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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 18:27 GMT
National Missile Defence

While the US National Missile Defence system may appear an American domestic issue, the UK could find itself playing a major role in a growing international controversy.

BACKGROUND

In July last year $100m of cutting edge defence technology went up in smoke - literally - when the latest test firing of the proposed US National Missile Defence (NMD) system failed.

President Bill Clinton decided to postpone the system but his successor, George W Bush, has ordered the military to go ahead.


HOW IT WORKS

NMD is a continental defensive screen which aims to protect the United States from missile attacks by what it considers to be "rogue states".

NMD Facts
Target date: 2005
Predicted costs: $32.8bn
Requires bases in UK and Greenland
Patchy test results
According to the US, states including Iran and North Korea could have ballistic missiles capable of hitting North America within a decade.

In theory, NMD ground radar stations and satellites would detect a missile launch.

Missile centres at strategic locations (currently proposed to be Alaska and North Dakota) would then be alerted to launch interceptors.

Guided from the ground, these would intercept the in-coming missiles, destroying them in the upper atmosphere.


The United States has made it clear that it intends to deploy some effective national missile defence system. We should treat [the decision] seriously and with respect.

Nato secretary general Lord Robertson
Defence analysts are divided on whether the system will actually ever work as the test results so far have shown it to be far from 100% reliable.

Washington needs international co-operation from its Nato allies.

The current proposals mean that the system can work effectively only if US radar and satellites are tied into new communications and tracking stations in up to three other locations - the UK, Greenland and possibly Australia.

There are also figures within the US defence establishment who dispute whether rogue states would bother trying to fire a missile at the US.

In a February 2000 hearing, Robert Walpole, a senior CIA official, told the Senate that while Iran and others were developing missiles, the intelligence community believed that the US was "more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction from non-missile delivery means, most likely from non-state entities".


INTERNATIONAL FEARS

However, NMD has already had far reaching implications for the United States' relationship with Russia and China.

Russia's President Putin has said that while he accepts that rogue nuclear states could be a threat, America's proposed medicine in the form of NMD was "worse than the disease".


In the coming years, US territory is probably more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction from non-missile delivery means (most likely from non-state entities) than by missiles because non-missile delivery means are less costly and more reliable and accurate.

CIA official Robert Walpole, Feb 2000
The crucial issue at stake here is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

The ABM's underlying principle is that the US and Russia will never launch an attack on each other because they are equally vulnerable to each other's nuclear arsenal - the so-called "mutual assured destruction" theory of nuclear strategy.

Russia says that NMD would mean that the US would no longer need to worry about a retaliatory attack, destroying the balance.

This in turn, it warns, would lead Moscow to conclude that all other arms control agreements were null and void.

Beijing has described NMD as a disguised attempt to render its small nuclear arsenal useless.

It fears that the US could use a regional version of the system to exert its influence on China's doorstep, especially over Taiwan.

Analysts say this could prompt China to exploit grey areas in international arms control by creating closer ties with states such as Iran - exactly the kind of state which the US fears could be a threat.


TROUBLE IN THE US

The debate is far from over within the US itself.

The Federation of American Scientists, a world authority on nuclear thinking, says that while the "benefits of NMD are dubious, the dangers created by a decision to deploy are clear".

In an open letter to President Clinton last year, the FAS said: "It would be difficult to persuade Russia or China that the United States is wasting tens of billions of dollars on an ineffective missile system against small states that are unlikely to launch a missile attack on the US.

"The Russians and Chinese must therefore conclude that the presently planned system is a stage in developing a bigger system directed against them."


THE POSITION IN EUROPE

Despite doubts over whether NMD would work, the UK would play an important role.

The US runs two military installations in Yorkshire - Fylingdales and Menwith Hill.


It is a US debate and not a debate between Britain and the US

Robin Cook, February 2001
Full-scale implementation of NMD would require new "X-band" radar arrays at Fylingdales and new isntallations at Menwith Hill because the UK is ideally situated to track missiles fired from Asia over the North Pole towards the US.

In government, Labour said that it would take no decision until formally asked by Washington.

But in an interview with the US magazine Forbes, Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "Provided we handle it with care, there is a way through which meets America's objectives and other people's concerns."

This was taken by many within his own party as a hint that he would sign up.

Days before the election was called, Mr Blair insisted that the policy remained "wait and see". Minutes later, his official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, responded to a question from journalists saying that NMD was "a good idea" - though Downing Street insists that his remarks were taken out of context.

Peter Kilfoyle, the former Labour defence minister, has told the BBC that Washington had still failed to prove that there was a "credible threat" that required the system.

"NMD is based on a false premise but it does make the UK a frontline threat," he said.

"It destabilises relationships within Europe. These are very high stakes in order to feed what many believe is a degree of paranoia among the new US administration."

France and Germany are also on the record as believing NMD could have grave implications for European defence - prompting fears of a split between Nato partners.

In stark contrast, the Conservatives support NMD and advocate its development as a pan-Nato defensive system.

Iain Duncan-Smith, the party's defence spokesman, said: "Because [ministers] are worried about the response, they're pretending that they haven't taken a position."

"But privately they were telling the previous administration that when they finally asked them they would agree to it."


'SLOW BURNING FUSE'

Professor Paul Rogers of Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies and an international authority on the nuclear threat, has predicted that NMD would turn the UK into a "prime target" - but there was little chance that the US would fund defences for Europe.

"All the NMD architecture so far has been for a continental defence system," he told BBC News Online.

"If this was going to be applied to Europe or parts of Europe, it would have to be at immense cost."

Prof Rogers said that the government's current "no decision yet" policy was being driven by public and Labour Party opinion considerations.

And while he said it was too early to say whether this would develop into a national controversy to rival cruise missiles at Greenham Common, there was already a "slow burning fuse" among public opinion.

"And because of that, the government doesn't want it to be an election issue," he said.

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