Issue No. 48, July 2000
Missile Defence Divergence:Britain Debates NMD
By Nicola Butler
The British Houses of Parliament went into recess at the end of July leaving key questions unanswered concerning the Government’s stance on US plans for National Missile Defence (NMD). Ministers, anxious to avoid offending a key ally, have been sticking closely to the line that “it is for the United States to decide whether or not to proceed with deployment”, but backbench Members of Parliament (MPs) from all sides of the House of Commons are expressing increasing concern, both about the possible impact of NMD on international stability and security, and about the Government’s unwillingness to adopt a more outspoken stance.
As MPs headed back to their constituencies, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee issued a report recommending that, "the Government articulate the very strong concerns that have been expressed about NMD within the UK. We are not convinced that the US plans to deploy NMD represent an appropriate response to the proliferation problems faced by the international community. We recommend that the Government encourage the USA to seek other ways of reducing the threats it perceives."1
Against a background of accusations that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Foreign Office (FCO) are divided over NMD, Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Commons in July that the UK’s aim was to try "to ensure that the fear that the United States has - perfectly legitimately and justifiably - is taken account of in a way that does not put at risk the substantial progress that has been made on nuclear disarmament over the past few years".2 Whilst endorsing this approach, the Foreign Affairs Committee called for "the Government, as one of the five nuclear weapon states and as a close ally of the US, to make an early public statement on its analysis of NMD’s likely impact on strategic stability and its assessment of whether this would be in the overall security interests of this country."3
Ministers have been careful to avoid stating whether they will approve the controversial integration of RAF Fylingdales into a possible NMD system. Concern is mounting in Westminster that the inclusion of the facility will make the UK a "sitting target" and that the Yorkshire base may attract protest on a scale not seen since Greenham Common in the 1980s. As the Foreign Affairs Committee notes, in the event of a unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the position of Fylingdales would present the Government with an"acute dilemma", as a UK refusal "would have profound consequences for UK/US relations".
Differing Threat Assessments
The national assessment is that there is currently "no significant threat to the UK from weapons of mass destruction" (WMD).4 As Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Robin Cook told the Foreign Affairs Committee, "I can say with some confidence that we do not anticipate a nuclear strike from North Korea on Britain". Cook would not comment on US threat assessments, saying only that "the judgement on the national security of the United States is one which the United States has to make itself."5
Britain does, however, seem to have a different approach from the US to some of the so-called "states of concern" (the new Clinton Administration term for "rogue states" - see News Review in this issue), giving more emphasis to the diplomatic track. In January, the Iranian Foreign Minister met with Robin Cook in London. The FCO sees continued political reform in Iran, rapprochement with the West, including the upgrading of UK-Iranian bilateral links, and the Middle East peace process as the best ways to ensure that Iran abides by its non-proliferation commitments. The UK Government also strongly supports the current dialogue between North and South Korea, and as the Foreign Affairs Committee notes, "the more North Korea is drawn positively into the international community, the more the case in the USA for a limited NMD will be weakened."
With regard to the third state of concern identified by the CIA, Iraq, Britain has aligned itself closely with the United States in its support for sanctions and participation with the US in regular bombing raids, although these policies are coming under increasing pressure, both internationally and domestically.
While agreeing that it is "not for the UK to make assessments of the degree of threat perceived by the US," the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoffrey Hoon, is more sympathetic to NMD than Cook. Hoon emphasises that the UK "recognises US concerns about the threat". He attributes differences between US and European threat assessments to the fact that "North Korea could not threaten Europe in the short term", and says that "there is a widespread recognition that North Korea is developing a capability that would undoubtedly pose a threat to the US".6
The MoD is keen to keep its options open in the area of ballistic missile defence. According to Hoon, the UK "consult[s] closely with the US and take[s] account of the work they are doing, to help us take an informed decision on whether to acquire such a capability ourselves in the future".7 The Ministry is currently sponsoring a three-year Technology Readiness and Risk Assessment Programme by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and four British defence contractors, due to be completed next summer. The programme aims to monitor "developments in the risks posed by ballistic missiles and in the technology to counter them".8 In addition, the 1985 Memorandum of Understanding on the Strategic Defence Initiative remains operative for US-UK information exchange on ballistic missile defence and allows British companies to participate in lucrative contracts for the US Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.
