Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. That long! We certainly heard some of that when we were in Washington, but how do the Americans prove, for example, to Russia and China that that is the technology that is going to be used and it cannot be enhanced further along the line to create a known danger or perceived danger to those two countries? That is obviously going to be an American problem, to get them to agree to this system but to say, "This is as far as we can go", but is it as far as we can go? How do they prove that?
  (Mr Roper) Certainly a key thing is how many interceptors the US starts to build. Russia has under the ABM Treaty the ability to deploy a hundred and has a significant number now and has done since the 1960s, which has not caused the US any great problems, but quite clearly America could have many tens of interceptors and in reality no capability against Russia. Indeed, it could have hundreds of interceptors and it would have only modest capability against the size of the Russian arsenal. In the case of China it is more difficult because she has a small number of long range nuclear-tipped missiles but has expansion plans and those expansion plans pre-date US missile defence initiatives.

  41. What I am trying to get at here on these initiatives is, can we have a leak-proof defence umbrella that people are going to recognise as leak-proof?
  (Mr Roper) It is very difficult to make it leak-proof. Certainly US plans envisage launching a number of missiles at every single incoming body to maximise the probability of intercepting but it is never 100 per cent.
  (Mr Hawtin) Can I pick up on this? As far as the United States are concerned what they have made plain they are concerned about is the limited and emerging missile defence threat from the states of concern we have talked about. They are addressing the threat as they see it from a handful of missiles. They have made it absolutely plain, both publicly and in discussions, we understand, with Russia and with China, that they are not concerned about the threat from, if I may put it in these terms, responsible existing nuclear powers. If one looks at the size of the Russian capability, 6,000 or so warheads, the kind of very limited missile defence capability the Americans are exploring is not in any way the kind of defence that could deal with that—

  42. Do the Russians and Chinese agree with that, that the Americans see that there is not a threat?
  (Mr Hawtin) You would have to ask the Russians and the Chinese. I think it is self-evident if one looks at the number of warheads that the Russians have and a limited missile defence capability to deal with a handful of missiles, that there is a massive disparity there. Equally I think the Americans have made it very plain apropros China that their concern, as we said earlier, is North Korea, not China.


  43. One of the criticisms of what the Americans are proposing is this suggestion of what some styled "Star Wars" as a media expression and a political expression. Are you saying it is qualitatively and quantitatively different? This is not a universal missile shield like the roof on the Millennium Stadium and it is not intended to be? Are you saying that it is obvious to people who are technically oriented that this is different from upgrading the radiant style shield that is impenetrable?
  (Mr Hawtin) I am saying exactly that, Chairman. I think you put it very well when you said it was qualitatively and quantitatively different, but again may I invite Mr Roper to explain why that is.
  (Mr Roper) Indeed it is very different quantitatively and qualitatively. The Reagan Strategic Defence Initiative was designed to shield America against a massive Soviet attack and it planned to use space based weapons, beams and particles, engaging Soviet missiles in the mid-course phase; technologically an immense challenge and extremely futuristic 20 years ago, to be frank. It is almost still as futuristic today and for a few years that initiative waned and they moved to something called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes in which the emphasis was still space based and still mid-course but they had moved to kinetic energy kill, but supplemented by ground based interceptors, so they had moved back by then to the more prudent concept of hitting a missile with a missile. That is far more prudent than space based weapons. That was designed to defend against a much smaller attack of perhaps 100 incoming Russian or other bodies, and that too waned after a few years and there was a bit of a hiatus as emphasis concentrated on theatre missile defence until Clinton re-opened the national missile defence debate, looking almost exclusively at the traditional ground-based interceptor technology, much more prudent, no exotic space based weapons in it and against a very thin attack, a few bodies only.

