so-called rogue nation planting an atomic weapon in London or New York, if that is their bent. They could get it in on the back of a wagon, in our case, or on a ship. Even if they had the technology, the wherewithal and the finances, there are a dozen and one ways to introduce such a threat other than by making use of an expensive, traceable and obvious delivery system of the sophisticated type to which we are used.

Russia has displayed a negative attitude to missile defence on a number of occasions. That affects us directly. Policies that do not have the support of the Russian Government might not be in our military or economic interests, and are certainly not in our diplomatic interests. For example, the overflight of troops and equipment bound for Afghanistan could be affected—there have been announcements on that today. It would be extremely helpful if the Russians ensured that the overflight facility, which enables the effort against the Taliban and the remnants of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to continue, was maintained. However, what is opened up can easily be closed down. I hope that the recent series of meetings has brought us out of the sort of cold war mark 2 that there has been. We do not want to go back into that because it could damage the effort to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan.

We also need Russian co-operation over the Iranian nuclear programme. The Russians have co-operated strongly in the building of Iranian nuclear power facilities. People have different views on whether the Iranian uranium enrichment programme is a good or a bad thing, but as long as there is a fear that it will spill over into the development of nuclear weapons, we must have all the powers we can muster to persuade the Iranians not to go down that path. We need Russian support in that.

We need Russian support on many international challenges such as terrorism, climate change and people trafficking. We must ensure that Russia is on side for START 2, which is due for renegotiation and implementation by December this year. Last but not least, we need Russian co-operation on the security of energy supplies to western Europe, including the UK. Looking at a map, it does not seem like the new pipeline through Georgia and South Ossetia will have to go a million miles. However, we saw what happened in the war between Russia and Georgia. If the one independent pipeline becomes the subject of a conflict by proxy, it could cause immense problems for our energy supplies. We should be aware of that and should seek the co-operation of the Russians. One way to get their co-operation would be to allay their fears over missile defence.

As I said, we are talking about a system designed to make one missile hit another at 15,000 mph. It does not work. Decoys were used in getting the right test results, but nobody can say that these systems work. The United States has not tried the system against simple decoy systems of their own. Any so-called rogue state that can develop a missile to carry a warhead into continental Europe will have the wherewithal to put out decoys to upset any kind of missile defence system.

The system has nothing to do with the protection of Europe; it is about the protection of the United States, albeit an ephemeral protection. The Fylingdales early warning and tracking radar is involved. I have been there to see the improvements to the system and do not challenge its capabilities. Whether it should be used for the good of America rather than the good of the United Kingdom is a moot point. The integration of Menwith Hill into the system has never been debated in the House. A full debate is well overdue to provide parliamentary accountability of the Executive in this area.

Polls in the host countries show that 55 to 70 per cent. of people are opposed to any part of the system being sited in their country. That is destabilising. It is a matter of definition what a rogue state is.

Further down the track, there is a danger that missile defence policies will be seen as a step towards the expansion of anti-satellite technology. Hon. Members will be aware that such warfare in space is singularly prohibited. It would be a short step from anti-ballistic missile objectives to anti-satellite warfare. Interestingly, there has been a shift in opinion here and in the United States. Whether 19th and 20th-century solutions are applicable to the conflicts of the 21st century is being questioned. Doubts are being expressed about aircraft carriers, super-duper fighters and bombers, and so on. However, missile defence is the one area that appears not to be questioned. Some well briefed newspaper accounts point towards micro-satellites, with the implication that there will be a battle over communications and cyber potential via satellites in the stratosphere. That would be a dangerous development.

I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will begin to look at what is in the best interests of the United Kingdom and our partners in the European Union, rather than have imposed upon them the views of an outdated and outvoted US Administration, who have thankfully been cast into oblivion. The Government’s involvement in the American missile defence programme is of particular concern.

May I reassure my Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) that what drives me as a politician and a Minister on these issues is our national interest? That is my overriding and fundamental priority. I congratulate him on securing this debate. Although we do not always agree, as will become clear in this debate, I greatly respect the honesty and integrity that he has brought to these issues over many years.

Other than the US, the UK and France, about 20 countries possess ballistic missiles. In 2007, there were 100 non-US ballistic missile launches around the world, which is 30 per cent. more than in 2006 and slightly fewer than in 2008. Those figures reflect the determination of many countries to acquire a ballistic missile capability. Although many countries possess only short-range weapons that do not threaten the UK mainland, we remain concerned by missile development in countries such as Iran and North Korea.

We recognise that neither of those countries has a confirmed long-range ballistic missile capability, but Iran does possess a medium range missile, the Shahab 3, that could reach Turkey and much of the middle east. The recent test firings of those missiles and the accompanying rhetoric is a worrying development. Reports suggest that Iran is developing longer-range missiles that in time could pose a greater threat to the UK and our European allies. Tehran has acknowledged that it is pursuing a space launch capability. The successful launch of the Safir rocket, which put a small satellite into orbit earlier this year, is testament to the growing Iranian mastery of rocket and missile technologies.

As we have seen recently, North Korea continues to develop and test its missile capabilities, and shows gradual improvement in its understanding of missile and rocket systems. It continues to develop the Taepodong-2 missile, and earlier this year attempted to use Taepodong-type technology to place a satellite into Earth’s orbit. That vehicle failed to reach orbit, but the North Koreans’ intention to develop long-range rocket technology cannot be ignored. Both Iran and North Korea claim that their developments are designed for civilian applications and are meant to allow them to join the ranks of peaceful space-faring nations. However, the technologies could equally be used to develop missile systems capable of delivering military payloads over intercontinental distances. Those payloads could include chemical, biological or nuclear weapons that are capable of killing many people and inflicting massive damage with a single missile.