Although Cook was unwilling to rule out "for all time" the option of a future British ballistic missile defence system, he played it down telling the Foreign Affairs Committee that option was "overstated" and that there was "no active commitment to it". According to Cook, the technology "at the present time is not available to us" and the cost "would be quite substantial".
The policy of the Conservative front bench is that "the British Government should be taking a lead in NATO...and trying to create or negotiate a NATO [ballistic missile defence] programme".9 The Opposition highlights potential proliferators of WMD such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Serbia, and criticises European opposition to NMD. Speaking in the Commons, Leader of the Opposition William Hague demanded: "Should not the Government be making the case in Europe for working closely with the United States on this issue? Is it not time to make it clear to the United States that Britain would respond positively to any proposal for the upgrade by the United States of Menwith Hill and Fylingdales as part of a United States-NATO ballistic missile defence, should that be necessary?"10
In contrast, Liberal Democrats are critical of NMD. In a Liberal Democrat Opposition Day debate, Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Menzies Campbell MP said "the determination to proceed with national missile defence rests on a flawed assessment of the threat". Campbell questioned whether rogue states "are so lacking in comprehension that they would threaten to use, or actually use, weapons of mass destruction against the overwhelming nuclear superiority of the United States." "Rogue states,’ he added, "may acquire the capability, but it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which they would have the intention".11
The degree of threat is also questioned by Labour backbenchers. In Defence Oral Questions, Paul Flynn MP asked: "Does the Secretary of State really believe that there is a serious threat to Seattle from North Korea, when North Korea has trouble with the missiles it has targeted on South Korea? At this time of rapprochement, does that not mean that what is going on is not a perceived threat, but the perceived greed of the American defence industry, which wants to make more profits from a new arms race which will impoverish the planet even more and put us in great danger." Defence Select Committee member Mike Gapes MP also questioned why "the prospect of much smaller quantities of ballistic missiles [than during the Cold War] in less militarily significant states cause such alarm in the United States".12
Flying in the Face of the ABM Treaty
The UK Government has repeatedly refused to be drawn on its stance on the ABM Treaty. Its position is set out in a joint memorandum from the MoD and the FCO, which states: "As with any other international treaty, the interpretation of the ABM Treaty is a matter for the Parties. It is not for non-parties, such as the United Kingdom, to offer their own interpretations of its provisions." Although the Government wishes to see the ABM Treaty "preserved", the Joint Memorandum highlights the fact that since 1972, the US and Russia have reached "other agreements which have had the effect of modifying or further clarifying the Treaty’s provisions". It also notes that Article XV "gives each party the right to withdraw from the treaty ‘if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests.’"13
The Foreign Office view, as articulated by Robin Cook is that, "the impact on the international arms control environment is a crucial dimension to the debate on NMD… At the moment the momentum within Russia appears to be entirely favourable towards cuts in nuclear missiles and that is consistent with the comparative success of the Review Conference of the NPT. Of course if we are to maintain that momentum, it is important that NMD does not proceed in a way which undermines the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty."14 Cook sees the background of the ABM Treaty as "a very serious factor in our overall decision" on whether to allow the upgrading of Fylingdales as part of NMD.
