Britain opens door to son of star wars
Discussion paper points to job and safety benefits of US missile defence
Tuesday December 10, 2002
The government yesterday gave the clearest indication yet that it will embrace controversial US plans for a "son of star wars" missile defence project, and that the Fylingdales early warning radar station on the North Yorkshire moors will play a key part.
Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, released what he called a "public discussion paper" designed to provoke "deeper debate" about whether missile defence would be good for Britain and Europe, as well as for the US.
He again insisted that the US had yet to ask the government for use of British bases for its missile defence project. He said the government would agree to such a request "only if it were satisfied that the overall security of the UK and the alliance would ultimately be enhanced".
But the tone of the document suggests ministers have already made up their minds. It says there is a growing threat of attacks on Britain and its European allies from ballistic missiles.
Moreover, it adds, Britain's defence companies could profit from the projects which would create "highly skilled employment" opportunities.
The threat does not come from terrorists, the government admits. "Using long-range ballistic missiles as a means of delivering terrorist weapons is unlikely," it says.
The potential threat comes from "states of concern", the paper says, referring to Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea. These states would be "more likely" to be deterred from amassing missiles if they faced "effective missile defences".
It denies that missile defence would spark a new arms race. It says "for the foreseeable future" unsophisticated long-range missiles in the hands of such states of concern "are likely to remain essentially weapons of terror", aimed at population centres rather than specific military targets.
The paper concludes: "Fylingdales is therefore not a plausible target." An expanded Fylingdales - which is situated in a national park, the report notes - would help to protect America's eastern seaboard. "The additional warning time provided by RAF Fylingdales for a Middle Eastern threat is very substantial."
But the government says it is not just in America's interest to upgrade Fylingdales. The radar base could be a "key building block" for a future British or European missile defence system.
"With interceptors placed somewhere in Europe, such a system could protect the UK and north-west Europe," it argues. Fylingdales would enable the system to "protect most of Europe".
Such claims are unlikely to dampen widespread scepticism about missile defence among Labour backbenchers, which has been reflected privately by senior military figures.
The military has been concerned about the technological difficulties, the strategic necessity, and the cost - estimated at #10bn for Britain alone - of missile defence systems.
But Bernard Jenkin, the shadow defence secretary, had no doubts. He described the government's position on missile defence as "a farce".
Everyone knew the US would make a formal request for the use of Fylingdales and that the UK would agree, he said.
Mr Jenkin added: "This consultation is little more than a charade. The government is failing to secure British defence industrial interests in this potentially huge programme."
He said a Conservative government would "immediately offer the US the use of UK radar facilities and offer to site missile interceptors on British soil and on ships of the Royal Navy".
The discussion paper is to be found on the Ministry of Defence website, www.mod.uk