  44. But if the United States was going towards what some styled Star Wars would this be a route? Is this the route they would take and build upon it later or would it need to be something very different?
  (Mr Roper) The difference between the Clinton plans, which were focused on ground-based interceptors primarily, mid-course phase, and Bush Junior is that under Bush their research development engineering is now on a much broader front. They are looking at airborne weapons; they are looking at space weapons. There is a phrase you hear now that the current plans are not requirement driven; they are capability driven with the view that we are going to develop our technology across a broad front and when we find one we think works we will put it in service. That is why you struggle to find specific timescales in the Bush plans compared with Clinton. Having said that, if you look at the breakdown in the funding that the US is putting into effect the technology which was receiving most of the money was the element of the Clinton plan for ground-based interception.

Mr Roy

  45. Theatre defence?
  (Mr Roper) I am talking strategic here.

  46. But we were also told in America time and time again that there is still great store placed on theatre missile defence, for example Taiwan against China, which was obviously annoying the Chinese, although someone said, "They did not really mind too much to complain for just a little while" but the reality was that they are still focused on theatre missile defence when it comes to Taiwan.
  (Mr Roper) There has been a little bit more stability in the plans for theatre missile defence, certainly since the Gulf War. They have had plans of layered missile defence; again it is missile shooting down missile primarily. Those plans are moving forward and some elements are close to entering service.
  (Mr Hawtin) May I just add that Taiwan does not have theatre missile defences, just as a point of clarification and fact. Could I also go back to space, which Mr Roper touched on. The American policy is not to put weapons in space. They do I think have one or two technology demonstrator programmes in that area but weaponisation of space is not US policy.

Mr Hancock

  47. Hearing what you said, and listening very carefully to what the Americans said, at the end of the day, if the technology is still a decade or more away, the only real solution to a rogue state firing a missile is a pre-emptive strike against that missile, is it not, on the ground before it is fired? Surely that at the end of the day is the only real solution that gives you a guaranteed missile defence.
  (Mr Hawtin) One has to deal with the threat through a range of activities, as I said earlier, from arms control, export controls, through the spectrum to the other end, missile defence, which is one component of that strategy. The Americans are concerned about the growing threat, particularly from North Korea, and in their terms see missile defence against that as a sensible instrument in the armoury.

  48. The logical conclusion of that is that they failed on many of those courses, have they not? Nuclear proliferation has not stopped countries getting them. They have not been able to stop the technology. Countries have got them. They have not got a solution to this and the more they crank up public opinion in favour of coming up with something, they have got to solve it by some other means.
  (Mr Hawtin) I would not articulate the situation or American perceptions in quite those terms. The first point is very clear and that is that there is no one single simple silver bullet answer to the problem. One has to have an over-arching strategy and a set of inter-related instruments of the kind I have listed and I will not go through that again, but it is made plain in a number of statements by HMG and indeed in the Bush/Blair summit statements how missile defence fits into that broader spectrum. Secondly, I would not articulate American concerns as stimulating the debate in the way you are perhaps implying. What I see American concern and policy as directed towards is ensuring that we continue to operate across that spectrum but that in addition to the measures we are operating at the moment, as they see it there is a case for missile defence as one instrument in that armoury.

Mr Jones

  49. Clearly what you are saying is that the proposals that have been put forward by the Clinton administration were also put forward by the Bush Junior administration are largely different from the Star Wars initiative in terms of Reagan which were space based lasers etc. What is your assessment in terms of schemes even in the present priorities? Some more ambitious proposals? Are they workable? What is the timescale in terms of delivering some of these? The other thing is, of all the things that have been put forward at the moment what is the most promising to yield results most quickly?
  (Mr Roper) There is no doubt that the most robust solution is ground-based missiles intercepting the incoming threats in the mid-course phase. I do not think anybody would challenge that. We would all have different views about the prospects for the more exotic solutions. I am a traditionalist and I do not put huge faith in them in the near term.

  50. So in terms of currently where they are at, what is the most promising in the actual ground based theatre phase?
  (Mr Roper) The Americans have developed a large missile called the ground-based interceptor. It is like an ICBM. It is the one they plan to put in a test bed in Alaska and it is the one they are conducting a number of integrated flight tests on and they have had some successes and some failures. I have no doubt that with more development, more testing, the number of successes will grow as a proportion and the failures will shrink.