The Conservative front bench, although strongly supporting NMD, has been somewhat coy on the subject of its policy on the ABM Treaty. In the most recent debate on the subject, Opposition spokesperson Cheryl Gillan MP refused to answer whether the Conservatives would support NMD "even if it had the effect of breaching the anti-ballistic missile treaty".15 In the earlier debate on ‘Defence in the World’, Shadow Defence Secretary Iain Duncan Smith also attempted to avoid the question, but eventually conceded that the Conservatives would prefer "some accommodation" between the US and Russia.16
The Liberal Democrats, however, have made US-Russia co-operation on the ABM Treaty central to their policy on NMD. Menzies Campbell told the Commons that Liberal Democrats "oppose the proposal for national missile defence if it has the effect of breaching the anti-ballistic missile treaty", although he indicated that "if some arrangement can be made - if the technology can be made available to Russia...different considerations may apply".17 Spelling out reservations shared by MPs across the political spectrum, Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesperson Paul Keetch MP noted: "We are deeply concerned that if the USA embarks on that path, Russia will spend billions of dollars that it cannot afford, not to build a similar shield but to increase the number of its multiple warheads to try to overwhelm such a shield. That will lead China, then India, then Pakistan, to upgrade in turn…Britain should use its unique relationship with the United States to warn against such a programme."18
Backbench MPs have been even more outspoken. Foreign Affairs Committee member Sir John Stanley (Conservative) spoke for many when he argued that "preservation of the ABM treaty is incompatible with any move towards NMD". According to Stanley, a former Defence Minister, phase one of the US plans (involving transfer of the US entitlement of 100 ABM interceptors from North Dakota to Alaska) could be "construed as a relatively minor modification". However, phase one was merely "a prelude to phase two" and phase two would effectively mean "tearing up...the existing treaty and having no treaty at all, or putting in place a fundamentally different one".19
In an Adjournment Debate on NMD, Mike Gapes also argued that amending article I of the ABM Treaty, which forbids the deployment of missile defence to defend the territory of a country, "would break the very principle on which the treaty is based". Saying that US plans were "fundamentally at odds with the entire purpose of the treaty", Gapes suggested that if the treaty was amended "to permit rather than prohibit national missile defence...at some point it will cease to be an arms control treaty; it will become an arms expansion treaty".20
The Convener of the All Party Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation, Malcolm Savidge MP (Labour), drew attention to the recent NPT Agreement to "preserve and strengthen" the ABM Treaty, warning: "Not only may it [NMD] not reduce danger - it could increase danger. If the ABM Treaty is torn up, both Russia and China are likely to increase their weapons. It could also destroy reliance on all other treaties." In addition, Savidge highlighted the terrorist threat, cautioning that, "even if NMD worked and could overcome decoy systems, what about the possibility of transporting weapons of mass destruction in lorries, in suitcases or by boat?"21
The Fylingdales Dilemma
The potential role of RAF Fylingdales in NMD puts the Government in a difficult position. In Phase one of the project, software upgrades would be required for the site’s Early Warning facilities. Phase two would involve construction of a new and highly visible X-band radar facility, presumably requiring planning permission from the local council. Speaking to The Guardian, an unnamed Government Minister said that a US request to build a new radar system at Fylingdales would be a "nightmare", adding that Greenham Common in the 1980s "would look easy by comparison".22
In Defence Oral Questions, Norman Baker MP (Liberal Democrat) argued that it would be "foolish and dangerous to allow RAF Fylingdales to be used to make the UK a sitting target by basing a national missile defence system there that will protect US but not UK airspace."23 Noting the Government’s statements that the ABM Treaty is solely a matter for its parties, Baker said that if Britain were to be used to break the treaty, then surely it would be a matter for the British Secretary of State for Defence.
Recalling the agreements reached at the NPT Review Conference, Jeremy Corbyn MP (Labour) also highlighted the role of Fylingdales. Describing NMD as "an escalation of the danger of nuclear conflict…[that] flies in the face of the Non-Proliferation Treaty", Corbyn suggested that "the proposed siting at Fylingdales in Yorkshire turns this country, once again, into a nuclear aircraft carrier for the US."24
To date, Ministers have been sticking closely to the line that as far as Fylingdales is concerned "we have not decided because we have not been asked." This statement drew sharp criticism from Sir John Stanley, who described it as "disingenuous", noting that the "use of Fylingdales has been announced in any number of US Government press releases, and MoD and Foreign Office officials in Washington have been discussing with the US Administration the Fylingdales dimension".25
In his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Robin Cook attempted to justify the Government’s position on the grounds that "the view we took on that decision [to give the go-ahead to use Fylingdales] would of course depend on the circumstances surrounding that decision, for instance, the relationship to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty... Until we know both the nature of the question and also the circumstances in which we are being asked that question, it would be premature for us to debate what the response might be, particularly since at the moment there is no commitment by the United States to ask the question."26
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Donald Anderson MP (Labour), attributed the Government’s unwillingness to make a decision to the "hope that they will not have to make one - that there will be an accommodation between Russia and the United States, with a limited amendment of the ABM treaty." If, however, Russia refused to agree to such an amendment and the United States went ahead anyway, "a real dilemma...[would] face this country."27
In his Adjournment Debate, Mike Gapes raised the question of whether the use of Fylingdales would require an amendment to Article IX of the ABM Treaty, which "prevents the deployment of ABM systems or components outside of national territory". The Foreign Affairs Committee also asked the Government for clarification of whether "any possible upgrading of the early warning radar at RAF Fylingdales…in relation to the possible deployment by the United States of a National Missile Defence System, would constitute a breach of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty."
