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Silence of the hawks

Nigel Chamberlain and Ian Davis decry the absence of debate over the government's decision to sign Britain up to George W Bush's missile defence programme

February 1, 2004
7 min read

One of the most contentious “special relationship” issues this year could be the upgrade and use of the RAF’s Menwith Hill spy base and Fylingdales radar station in North Yorkshire for missile defence purposes. In the autumn of 2002 a US Missile Defense Agency official said this was basically a “done deal”. But the pending invasion of Iraq apparently delayed an announcement that the bases would be incorporated into US plans to protect the “homeland” against missile attack.

Prior to the autumn of 2002 defence secretary Geoff Hoon had spent two years prevaricating on the issue. He refused to initiate any parliamentary or public debate on the subject, saying that the US had not yet made a formal request for the use of the bases. Critics pointed out that by the time any formal request did arrive, it would be too late for a national debate. Privately, civil servants admitted that it would be impossible for the UK to reject a formal request from Washington.

The formal request of Hoon’s US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld for the Fylingdales upgrade was announced on 17 December 2002, just eight days after the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had belatedly launched its “public discussion” paper on missile defence. Just four weeks later Hoon informed Parliament of his “preliminary conclusion” that it was “in the UK’s interests” to agree to the US request.

Closure came on 5 February 2003, when Hoon told MPs that he was “satisfied that we have been able to take fully into account the views of all interested parties in coming to a decision”, and that he would convey the government’s agreement to the US request.

Then, in a written statement to Parliament on 12 June, Hoon announced that he and Rumsfeld had signed a “framework memorandum of understanding” on missile defence “to prepare the way for fair opportunities to be given to UK industries to participate in the US programmes”. He declined to make the memorandum available to his parliamentary colleagues, claiming its contents were “confidential”.

However, the British American Security Information Council (Basic, the independent global-security research organisation we work for) was able to acquire a copy of the memorandum via our contacts in Washington. We posted it on our website in September. The following month, Hoon informed Parliament that he had placed a copy of it in the House of Commons library.

The lack of any debate over missile defence in this country is partly down to the Bush administration’s determination to have small missile interceptor batteries deployed at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California before the US presidential election towards the end of this year. Work to enable Fylingdales to support these batteries is due to start in March, with the Boeing Corporation having been awarded the $111m contract. Planning authorisation from the North Yorkshire Moors National Parks Authority was deemed unnecessary.

But it is also symptomatic of this government’s consistently poor record on freedom of information, especially on “national security” issues. In his “big conversation” initiative, the prime minister has told the nation that he wants to “open up the debate, be honest about the challenges and lay out the real choices”. Issues like education, health and national security are included on the conversational table. At Basic we would like to see these values extended to missile defence and nuclear cooperation with the US.

In our submission to the MoD’s public discussion on missile defence last spring, Basic made four key demands: the government should talk about nuclear, chemical and biological weapons rather than “WMD” generically; there should be more transparency about plans to use Menwith Hill and Fylingdales for missile defence purposes; there is a need for greater commitment to existing agreements like the Missile Technology Control Regime; and Britain should show increased support for new initiatives such as the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. In short, we asked for deeper consideration of policies that promote constructive engagement over aggressive interventionism.

We also called for the government to be clearer about the costs of proposed missile defence systems. Full cost assessments should be published, including opportunity costs, since money spent on missile defence is money not being spent addressing other, arguably more pressing security threats, such as global terrorism and weapons proliferation in failing states or despotic regimes. We would like to see some reality here. Accuracy may be the sine qua non of missile defence, but accurate cost projections have always been another matter.

There is also a need for research on what happens if missiles are intercepted in their boost phase: does the warhead simply continue on its path? Initial computer modelling by scientists at the UK’s new Missile Defence Centre suggests that the “debris” from an intercepted missile launched from “somewhere in the Middle East” and intercepted by a missile fired from the north of England (such missile batteries only currently exist in the minds of certain defence planners) is likely to fall somewhere in the southeast of England.

Blair’s tarnished credibility

The failure to find WMD in Iraq has increased public scepticism about this government’s pronouncements. As former foreign secretary Robin Cook has said, WMD may turn out to be the defining issue of Blair’s second term. On both sides of the Atlantic, the media have finally begun to question the intelligence assessments that underpinned the decision to go to war, and to realise the extent to which policy makers brought pressure on intelligence analysts. Cook says that trust is difficult to regain once it has been lost, and that its absence has infected the credibility of Blair’s government.

The Bush administration has used the very real threats of global terrorism and weapons proliferation to plan the deployment of many new weapons systems and technologies – from ground- and sea-based interceptors (some to be located in Europe), to new sensors on land, at sea and in space. This can hardly be the proper response to the events of and since 11 September 2001. Nonetheless, the UK government has given every impression that it intends to go along with this US-led agenda.

It is time for us all to address the “threat-perception gap” between Europe and the US. Opinion in Europe on the ballistic missile threat is more balanced: there is a recognition that missile proliferation is on the increase and could endanger large parts of Europe in the coming years, but also an awareness that it is only one of many potential threats to Europe and global security – and one that is less immediate and acute than others.

In fact, while there are growing numbers of shorter-range cruise missiles and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles in the world, the number of long-range ballistic missiles is decreasing from Cold War levels. Outside Russia and China, it is doubtful that any nation possesses long-range missiles that can reach Europe or the US from its territory.

Finally, let’s consider what we sacrifice by embracing missile defence. There is a very real danger that the prime minister’s support for the US administration’s development of missile defence systems will sap our capabilities elsewhere. UN peacekeeping operations and cooperative threat-reduction activities in the former Soviet Union are just two examples of more important priorities. And to make real progress on international security, we cannot continue with a two-tier view of the world: assuming the peaceful intentions of the existing nuclear states, and focusing entirely on perceived threats from alleged rogue states and non-state actors.

Let’s start with a big conversation about the impact of US/UK nuclear sharing on the international non-proliferation regime and about the implications of missile defence deployment before any further commitment is given to what might turn out to be the 21st century’s equivalent of the Maginot Line.

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