  51. What about the effectiveness of some of the more ambitious proposals in terms of laser technology? What is your assessment of where that is at?
  (Mr Roper) The airborne laser, which is a powerful laser on board a Boeing 747, has potential, and this is a system primarily for attacking missiles in the boost phase. You have to have it fairly close to the launch site, two or three hundred kilometres. That is quite difficult in terms of logistics. It depends on what country you are defending yourself against. In deep land-locked countries it would be very difficult to get that aircraft on station over there, but maybe North Korea has some potential. I think the US consider it to be of greater potential in the North Korea scenario.

  52. Supposing you get the technology right in terms of it working, you are never going to get a position where you are going to have a 100 per cent shield, are you, in any type of theatre or any type of country? If one missile gets through with either a chemical, biological or nuclear warhead on it, it is going to have a pretty major impact wherever it lands.
  (Mr Roper) Yes. Mathematically it is impossible to have 100 per cent success rate, but if you are facing a very small threat of just a small number of bodies, and you are prepared to launch several missiles at each of those, then very quickly the probability of at least one of your defensive missiles taking out a threat grows very sharply as you launch salvo size more and more.

  53. But is that not more difficult if you have got, for example, decoys and other things on warheads?
  (Mr Roper) The counter measure business is a fascinating business. A lot has been said about it. That is the downside potentially of the mid-course phase because, as I mentioned, a feather and a brick will follow the same trajectory, so what is to stop you throwing up a load of light things like feathers? It is not as easy as that, as we found when we upgraded Polaris to Chevaline. It is remarkably difficult to do it and throw a body off in a manner that makes it look credible and has a signature which looks the same. That was quite difficult in the 1970s against the sensors available then. It is more difficult today with the more sophisticated sensors the US can employ. It clearly can stress defences if you have got decoys, even ones which are fully credible. The radars will spend a bit of time deciding they are not credible and so, depending on the size of the raid coming in, we can begin run off assets to thoroughly investigate them, but it is not easy to do it and it is not easy to do it without flight tests. Any emergent state that thinks it can stick something on the missile and not go through an extensive flight trial programme and these decoys will be credible is almost certainly fooling itself.
  (Mr Hawtin) May I add two points to Mr Roper's remarks? The first is that we have focused discussion so far on a number of systems that there is a possibility that the Americans are testing and researching, but I should emphasise, as I am sure the Committee were told in Washington, they are conducting research and development across a very wide spectrum of possibilities and have not decided which are the best of those, and indeed their whole approach is to research, develop and pick and choose potential winners, so we do need to keep that in mind. Secondly, in terms of deterrence, no system is 100 per cent effective. I think it is not unfair to observe that the inhabitants of the United States would doubtless rather be covered by a missile defence that was 50 per cent effective, for example, rather than none at all. In terms of deterrence were one to have a missile defence system the reality is that that complicates the calculations of any potential aggressor and reduces the chances of a successful missile attack and therefore the risks from that potential aggressor. We can also take into account and put into the equation the distinct likelihood that any attack would be met with an appropriate response from the United States.


  54. Because of the closeness of our relationship with the United States, which we shall not go into, one would anticipate the United States keeping us pretty well informed as to what they are doing. It is a sensitive question, Mr Hawtin. You do not need me to tell you what the sensitive questions are, but how surprised would we be if the Americans came out with a new technology that worked other than reading it in The Times or The Guardian? Are we involved in that process? Are there any surprises? Do we have British researchers engaged in this kind of work? How well appraised are we of all the work that is going on in the United States?
  (Mr Hawtin) I will ask Mr Roper to give you some supporting detail.