In response, a Joint MoD-FCO Memorandum makes the case that no breach of the ABM Treaty would be envisaged. According to the Memorandum, "the two most likely scenarios would appear to be:
In scenario (a), the upgrading and integration of RAF Fylingdales into NMD would presumably have been agreed by the Parties to be permitted under the terms of a modified ABMT. In scenario (b), such constraints as the ABMT currently places on the role of RAF Fylingdales would no longer be operative. Either way, the question of any possible breach of the treaty through the upgrading of Fylingdales radar or its integration into any NMD system would not appear to arise."28
- the US and Russia had agreed on modification to the ABMT to permit the deployment of the first phase of an NMD system; or
- the US and Russia had not reached agreement on modifications to the ABMT to permit the first phase of NMD, and the US had formally given notice of its withdrawal from the treaty.
Foreign Office Ministers are, however, clearly less complacent about the ABM Treaty than this Memorandum suggests. In response to questions on the "Fylingdales scenarios" from Ted Rowlands MP (Labour), Cook commented: "Scenario (b) outlines the situation in which the ABM Treaty effectively no longer exists because it has been renounced. There are many people in the United States, never mind Britain or Europe, who would regard that as a heavy price to pay."29
Deterrence, Decoupling and the Transatlantic Debate
The British debate on NMD crosses party lines and breaks down the traditional divisions between proponents of nuclear deterrence and supporters of unilateral nuclear disarmament. A key argument for some British opponents of NMD is that it could undermine the British Trident system if Russia or China were to respond by modernising their nuclear arsenals. As Mike Gapes MP points out, under the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s, Britain used a similar argument to justify procurement of the MIRVed Trident system on the basis that it was "necessary to overwhelm Soviet missile defences".30
For the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell argues that "the risk of the proposal for national missile defence is that it appears to undercut the whole principle of deterrence".31 Campbell believes that "deterrence sustained us through the long watches of the Cold War and prevented Saddam Hussein, who undoubtably had the means of launching weapons of mass destruction, from doing that in the Gulf War."32
In contrast, a number of NMD advocates argue that a missile shield is needed because nuclear weapons are no longer credible as a deterrent to "rogue states". Curiously, some of the strongest advocates of nuclear deterrence now say that Trident "does not constitute a credible threat in a range of possible scenarios." Although still arguing forcefully for Trident to be retained indefinitely, a report from the conservative Missile Proliferation Study Group states that it would be "a great mistake" to regard Trident "as a deterrent for all seasons." Dismissing the deterrence strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction as a "Cold War dogma of assured vulnerability", the group rejected "misplaced faith" in the ABM Treaty. Welcoming the report’s publication, former Conservative Prime Minister Lady Thatcher said: "We must do all we can to encourage and assist the urgent creation of a global ballistic missile defence system by the United States." 33
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Conservative) highlighted European Union Special Representative Javier Solana’s remarks that if Europe were not to be defended by NMD, that may risk the beginning of "decoupling" between the US and Europe. Solana was concerned that plans for NMD should not "strain transatlantic links" nor provoke a "major crisis with Russia".34
Many Conservative supporters of NMD portray the issue as a question of transatlantic versus European relations. Support for NMD is equated with support for the US and the transatlantic relationship, while European criticism is opposed by Eurosceptics, who also oppose the current development of a European Defence policy and movement towards a European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) within NATO. Iain Duncan Smith criticises European nations that "snipe at the [NMD] proposals from the sidelines".35 According to Duncan Smith, even the developing relationship between Serbia and Iraq "does not seem to have forced anybody in Europe to think carefully about the implications".36
Both opponents and proponents of NMD oppose trends in the United States towards unilateralism in international affairs. The Missile Proliferation Study Group believes that "European opposition to… a decision [by the US to withdraw from the ABM Treaty] could damage the [NATO] alliance and lead either to US isolationism or unilateralism."37 Most MPs, however, see NMD itself as symptomatic of a new and highly dangerous form of unilateralism. Menzies Campbell highlights Senate rejection of the CTBT, unwillingness to endorse the International Criminal Court, procrastination over the land mines ban and determination to press ahead with NMD regardless of the ABM Treaty as "disturbing and destabilizing features of a determination on the part of the Americans to go it alone". Malcolm Savidge shares this concern that "there is the danger of a new unilateralism in the United States, which could completely undermine nuclear disarmament".38
Conclusion: Time for Constructive Criticism?
