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Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 21:41 GMT
US asks to use British spy base
Demonstrators in November 2002
Campaigners have protested at the RAF base
The US has requested use of the RAF's early warning station at Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, as part of its controversial missile defence programme, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has announced.

Critics have attacked the timing of the widely-anticipated announcement, which comes on the eve of Parliament's Christmas recess.

The whole public discussion is a public relations exercise

Neil Kingsnorth
Mr Hoon confirmed the request for aid with the "Son of Star Wars" system in a written statement to Parliament, but a reply is not expected until next year.

Mr Hoon said: "The government will now consider the US request very seriously, agreeing to it only if we are satisfied that it will ultimately enhance the security of the UK and the Nato Alliance.

"I will make a further statement in due course."

The defence secretary has already urged the public to look at the merits of a missile defence system, and the MoD listed a number of advantages last month.

News of the request came as it emerged President George Bush ordered his military to begin deploying a limited system to defend the United States against ballistic missiles.

Fylingdales has an advanced radar which could track missiles launched by rogue states or terrorists in, for example, the Middle East.

They would then in theory be shot down as they neared the US coast.

Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary
Hoon is believed to favour the US request
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) says the government decision would be undemocratic without a full public debate.

CND spokesman Neil Kingsnorth said he believed the decision had already been made.

"The whole public discussion is a public relations exercise," he said.

"The decision has already been made, they have already given the nod to America unofficially and we are pretty sure that the answer will be yes at some point."

Protest e-mails

Mr Kingsnorth admitted it would be impossible to organise a demonstration so near to Christmas but urged the public to bombard the government with protest e-mails.

"A new missile defence system would give America absolute dominance over land, sea, air and information," he said.

That would effectively give the US a shield allowing them to attack somebody without worrying about retaliation, he argued.

"It also means that other states, like rogue states, will increase their military arsenals which will speed up the nuclear arms race," added Mr Kingsnorth.

"We are just hoping they will say no."

Conservative shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin instead urged ministers to agree to the US request, rather than hesitating and listening to their own backbenchers.

"We all know that they are going to agree eventually, because the American missile defence programme is as much about British and European security as America's own security."

Commons debate

Opponents say the "Son of Star Wars" scheme is unnecessary, would not work and would simply make the UK a target - without giving it a protective screen of missiles.

Labour backbenchers such as Malcolm Savidge have demanded a Commons debate on whether Britain should participate.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell was among those arguing that any defence system would have to be underpinned by a non-proliferation regime.

Such a system would also have to be available to all Nato and EU nations, said Mr Campbell.

With the government consulting on the issue, he added, "it would be wholly inappropriate to prejudge the outcome of that process" by agreeing to the US request before all views were in.

Sixties start

RAF Fylingdales is a landmark structure on the North Yorkshire Moors, a giant three-sided building giving an eye-catching contrast to the landscape.

It was first opened in 1962 as a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System.

The station still serves that purpose but also has a secondary duty of detecting, reporting and tracking satellite launches and orbits. The data it produces is shared with the UK and US.

The station was originally famous for its three golf-ball shaped radars, which were replaced in 1980 with a pyramid-shaped radar.

The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"So far it's still not been proved to work"
Patrick Garrett, Global Security website
"The United States will be upgrading the radar system"

Talking Point: UK missile defenceMissile defence
Would Britain's co-operation make UK safer?
See also:

09 Dec 02 | Politics
20 Nov 02 | England
20 Feb 02 | Politics
13 Jul 01 | Americas

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