  55. It is his neck on the block then, not yours?
  (Mr Hawtin) No, no. I will start by putting my neck on the block. I would never wish to say we had total visibility of another country's activities but we do believe we are being kept very closely informed by the Americans of what is going on, that we have very close links and contacts with them, and we also have various co-operative programmes and activities which Mr Roper might like to expand upon.
  (Mr Roper) We have an MOU with the United States on ballistic missile defence signed in 1985, so we have been running with that for 16 or 17 years. There are two main threads to that agreement. It is an enabling agreement to allow for collaborative exchanges of research and technology information in the ballistic missile defence area, but it is not system specific. This is not an agreement by which they share with us details of hardware they are going to put into service. That is the first tenet of the agreement. The second one is that it is an agreement that enables the US to invest in UK industry as part of their own programmes. A certain amount of money has been invested by the US in our industry in ballistic missile defence. We have all sorts of exchanges with them on generic technology and we have exchange scientists working over there and exchange scientists of theirs working over here. It is all generic.
  (Mr Hawtin) More generally, the United States are not keeping simply the United Kingdom but their NATO allies closely briefed on what they are doing.

  56. Sometimes you have the impression, whenever a sensitive question is asked to a defence minister or foreign minister, they throw their hands in the air and say, "We have not had any request from the United States. We are awaiting a request" and one has the impression they think they are portraying the fact that we are rather distant from what the Americans are thinking and doing and we are awaiting them conferring information upon us on which we will be obliged to answer.
  (Mr Hawtin) There are two distinct issues there. There is the visibility and knowledge of what the Americans are doing which we have just described. There is the separate issue of what the Americans might ask for on which again we can go into detail, but the factual position is they have not made a specific request.

Syd Rapson

  57. What role do Fylingdales and Menwith Hill play at the moment? We assume that they are able to track missile warheads coming from the east towards America, but they are not sophisticated enough to guide missile defence interceptors at the moment. Although you have just said that the US have not asked us to adapt these sites at all, from what you have seen of what is going on, if there was an adaption requested, what would it be and how long would it take for us to get into the changes?
  (Mr Hawtin) There are a lot of questions there which I am not, I am afraid, going to be able to give you precise answers to but can I try and disentangle those? You started by asking what the functions of Fylingdales and Menwith Hill are. Let me start on that and Mr Roper may be able to give you more technical information. Fylingdales provides the United Kingdom with early warning of ballistic missile attack against the United Kingdom and western Europe and the United States with early warning for attacks on North America. That is the function that it has been carrying out for very many years and it continues to carry out. Menwith Hill is part of the worldwide defence communications network of the United States Department of Defence and it provides intelligence support for the United Kingdom, United States and NATO interests.

  58. That covers what it does at the moment. I did mention that it is not sophisticated enough to guide interceptors. Is that true?
  (Mr Hawtin) Yes. There is an upgrade programme for the existing radar at Fylingdales[15].

  (Mr Roper) It is the wrong term to say that Fylingdales is not sophisticated enough to do that. Fylingdales is a very sophisticated radar but the software does not currently require it to track bodies. If the defence support satellites spot a ballistic missile launch, it will cue Fylingdales[16] and other elements of BMEWS chain and they will look for the incoming bodies and spot them. It will evaluate the trajectory and calculate where it is going to land on the ground. That was all it was required to do. Where is this incoming threat going to land, to enable other things to happen? In doing that, clearly inside the guts of the radar is all the information required to give you information on tracking because in a ballistic missile defence role you do not need to know just where it is going to land; you need to be able to track it to enable an intercept to take place. All that information is in the radar; it is just that the software is not ready to use it. It is a bit like, if you have a PC at home and you say, "Is my PC powerful enough to draw a coloured picture?" It is. If you have only got Microsoft Word loaded, it will not do it, so primarily we understand the upgrade to be a software change, not a change to the radiative pattern of the radar, which is very powerful.

  59. If we wanted to upgrade it to what the United States might want to do, it would be a fairly easy software package upgrade, not a major change to X-band sensors?
  (Mr Hawtin) We have not had a specific request and we therefore do not have the precise details of what the United States might want to ask for.

15   Note from Witness: It is more accurate to say that this is relevant to the potential Fylingdale requirements. Back

16   Note from Witness: It is more accurate to say alert rather than cue. The radar search pattern does not change following a DSP warning, but the operators move to maximum alertness. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 19 April 2002