Although the British Government emphasizes that it "understands" US concerns about missile proliferation, the US debate on NMD is viewed with incredulity by many British politicians. As Phyllis Starkey MP, a Labour member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Guardian, the attitude of advisers to George W Bush in discussions the MPs had in Washington "scared me rigid".39
In Washington, although Fylingdales is regarded as essential to the NMD programme and despite Secretary of Defense William Cohen’s assertion that the US will "weigh allied views, and impact on alliance relationships" in its decisions, very little thought appears to have been given by either the Administration or the Congress to the position of Britain. It appears simply to have been assumed that the UK will eventually give the go-ahead to use Fylingdales: no alternatives have apparently been considered.
Despite Ministry of Defence efforts to keep open the option of a future British or NATO/European missile defence system, the Foreign Office is clearly concerned that the United States reaches some form of agreement with Russia that retains the ABM Treaty. What the Foreign Affairs Committee described as the "apparently contradictory views emanating from the FCO and the MoD", were highlighted in March when Foreign Office Minister, Peter Hain told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that he did "not like the idea of a Star Wars programme, limited or unlimited". On the same evening, Hoon had revealed to Channel 4 News that if the US were to ask Britain to use Fylingdales, "the history of our close friendship with the US is that we are sympathetic to such requests".40
A US request to use Fylingdales in the absence of an agreement with Russia would leave the British Government between a rock and a hard place. As the Foreign Affairs Committee notes, a UK refusal to allow the upgrading of facilities at Fylingdales would be "unprecedented". The Committee, nonetheless urged the Government "to impress upon the US Administration that it cannot necessarily assume unqualified UK co-operation with US plans to deploy NMD in the event of unilateral US abrogation of the ABM Treaty".
As one Labour MP summed it up: "The government must get over to Washington the extreme seriousness and implications [of NMD] including the depth of feeling and opposition to it." It is now up to the British Government to use its special relationship with the United States and its position as the host of a potential NMD facility to ensure that the progress made in recent months in the START process and at the NPT Conference is built upon, not scuppered.
Notes and References
1. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report, "Weapons of Mass Destruction", HC 407 of 1999-2000, July 25, 2000.
2. House of Commons, Official Report, "Statement on the G8 Summit in Okinawa", July 24, 2000, columns 766-767.
3. Select Committee Report, op.cit.
4. Official Report, Defence Oral Questions, July 3, 2000.
5. Select Committee Report, op.cit.
6. Official Report, Defence Oral Questions, July 3, 2000.
7. Official Report, Written Questions, March 21, 2000, column 491W.
8. Official Report, Written Questions, June 12, 2000, column 451W; and June 26, 2000, column 409W.
9. Official Report, Defence White Paper Debate, February 22, 2000.
10. "Statement on the G8 Summit in Okinawa", op.cit.
11. Official Report, Liberal Democrat Opposition Day Debate on "Britain’s Strategic Interests", June 7, 2000, column 350.
12. Official Report, Defence Oral Questions, July 3, 2000.
13. Select Committee Report, op.cit.
15. Official Report, ‘Britain’s Strategic Interests’ Debate, June 7, 2000.
16. Official Report, ‘Defence in the World’ Debate, May 4, 2000.
20. Official Report, ‘National Missile Defence Debate, May 17, 2000, Westminster Hall, columns 105WH-112WH.
21. ‘Britain’s Strategic Interests’ Debate, op.cit.
22. Richard Norton-Taylor, "Britain’s Critical Missiles Dilemma", The Guardian, August 2, 2000.
23. Defence Oral Questions, July 3, 2000.
25. ‘Defence in the World’ Debate, op.cit.
26. Select Committee Report, op.cit.
27. ‘Defence in the World’ Debate, op.cit.
