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Armed Forces: US Missile Defence

Volume 699: debated on Monday 3 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether NATO and its member Governments have been appropriately consulted about the implications of the deployment of United States missile defence systems in Europe and the bilateral negotiations through which these deployments have been agreed.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Duane Barwood, who was killed on operations in Iraq on 29 February.

On the Question, missile defence is an important security issue for NATO and continues to be discussed regularly at a high level. The alliance has carried out its own studies into the military and political implications of ballistic missile defence and how that might link with the US system in Europe.

My Lords, we on these Benches offer our condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Barwood and to the seriously injured soldiers who continue to come back both from Iraq and from Afghanistan.

On the Question, I congratulate the Government on their ability to maintain whatever consultations are taking place in this country entirely outside the press or any report to Parliament, in sharp contrast with the Czech Republic and Poland, where at least there appears to be a public debate. Is the Minister aware that several of us in this House heard former Senator Sam Nunn say here on Thursday, as part of the Nuclear Threat Initiative: “I don’t think NATO has been at all well enough engaged in missile defence discussions”? Given that there is talk in the US system about a mid-course, ground-based defence system for Europe—in other words, something that serves the United States but does not protect Europe—how far is NATO discussing a much more collaborative, multilateral missile defence system than this American system?

My Lords, the situation in the Czech Republic, and indeed in Poland, is very different from the one that we have here, because they have specific proposals for placing interceptors in those countries. Therefore there is a high level of engagement among their parliamentarians and in their Government. We do not have that situation here. If we did, we would have further parliamentary engagement, but there are no plans to go down that route.

The noble Lord asked about NATO involvement. He will be aware that NATO had a feasibility study, which reported in 2006 and which recognised the growing threat from long-range missiles. Further research has been undertaken in the NATO context, and a significant amount of information has been made available. There will in fact be a NATO summit in Bucharest in April this year, and it is anticipated that further discussions on this matter will be placed on the agenda.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the lack of consultation both with Russia and within NATO before the US took the decisions with the Czech Republic and Poland, the most important thing now is surely that, in the period ahead, consultations continue with Russia and a serious effort is made to see whether the offer made by the Russian Government to join up with anti-missile defences can be turned into a viable process? If the Government do believe that, are they making that view known to the US Administration, and what are they doing within NATO to try to ensure that there are further talks with the Russians?

My Lords, there are discussions between the Americans and the Russians, and various proposals have been made on both sides. We think it right that those discussions should continue in good faith and that NATO is informed of the general progress of those discussions. We support the search for a solution wherever possible. This will also be discussed at the NATO conference to which I referred earlier.

My Lords, did not Presidents Bush and Putin agree as long ago as 2002 in Moscow on the case for consultation on this between those two countries? Have not former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger repeatedly expressed their view that such multilateral, co-operative discussions on ballistic missile defence systems should include agreement on plans for countering missile threats to Europe, Russia and the United States from the Middle East?

Yes, my Lords, the noble and learned Lord is right to make those points and considerable discussions have taken place. The US has provided Russia with considerable assurances that the ballistic missile defence system does not threaten Russia and is not aimed at protecting the US against a Russian ballistic threat. The proposals put forward by both sides are serious and are being considered at a very high level. We should all hope that those discussions lead to some resolution and some agreement being reached on the way forward. It is always better if we can work multilaterally.

My Lords, in view of the extreme importance of very close Russian and NATO co-operation on issues concerning nuclear proliferation, which is, of course, crucial—without it we cannot get very far— does the Minister agree that fresh consideration should be given by NATO to that earlier Russian proposal for co-operation, which is now to many senior Americans appearing as a much more attractive possibility than they thought at the time?

My Lords, all I can do is reassure the House that those who are entering into these discussions are doing so in good faith. Assurances have been given and there is an intent to find a way forward. However, this is a complex issue and it is one on which we have been trying to assist through our relationships with NATO and through direct US/Russian discussions. People need a great deal of reassurance and as much clarity as possible would be helpful to everyone.

My Lords, in her response to the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the Minister did not tell the House whether NATO and its member Governments had or had not been consulted. Were they consulted or were they not?

My Lords, NATO is kept very well informed of the discussions, but the decisions on whether to place interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland are the subject of bilateral agreements between those countries and the United States. It is only proper that that is the case, and it is also only proper that NATO should be informed as much as possible.