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Missile Defence: Fylingdales

7.9 p.m.

Lord Redesdale rose to call attention to the policy implications of the decision to upgrade the United States Missile Defence Programme at Fylingdales; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I start by thanking the Government for giving us the opportunity for the debate. There could have been a government debate, but they kindly allowed us to have this debate in respect of the recent debate on Iraq.

The debate will not be a long one, as we do not have a long list of speakers. I wondered why that was, as I find the issue of immense importance. There are two reasons. The first is that the issue is probably overshadowed by Iraq, but that is also incredibly pertinent to the debate. The comments by Donald Rumsfeld over the weekend about the unilateral position of America in its approach to Iraq is of consequence to the development of the National Missile Defence system. If it is to lead to the defence of this country, there will have to be a joint effort between America and its allies. It would be extremely worrying if the missile defence system, which originated as the National Missile Defence programme, did not defend all America's allies equally.

The second reason is because, in a Statement on 15th January 2003, the Minister repeated the words of his right honourable friend in another place. Summing up on that debate—I apologise to him for quoting his words back to him—he said:

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    "We are announcing that it is the Ministry of Defence's and the Government's preliminary view that the request from the United States, which has not itself decided on a deployed missile defence system, for the existing equipment at Fylingdales to be upgraded should be given permission by the British Government. That is all. We are not making a decision today about whether or not the United Kingdom requires a missile defence system. That is something that we and Parliament must consider, and that will be done in due course. We are simply announcing that we are tending towards the view that we should be prepared to allow the United States' request".—[Official Report, 15/1/03; col. 264.]

That sounds eminently reasonable, and gives the impression that the decision has been taken for a minor change.

Indeed, the decision at Fylingdales appears to be a minor upgrade of software and hardware. It does not include massive changes at Fylingdales at present. However, what is being done has huge ramifications for international stability. The changes at Fylingdales hammer a nail into the coffin of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that was allowed to lapse on 13th June 2002. Obviously, that was a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia. Those who said that there could have been problems with the Russians on the subject have said that their acquiescence means that they do not see it as something of great import.

There is an alternative view. The Russians are not in a position to implement a missile defence system of their own and the Cold War is over. Nevertheless, as they hold a large number of nuclear missiles, the implication could be that they see missile defence as a threat, viewing it as an offensive weapon against a state with few nuclear weapons for first-strike capability. That could be a reason for Russia not to disarm the number of nuclear weapons that it might. I put that forward only as a hypothesis, but it could be extremely dangerous. Over the next few years, we all hope that the number of nuclear warheads held by Russia and the United States will decrease, but that might not be the case, which is of real concern.

A missile defence system, if seen in any other light, could be seen as having an offensive capability against a country with limited strategic capability. I speak of China. That is obviously not the reason for developing missile defence. However, the implications for strategic thinking in China would be worrying. It would see its limited strategic arsenal countermanded by an effective missile defence. That might lead to the escalation of its own nuclear weapons to counter that check. I put that forward only as a hypothesis, not as a realistic scenario. However, it will be in the background thinking of all those who deal with nuclear policy in other countries.

Another question with relevance in this country is this: with an effective missile defence system, what is the role of our own nuclear deterrent or that of, say, France? I put that forward only as a thought for the Ministry of Defence. Our nuclear deterrent is based on the principle of mutual assured destruction. If that principle is broken down by missile defence, is there any need for us to spend scarce resources on nuclear capability, as we will obviously be spending a vast amount of money on missile defence? We will have to

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meet its cost somehow. There might be a trade-off between having nuclear capability and paying our dues towards the procurement of a missile defence system.

The Minister will counter those arguments by saying that, at the moment, missile defence does not exist. The technology does not exist to make it work, but is being developed quickly. However, it is the declared intention of the US Administration that it should be a priority. They are moving with such speed on it that there is also talk of the deployment of an untried system in Alaska in the next two to three years, and a second system in California. It seems unfortunate to move with such speed, because so much money will be spent on trying to procure the system that it might destroy the whole concept of the system itself if military spending in the US has to be cut back. The Administration have procured an enormous amount of money for missile defence. They have upgraded their defence spending by 50 billion dollars a year, much of it to meet the costs of missile defence.

The concept is not new. It goes back to the Reagan era and the Strategic Defence Initiative or Star Wars. That system of space-based lasers foundered on the problem of technological feasibility. One of the victories of Star Wars is the claim that the Russians could not afford to counter it. However, we have to ask whether the present-day system is affordable. There are some worries about the technology about which we are talking, such as the short-range interceptors that will be positioned around rogue nations to intercept ballistic missiles shortly after launch. I foresee a number of problems with that. It assumes that countries around rogue nations will be used for the deployment of American missile systems, which could be destabilising in many parts of the world.

The second issue is that the ballistic missile would be counteracted when it left the Earth's atmosphere in the space/air area, which has real implications. How would that be done? If it was done from a launch from Earth, Fylingdales would pick up any such launch and an interceptor would be launched at that point. Is that technology currently feasible? Discussions on this issue have started to refer to basing weapons in space to counteract the space flight of any missile. That involves the weaponisation of space, which has real implications for the future. The Minister might respond that that is for the future but it is worth discussing now. Space-based weapons can be seen as a threat to almost any nation on Earth.

I turn to point defence, which would be for specific targets, such as small cities or installations that could be used in a missile defence programme, including Fylingdales. If the missile defence system is brought to a conclusion, we and the Americans might feel that it was necessary to defend Fylingdales with a point defence system. That would cause much concern to those living in Yorkshire because it would involve basing missile systems around the county. There is also the issue that point short-range interceptors when dealing with incoming missiles are most effective when

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nuclear tipped. That might be totally unacceptable. I realise that at this point no such missile defence system has been developed and that all of this is for the future.

The Government may say that it is inherently responsible for a government to consider this country's defence against the threat of a ballistic attack from a rogue nation. I must admit that I agree. The point of this debate is not to attack the Government's policy. We must in future make a measured judgment. I do not believe that we can say that this is the end of the argument and that there is currently no such issue. It will obviously involve much debate within the MoD and throughout the country—this issue will affect us all.

Is a ballistic attack the only threat that we face? Obviously not. By developing a missile defence system, we might well make it more attractive for potential aggressors to use other forms of delivery. If one wants to deliver a nuclear weapon, one could simply put it in a container, wrap it with lead and send it freight to one of many ports in the world. Current detecting systems would not pick up a nuclear weapon in a freight container. That is an horrendous scenario. One could also go for the non-nuclear option. Nuclear weapons are expensive to produce. As the situation in Iraq shows, chemical and biological weapons are much smaller, easier to mass produce and can be shifted around more easily than a nuclear weapon.

We must also consider the extent to which missile defence is cost effective in that scenario. The cost to the country will be huge. The Americans are obviously paying for the system's research and development. However, is it realistic to expect that we will not have to fork out for the cost of a missile defence system in this country? The cost of such a system could run into billions. The defence for that approach has been advanced. British industry, which has definite capabilities and expertise in missile defence and interceptor technology, will benefit from that. The future benefits must be carefully considered. Analysis of the Star Wars initiative showed that this country benefited financially hardly at all from its industrial research on the programme. We must also question whether the Americans will want to share the system's information technology. I am summing up—

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