28. Select Committee Report, op.cit.
31. Defence White Paper Debate, op.cit.
32. ‘Britain’s Strategic Interests’ Debate, op.cit.
33. The report, "Coming into Range: Britain’s Growing Vulnerability to Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction," is backed by a number of parliamentarians including the Rt. Hon. David Davis (Conservative) and Lord Chalfont (Crossbench).
34. ‘Defence in the World’ Debate, op.cit.
35. Defence White Paper Debate,op.cit.
36. ‘Defence in the World’ Debate, op.cit.
37. Missile Proliferation Study Group, Press Release, May 15, 2000.
38. ‘Britain’s Strategic Interests’ Debate, op.cit.
39. Richard Norton-Taylor, "Britain’s Critical Missiles Dilemma", op cit.
40. Lucy Ward and Richard Norton-Taylor, "Ministers split over British role in US missile defence shield", The Guardian, March 22, 2000.
Nicola Butler is Senior Analyst at the Acronym Institute.
Appendix: The Select Committee Report & NMD
‘Weapons of Mass Destruction,’ Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Eighth Report, HC 407 of 1999-2000, published August 2, 2000.
Notes: the twelve members of the Committee are Donald Anderson (Labour, Chair), Diane Abbot (Labour), David Chidgey (Liberal Democrat), Sir Peter Emery (Conservative), Norman Godman (Labour), Eric Illsley (Labour), Sir David Madel (Conservative), Andrew Mackinlay (Labour), Ted Rowlands (Labour), Sir John Stanley (Conservative), Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Labour), David Wilshire (Conservative).
The full text of the report is available on the House of Commons website at
National Missile Defence and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
"33. The issue of NMD has become caught up in the current US Presidential election campaign - both the Democratic and Republican parties are keen to demonstrate that they are tough on defence issues. …
The Threat from ‘Rogue States’
35. A great deal of scepticism has been expressed to the Committee about the extent and credibility of the threat posed by ‘rogue states’. During our visit to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, a senior European official described the idea of a North Korean ballistic missile attack upon the USA as ‘surrealistic’. …
36. By contrast with the USA, the UK Government acknowledges the threats generated by WMD proliferation but does not appear compelled to take defensive action. The Foreign Secretary told us that although ‘we take very seriously threats of proliferation to British interests... we are not currently anticipating another state other than the existing nuclear weapon states having the capacity to strike Britain by missile.’ The Secretary of State for Defence said in the House on July 3, 2000 that ‘our current assessment is that there is no significant threat to the UK from weapons of mass destruction.’ The Foreign Secretary told us that: ‘I can say with some confidence that we do not anticipate a nuclear strike from North Korea on Britain, but I am not going to seek to second-guess the assessment of the United States in relation to itself. I do think that it is a matter of perplexity that North Korea developed such a technology in the first place. Not unreasonably there are people in the United States who ask why?’ As the Foreign Secretary intimated, it is important to recognise that the perceptions of the threat from WMD in the hands of rogue states are not the same in the UK and the USA: the latter’s superpower status may make it a more obvious target.
37. There is mounting international concern about President Clinton’s decision because of fears that deployment of NMD will be destabilising in terms of its impact on strategic arms control. Strategic stability would be undermined if Russia and China felt obliged to respond to NMD by enhancing their offensive nuclear capabilities. This would adversely affect the progress of nuclear arms control which, in turn, could have serious repercussions for the future of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. NMD might also trigger an arms race, particularly in regions such as East Asia, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent which are already volatile. …
38. The US administration argues that it is planning to deploy only a limited system of NMD, designed to offer protection against a small number of missiles. It claims that this would not alter the balance of deterrence that currently exists between the nuclear forces of the USA and Russia or China. In other words, the nuclear forces of Russia and China would still be capable of overcoming such defences. However, the public response of Russia and China to these proposals shows that neither regime is apparently sanguine about the USA’s claim to be considering only a limited system of NMD. During our recent visit to China, we received the clear message from official Chinese sources that NMD was a prime example of US hegemony and was unacceptable. Russia has also been implacable in its public opposition to NMD. …
Technological Feasibility and Credibility of NMD
40. Whilst we recognise that threat assessments within the UK and the USA may differ for legitimate reasons, when assessing threat it is important to distinguish between capability and intention. We are concerned that the USA over-emphasises the capability component of the threat equation, when it comes to assessing the extent of the threat it faces, and attaches too little importance to intention. It is this which makes the threat which NMD is intended to counter less credible. There are a number of reasons for this. First, it is difficult to see what a ‘rogue state’ would gain from launching a WMD-armed ballistic missile against the USA as it would do so in the knowledge that its action would precipitate massive and devastating retaliation upon itself. Secondly, if a ‘rogue state’ did decide to inflict mass casualties on the USA, it is unlikely to use the one method of attack - ballistic missile - which would leave no doubt as to the identity of the attacker. Thirdly…other methods of attack - such as biological or chemical weapons - can be delivered much more easily, at a minute fraction of the cost and with a real possibility of concealing the aggressor. Finally, if a future US President came to believe the US was at imminent risk of a WMD ballistic missile attack from a ‘rogue state’, we believe it is reasonable to assume that that President would authorise the pre-emptive destruction of the rogue state’s missile site or sites regardless of whether NMD had by then been deployed in the USA or not.
41. … NMD would not eliminate the threat posed by WMD. As the Sarin nerve agent attack on the Tokyo subway demonstrated, the USA, in common with any other industrialised state, might face as great a risk from a biological or chemical weapons which do not need to be delivered by missile. We are concerned that a decision to implement NMD may provide the USA with an illusion of security whilst increasing the risks for many other countries by undermining strategic stability.
42. We are also concerned that NMD might not in any case offer the degree of protection sought by the US Administration. Doubts have been raised about the technological feasibility of NMD. The tests to date have not been impressive: the first intercept test in October 1999 scored an ambiguous hit, the second test in January 2000 was a miss and the third test on 7 July 2000 was another miss. Although President Clinton is not due to make his decision about deployment until the autumn, there has been widespread speculation in the media that the failure of the third test will mean that the decision is delayed until after the Presidential election. The Union of Concerned Scientists and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program published a report, by a panel of eleven independent senior physicists and engineers, which concluded that the planned NMD system could be easily overwhelmed by simple ‘countermeasures’. …
The Response of the UK Government to US Plans for National Missile Defence
43. … Certainly, the UK Government has to be realistic about the extent of its influence with the US Administration, but other EU partners and allies of the USA - notably France, Germany and Canada - have been much more vociferous in their opposition to NMD, a system which they believe will be destabilising. The Foreign Secretary denied that there was a split amongst members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. He said that he had been present at two meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Council when there had been a full round-table discussion of NMD. In his view, it would be ‘fair to say that there is a lot of common ground on what are the areas of difficulty and what would be an appropriate condition for this to proceed. It is not a question of the United States versus Europe, nor of the United Kingdom being isolated in its views either from the United States of from Europe.’ We recognise, however, that the UK is in a difficult and uneasy position on this sensitive and highly important issue, with countervailing pressures from its European and US allies.
44. The Government has been repeatedly asked to express its view of the US plans for NMD, by members of this Committee and by parliamentary colleagues, but refuses to be drawn on the issue and seeks to avoid taking a firm position at this stage, at least in public. The Government argues that the ABM Treaty, as a bilateral treaty between the USA and Russia, is a matter for these two parties alone to decide. The Government’s memorandum states that: ‘as with any other international treaty, the interpretation of the ABM Treaty is a matter for the Parties. It is not for non-parties, such as the United Kingdom, to offer their own interpretations of its provisions.’ Whilst this is certainly true, any decision to deploy NMD and to change the status of the ABM Treaty, especially if done without Russia’s agreement, will have a profound effect on international relations and strategic stability. Because of this, it is incumbent on the Government, as one of the five nuclear-weapon states and as a close ally of the USA, to make an early public statement on its analysis of NMD’s likely impact on strategic stability and its assessment of whether this would be in the overall security interests of this country.
45. This is all the more important due to the apparently contradictory views emanating from the FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office] and the MOD [Ministry of Defence]. While the FCO has made it clear that it continues to attach importance to the ABM Treaty and wishes it to be preserved and strengthened, the MOD is keeping open the possibility of acquiring a system of national missile defence in the future. The Secretary of State for Defence announced that ‘we will continue to consult closely with the US and take account of the work they are doing, to help us take an informed decision on whether to acquire such a capability ourselves in the future.’ Asked why the Government was keeping the option of NMD deployment by the UK open, the Foreign Secretary replied: ‘I do not honestly see that there would be any particular interest in closing it off, but at the present time there is no active commitment to it.’
