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Son of Star Wars

The US has now requested British co-operation on Missile Defence. Malcolm Savidge analyses the Government's response in its 'public discussion paper'.

The three main possibilities for involvement are radar stations (Fylingdales and perhaps Menwith), interceptor missile bases and investment in the system.

In analysing this it may be useful to apply the same tests that were originally applied in the States: cost; threat; technical feasibility; diplomatic consequences.

Prices are counted in US Billions (thousand million dollars).  Since the Bush administration is considering a comprehensive system (to intercept missiles at all three phases of flight from land, sea, air and space) the cost will be hundreds of billions with a British contribution liable to be in billions. 

Accordingly there are immense corporate financial interests and there will be attempts to sell MD on grounds of British business and employment opportunities.  It would be a wildly exorbitant job creation scheme. 

Axis of evil

The 'discussion paper' reckons that no state would currently specifically target missiles at the UK, but says that "the UK government has in recent years identified a number of countries of concern" as a potential future threat.   These precisely coincide with Bush's 'Axis of Evil'. They are nowhere near having rockets capable of reaching Britain.  The paper recognises that terrorists are unlikely to try to use ballistic missiles to deliver weapons of mass destruction, but fails to follow the logic of the National Intelligence Estimate to the Senate, that this could also apply to 'countries of concern'. 

ICBMs are difficult and expensive to produce, launch bases could be visible to satellite surveillance, tests could certainly be seen, inviting a pre-emptive conventional strike. 

Untested missiles would be likely to fail.  An actual missile attack on a major power would be instantly traceable, inviting devastating retaliation. 

Smuggled weapons of mass destruction can be covertly developed and employed with accuracy and without warning, with the source masked to avoid immediate retaliation, and the claim of other smuggled weapons as a subsequent deterrent. 

Technical Feasibility

The most recent missile defence tests have been shrouded in secrecy, and the US media have questioned whether this has been less for security reasons than to cover up rigging.  Successful interceptions have depended on good weather conditions, prior knowledge of the timing and trajectory of the missile, few and easily distinguishable decoys, and, in one case, a signalling beacon on the dummy warhead.  

Serious scientific questions are asked as to whether a system could possibly work effectively in real-life situations, or overcome such countermeasures as having the warhead and decoys concealed within identical metallic balloons.  With a system, the first real test of which would be against a real enemy, can infallibility be presumed?

Diplomatic consequences

Widespread scepticism about the practicability of MD might suggest that the international community might not see it as a threat.  But military establishments work on worst-case analysis and will plan on the assumption it might work.  Russia is continuing to pursue détente despite unhappiness over the abrogation of the ABM Treaty. 

However such humiliations increase the risk of destabilisation or alienation of Russia in the future.  China is increasing its planned nuclear expansion as a direct response to MD.  This could result in knock-on effects in India and Pakistan, further destabilising an already volatile situation in South Asia. 

US abandonment of the ABM Treaty, taken together with direct contraventions of other undertakings given under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2000, and the blocking or breaching of other arms control agreements seriously threatens the whole non-proliferation regime.  

If MD involves putting weapons in space that would create a dangerous new area for proliferation.  Since MD threatens reduced missile stocks it could deter further multilateral disarmament.   

For US right wing advocates of MD, undermining Arms Control is not seen as an undesirable outcome.

A gung-ho approach to world problems prefers military to diplomatic solutions, including launching pre-emptive wars against countries regarded as potential threats.  MD is seen as the defensive cover behind which military might can be exercised with impunity, and Iraq as the first opportunity to adopt the new aggressive policy.

There is a difference between the UK standing shoulder to shoulder with the US in opposing terrorism and in the defensive alliance of NATO; and committing ourselves unconditionally to involvement in possible future US military aggression. 

The more closely the UK is involved in MD the more closely the UK is tied into future US action.  Given the present prominence of unilateralist hawks in Washington this could increase the risk of the UK becoming a target, either in war or of terrorism.

MD is massively costly and proffers doubtful protection against an extremely remote risk.  It distracts from and in certain cases increases far more real dangers to both Britain and the international community. 

Should a British Labour Government get involved in a system which is contrary to British interests and undermines multilateralism and arms control?

Malcolm K Savidge is Labour MP for Aberdeen North and Convener of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation