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5.36 pm

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Like many hon. Members, I follow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in paying tribute to the service and sacrifice of our armed forces in such theatres as the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland, where we have been fighting for peace and in defence of human rights and human life. I chose those three theatres because it is pleasing to see that there are better prospects for peace in them. I am sure that the whole House hopes that those prospects will flower.

I am sure, too, that all hon. Members will support the comments of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who paid tribute to the former prisoners of war of the Japanese. We welcome the Government's indication that, at long last, they will receive compensation.

In his speech yesterday, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), concentrated on two issues that he suggested would split NATO: the European security and defence identity and what he called BMD--ballistic missile defence. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) focused on the ESDI; I shall focus on BMD.

I was sorry to miss the speech made yesterday by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), because I had to chair a meeting. As ever,

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his contribution was impressive and comprehensive. He made eloquently many of the points that I wanted to raise, so I shall abbreviate some of my remarks by referring to his.

The whole House agrees that national missile defence, or BMD, will have a massive influence on Britain. Although that will apply whoever is elected as the US President, there will be differences according to which of the two main candidates is successful. As neither has spelt out a detailed policy on the matter, I deduced what such policies might be. I relied in particular on articles written by their supporters and advisers and on discussions held by an all-party group that visited Washington. We spoke to members of both main parties and to people who held a broad spectrum of views on defence. I made use of a seminar convened by the Heritage Foundation, at which the shadow Secretary of State spoke and which was attended by several Conservative Members.

The rationale for NMD is the perceived threat that rogue states could obtain weapons of mass destruction and the missile delivery systems for them. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report records that the consensus of the expert evidence that it received was that both the extent and the immediacy of that threat had been massively hyped in the United States. The Committee suggested that political and commercial interests had perhaps been more important than a strategic, objective assessment. One contribution to the Heritage Foundation seminar seemed to imply that, as it used phrases such as "protect our cities" and "protect our families", appealing to the American frontier spirit--to which the gun lobby also tends to appeal--suggesting that the other party would be "weak on defence", and asking why anyone should object to the system, as it was purely defensive. People who use that last argument are rather like the person who says, "If I go out wearing a flak jacket wherever I go, I am not really being aggressive", and does so while carrying a sub-machine gun. However, I digress.

To return to my main argument, the perception is that the threat from rogue states has been gravely exaggerated--that the United States should not underestimate the enormous deterrent effect of its vast nuclear and conventional forces. As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife said, even the most unpredictable and ruthless tyrant can have a very strong sense of self-preservation. However, I repeat what I have said previously in this House--that I do not underestimate any of the threats that face us. I realise that there is always a possibility that weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems could fall into the hands of a maniac who was simultaneously genocidal and suicidal.

On the rogue states situation, it must be a source of relief to us all that the political and diplomatic situation has improved to the point where, as a result of the improvement in North Korea and other states, our US allies are talking about "states of concern". The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife enumerated that more fully.

The impression is that the Clinton presidency was perhaps largely pushed on NMD by the political factors that I mentioned earlier. It indicated that a decision on NMD would largely depend on objective criteria--such things as technical feasibility, the perceived threat, effects on arms control and diplomatic relations, and costs. One must assume that a Gore presidency would probably work on the same basis.

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I hope that, when the new presidency sees the reduction in the threat by other means, it recognises that even limited national missile defence would have an effect on the anti-ballistic missile treaty, on the nuclear non- proliferation treaty and on arms control generally, and that it assesses the feasibility of such a defence--which ties in with cost, because so far we have had one dubious hit out of three--and reconsiders the whole idea of missile defence.

The failures of the tests so far are one of the reasons why supporters and advisers of Mr. Bush have given for going along with ballistic missile defence--by which they mean something more extensive than NMD--and I believe that that is why the shadow Secretary of State uses that particular phrase. This is a BMD that might be sea-launched, space-based and land-based, and could cover boost-phase, mid-phase and final-phase interception.

The first thing to recognise is that to develop such a system would be a total abrogation of the ABM treaty. Some of those who support such a course of action claim that that treaty no longer exists because the Soviet Union no longer exists. However, we are not talking about only one treaty. It should be remembered that when we reached the agreement, which Britain played a major part in achieving, at the end of the 2000 negotiations on the NNPT, part of what was agreed to by all states present was

The Russians--or some Russians--have suggested that there could also be a connection between the ABM treaty and both the strategic arms limitation talks and the strategic arms reduction talks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) said, there is a real risk that we could undermine the whole arms control regime.

In a similar vein, even limited nuclear missile defence could have the danger of encouraging Russia to update its nuclear weapons or China to expand its. That would hardly be surprising, because extreme advocates of BMD already argue that it should be used against China. As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife pointed out, if missile defence were up and running, who is to say that that lobby would not become increasingly vociferous? The right hon. and learned Gentleman also pointed out that if China were to expand its nuclear weapons capability, there would be a grave danger of a knock-on effect on a series of other countries in south-east Asia.

Some extreme exponents of BMD discount Chinese concerns--and the most extreme of them even discount Russian concerns--on the basis that neither country can afford to rival the US if it decides to expand its arsenals. However, the economic destabilisation--or, in one case, the further economic destabilisation--of a major nuclear weapons state is extremely dangerous in itself and must also increase the dangers of the export of nuclear and/or missile technology at state or private criminal level.

Proponents of BMD talk about protecting US cities and families, but some of their rhetoric suggests that they would take a gung-ho adventurist approach to dealing with present or future nuclear weapons states in the

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confidence that the US had an impenetrable missile shield. Unless the technology were infallible, those US cities and families--and US allies--might find themselves in greater jeopardy.

I am particularly concerned at the suggestion of boost- phase interception--sea-based or otherwise. That has been proposed not just by the Republican right--the former Defence Secretary, Harold Brown, and others have proposed the same idea in Foreign Affairs. The technical feasibility of firing from a ship is questionable, but it is undoubtedly true that to try to intercept in the less than five minutes of the boost phase is easier because the target is larger, slower, hot and no decoys can be used.

However, missiles would be dispersed around the world and in close proximity to nuclear weapon states. The boost phases last less than five minutes, so within how many seconds of suspected detection of the launch of a missile would a decision have to be taken to fire and intercept a missile? At what level of the chain of command would the decision be taken and how many seconds would there be to take it? If an intercept missile were accidentally fired towards a nuclear weapons state and the act were misinterpreted, what would the consequences be? Are we really suggesting that our safety for future centuries could be within a few seconds of such an accident? The sword of Damocles would seem rather safe by comparison.

To try to reduce a comparatively remote threat that can be reduced by other means, our US allies are in danger of increasing far greater threats--regional nuclear war, nuclear terrorism and nuclear weapons fired by accident or through misunderstanding--with the horrific possibility of an uncontrolled situation resulting in a holocaust.

The shadow Secretary of State suggested that the Government should lead Europe in discussions with our US allies on this issue. I agree with his suggestion, but I fear that he means that we should lead Europe in trying to persuade everyone to accept unconditionally whatever the US decides. That is not a good way to be an ally. I hope that, whoever becomes American President, the United Kingdom Government will--not necessarily publicly or by megaphone diplomacy--follow the suggestion of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that we articulate our strong concerns about missile defence and encourage the US to seek other ways of reducing the threats that it perceives to exist. I hope that we shall consider seriously the suggestion made by Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, the UN Under- Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, which is supported by Kofi Annan. We should think about taking an initiative to get an international conference of all countries, including those nuclear weapons states that do not involve themselves in the present treaty negotiations, on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. The issue is of such vital importance that we cannot afford to waste time.

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