46. The UK is not simply a bystander with regards to NMD. For implementation of the first phase of NMD to work, facilities at RAF Fylingdales will need to be upgraded, and this cannot happen without the UK Government’s assent. This puts the Government in a different position to many of our EU partners and NATO allies, who will not be asked to make similar decisions. The uniquely close nature of the US-UK relationship in the security field exacerbates the complex and sensitive nature of the Government’s response to NMD. A UK refusal to allow the upgrading of facilities at Fylingdales would be unprecedented and prove very testing for the alliance.
47. When the Government is asked whether it intends to allow the US Government to upgrade facilities at Fylingdales if NMD were to proceed, it argues that since no such request has yet been received from the US Government, no response has been given. The Foreign Secretary defended this stance as ‘an eminently sane position for a government to take.’ He argued further that ‘until we know both the nature of the question and also the circumstances in which we are being asked that question, it would be premature for us to debate what the response might be, particularly since at the moment there is no commitment by the United States to ask the question.’
48. A joint memorandum from the FCO and the MOD sets out the two most likely scenarios in which the Government might be asked to agree to the use of Fylingdales for NMD purposes and to its related upgrading. Under the first scenario, the USA and Russia would agree to modifications of the ABM Treaty which would permit the deployment of the first phase of an NMD system. Under the second scenario, an agreement would not be reached and the USA would have formally given notice of its withdrawal from the treaty. The following conclusions are then drawn about each of these scenarios:
‘In scenario (a), the upgrading and integration of RAF Fylingdales into NMD would presumably have been agreed by the Parties to be permitted under the terms of a modified ABM Treaty. In scenario (b), such constraints as the ABM Treaty currently places on the role of RAF Fylingdales would no longer be operative. Either way, the question of any possible breach of the treaty through the upgrading of the Fylingdales radar or its integration into any NMD system would not appear to arise.’
A decision by a US administration to seek permission to upgrade Fylingdales, having given formal notice of its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, would present the UK Government with an acute dilemma. Whether a ‘special relationship’ continues to exist between the USA and the UK is open to question, but the relationship remains a particular and distinct one, rather different from any shared with the USA by other member states of the EU. A decision by the UK to refuse a US President possibly a newly elected President committed to implementing NMD as essential to the security of the USA - would have profound consequences for UK/US relations. It is relevant to point out the Prime Minister’s latest statement on NMD:
‘We are trying to ensure that the fear that the United States has - perfectly legitimately and justifiably - is taken account of in a way that does not put at risk the substantial progress that has been made on nuclear disarmament over the past few years. It is vital, therefore, for us to continue a dialogue on what will be one of the most important issues that we shall have to face over the next few years.’
We commend the Prime Minister’s approach, whilst urging the Government to impress upon the US Administration that it cannot necessarily assume unqualified UK co-operation with US plans to deploy NMD in the event of unilateral US abrogation of the ABM Treaty.
49. We understand that the British Government, in determining its policy towards NMD, has to be realistic. The UK has a degree of influence but this is not definitive. For our part, we wish to emphasise strongly that our concern about US plans for NMD does not stem from opposition to, or even indifference to, our closest ally’s desire to protect itself: the question is whether the additional security that NMD might offer outweighs the negative impact of its deployment on strategic arms control. In any event, NMD would only offer the USA limited protection as the system would only defend the USA from WMD delivered by ballistic missiles and would not eliminate the total threat posed by such weapons. Other methods of meeting the threat posed by WMD, such as diplomatic persuasion, arms control, deterrence and other defensive measures, might also prove to be as effective and do not generate such difficulties for strategic stability.
50. We recommend that the Government articulate the very strong concerns that have been expressed about NMD within the UK. We are not convinced that the US plans to deploy NMD represent an appropriate response to the proliferation problems faced by the international community. We recommend that the Government encourage the USA to seek other ways of reducing the threats it perceives."
© 2000 The Acronym Institute.
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