We assess—this is the nub of the challenge—that within the next 10 years, both North Korea and Iran could have the capability to target the UK with ballistic missiles if they so wished. Of course, the development of technological and technical capability is only one facet of the threat; the other is the intent to use missiles. We can monitor the development and proliferation of ballistic missiles and the associated technology, and we can prepare to defeat them, but it is more difficult to know with any certainty when, or even if, intent changes. At the moment, the Government assess that there is no ballistic missile threat to the UK homeland, but if we look to future trends, that could change.

Let me address some of the questions that my hon. Friend has asked. First, I shall respond to his underlying challenge about what we as a country, and particularly as a Government, want to do about the threat of nuclear proliferation and the challenge of nuclear weapons. We are very clear that we want to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons—that is our absolute intent. Of the existing nuclear weapon states, under the auspices of the non-proliferation treaty, we have the best and most forward-leaning record on disarmament. That has been attested by independent observers and is borne out by the fact that in the past decade we have reduced the explosive capability of our nuclear arsenal by 75 per cent. We want to go through further multilateral negotiations, and that is why we are emphatically committed to, and have signed up to, a comprehensive test ban treaty. That is also why we want a fissile material cut-off treaty.

My hon. Friend referred to the START 2 process, involving the United States and Russia. One of the most encouraging aspects of the current debate about nuclear weapons is the impetus and vigour that President Obama has brought to discussions. He is considering taking a comprehensive test ban treaty to Congress, which would be a very positive step forward, and he is committed to bringing about further multilateral nuclear weapons reductions through the START 2 process. I think we should support that approach.

My hon. Friend asked about the cost of ballistic missile defence. Let me be clear that the cost to the United Kingdom—that is what we are principally concerned about—is limited to the cost of running Fylingdales at the moment, which we would be paying for anyway. He also asked an important question about whether BMD systems actually worked. I do not resile from the fact that the technological challenges involved in constructing an effective missile defence system are considerable. The US is deploying an initial operational system that has undergone a great deal of testing. There have been many successful test intercepts to date—38 out of 48 tests—so a rudimentary capability exists, but we recognise that there is scope for further development and improvement as the technologies mature.

My hon. Friend discussed the situation in Iran. To paraphrase him, he said that there was a concern about Iran because its face did not fit, but I disagree wholly with that view. There is concern about Iran because it has concealed its nuclear programme for decades in contravention of its international commitments. There has been a wholesale failure by Iran to engage with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and it has failed to enable the IAEA to obtain reassurance about its studies that have a military dimension. That is why there is such significant concern about Iran.

Let me put the record straight. The issue of whether a country’s face fits, diplomatically or internationally, is important. Everything that the Minister has just said may be the case, but there is a different attitude to the hidden weapons in Israel, for example. I am not arguing the rights and wrongs of one against the other, but there are two separate approaches to two, admittedly different, problems, even though there is the same objective difficulty about nuclear weapons.

Let me deal with that point directly. We have always been clear that we want Israel to sign up to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, and we are committed to having a middle east that is free from nuclear weapons. It is right that we should make that position as clear as we make our concerns about Iran. Nevertheless, our concerns about Iran are real. I welcome President Obama’s commitment to engage with the Iranian regime, but that regime must understand that it has a choice to make about engaging with the international community and reassuring us about its nuclear weapons intentions. The alternative is a much tougher regime of sanctions and pressure.

My hon. Friend talked about the former Prime Minister’s statement. It is important to state for the record what Tony Blair said in February 2007. He said that if the Government needed to re-examine their position on missile defence and to take further steps on participation, we would present those propositions to the House and have the necessary discussions, but that we would seek to do that only when there were proposals or propositions to be made. That statement was made in the context of a response to specific media allegations that there were plans to base missile interceptors in the UK. At present, there are no proposals or propositions to make, and we have stated that there are no plans to base additional missile defence assets in the UK. The key point is that we face an uncertain international environment. There is clear evidence of a determination to develop ballistic missile capability by a number of states, and in those circumstances we are right, with our international partners, to explore the potential for developing BMD systems. We need to be clear that such systems are defensive.

My hon. Friend also discussed the situation in Russia. One thing that is certain is that any future plans will include greater engagement with Russia, which the Government strongly welcome and will support. As we all know, Russia has consistently and incorrectly claimed that US proposals to place 10 ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic is aimed at reducing the effectiveness of Russia’s strategic missile forces. Emphatically, that is not the case. The proposals are designed to defend against a limited threat from states of concern, rather than from countries with large arsenals of sophisticated weapons. None of us should forget that Russia understands missile defence. It has had a BMD system protecting Moscow since the cold war, and—this is the key point—it knows that 10 US interceptors would have little impact on the many long and medium-range missiles that it possesses. The Russians are fully aware of the capabilities and limitations of the proposed US system, and are aware that Russia’s security should not, and could not, be threatened by that system. Indeed, they have acknowledged that privately. Given the dialogue that has taken place with Russia, and the fact that the United States is reviewing these issues, I think that there is a way forward that addresses the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised, working with Russia to establish a collective BMD system so that it is clear that that is a defensive, rather than aggressive, posture. In those circumstances, we should support that process.

I genuinely want to get to a situation in which we live in a world that is free of nuclear weapons. The Government are leading the process multilaterally to try to achieve that state of affairs, and we should all strongly support that approach. I do not believe that a defensive BMD capability system is in contravention of that. If we get things right and work with our partners, that could give us greater security.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.