Parliamentary debates

House of Commons Debate 4th February 2009

What was said the House of Commons about Missile Defense

4 Feb 2009: Column 944

United States Missile Defence Shield
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Ms Butler.)

6.38 pm
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I have been struck by a couple of political clichés in the past few days. One was the attempts by the Foreign Secretary and the American Secretary of State to outdo each other in singing the praises of the special relationship, whatever that may mean to each of us. The other was the comments that I read today, made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who referred to the claim that American intelligence would be withdrawn in certain circumstances in relation to Guantanamo Bay. I mention that because in military terms, American intelligence is sometimes an oxymoron, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, one needs to understand what both clichés imply when considering our role in missile defence.

We are at a point in time when we have a new American President, whom I shall pray in aid in the course of my speech. I urge hon. Members, and certainly the Minister, not to get too excited by President Obama. I would, if I may, refer him to page 309 of “The Audacity of Hope” to show how difficult it can be to appraise American intentions. President Obama is talking about the need to establish a consensus before the kind of precipitate action for which the Bush Administration became a byword is taken. He says:

“Nor do I mean that we round up the United Kingdom and Togo and then do as we please”.

I find that a rather disparaging comment. I think that it shows disdain, if not contempt, for the United Kingdom—or perhaps he is just being absolutely honest. Nevertheless, it is the framework within which I believe that the new Administration will work.

I have spoken many times about missile defence; let me remind the House of what it is. It is a successor to President Reagan’s strategic defence initiative—star wars, as it was called. It was initially called, very tellingly, national missile defence, until even the Bush Administration realised that that implied that it was an American system for American defence—as in fact it was—and changed it to missile defence, often known by the acronym BMD: ballistic missile defence. The only way in which this could be introduced was by the Bush Administration being able to withdraw from the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, which they did.

The system is a highly sophisticated technological concept by which a missile, or projectile, is fired at a missile at one of several stages in order to take it out in the course of its flight. It has been likened to a bullet hitting a bullet at about 1,600 kph. Over the years I have conversed with people such as Ted Postol, who was the father of the Trident missile system, and Dick Garwin, who started his professional life as a weapons expert on the H-bomb. One would associate both those men, by their own admission, with the right of the political spectrum. They are hardly loony lefties, but they are united, along with many other members of the Federation of American Scientists, in one belief—that this is a wholly impractical system. To my knowledge, it still has not been shown to be a proven way of intercepting offensive missiles.

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The question has often been posited—and nobody has ever been able to reply to it—“What happens if a so-called rogue state holds one of these weapons and sends it into space, and the United States, or whoever, has some means, as the technology currently stands, whereby it could guarantee that it could knock it out, and that state, which is presumably sophisticated enough to do so, incorporates some kind of decoy into its missile? That is, as yet, a completely untested proposition. The tests to date have included decoys of a different sort—homing devices that have enabled rockets to be semi-accurate. I can just see a rogue state putting a homing device into a rocket for us to knock out.

President Obama has, in all fairness, expressed doubts about this. He has said that he wants to

“ensure that it is developed in a way that is pragmatic and cost-effective; and, most importantly, does not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public.”

Will it work? Is it affordable? Those are very big questions that need to be answered, certainly in terms of our involvement, for reasons that I will come to in a moment. The truth is that we have fallen blindly in line behind this system with, in their different ways, right-wing Governments in the Czech Republic and Poland because of what is almost a paranoia fostered by what Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex. Huge amounts of money—hundreds of billions of dollars—are invested in the development of this system, and that money comes from names that are familiar to those who have studied the trade in death otherwise known as the arms trade. They will not let go of their vested interest lightly .

There is no question but that there are dangers abroad in the world, but Members will recall the coining of the phrase “the axis of evil”. The No. 1 member of the axis of evil that had to be removed at one stage was Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That removal was predicated upon mythical weapons of mass destruction: many of us did not believe in them then, and we were shown to be right. The focus then moved to North Korea, which was launching missiles all over the place. We were told that North Korea was building up enough fissile material to create a certain number of bombs, and that the matter had to be resolved. There were threats of military action, but it all came down to negotiation. To bring things up to date, we now have someone else to demonise. We demonise Iran because it has a nuclear power programme. Doctor el-Baradei, who nobody believed when he said there were no WMDs in Iraq, has done a commendable job on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Authority in monitoring what is happening in Iran. With its launch of a satellite using its own missile, those who want to have someone to fear find it even easier to demonise it.

As I said, President Obama seems at best equivocal about missile defence. People of some import within Europe, such as President Sarkozy, have dismissed the missile defence project as destabilising. It seems to be Governments of a certain persuasion in parts of the former Soviet Union’s area of influence who have given any sort of support to missile defence.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend not share my astonishment that former Prime Minister Tony Blair said to President Bush that he could have missile defence in this country? Unlike what happens in Poland and the Czech Republic, there has so far been no substantive debate or vote whatsoever in Parliament on this matter. Does he agree that, at the very least, the matter deserves parliamentary scrutiny because of the implications for an arms build-up, or pressure in Russia for a rearmament programme?

Mr. Kilfoyle: My hon. Friend has pre-empted the kernel of what I am driving towards. If he will be a little patient, I shall come to that issue in some detail. But he is right to indicate that there has been great disquiet in the United Kingdom, and not always from the sources that we might expect. Some of us in this party are painted as taking a particular view on the different manifestations of militarism, but the Select Committee on Defence issued a report in January 2003 commenting on the modernisation of Fylingdales, which I visited at that time to see the new radar that was being installed. The project was going ahead—that was a statement of fact.

The Select Committee noted:

“We deplore the manner in which the public debate on the issue of the upgrade…has been handled by the Ministry of Defence. It has shown no respect for either the views of those affected locally by the decision or for the arguments of those opposed to the upgrade in principle…We believe that it is incumbent on the MOD to publish as much of the detail of the request as it is able to. For example, more information could be published on the timescale for…its incorporation into the US missile defence system and how the system would be able to track missiles.”

The Committee had real and practical concerns.

Other comments of concern were also made. In November 2007, more than 110 MPs signed early-day motion 65. It was entitled “Parliament and decisions over US missile defence”, and it called upon the Government to arrange a full debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said a moment ago,

“to allow hon. Members to scrutinise in public the US Missile Defence deployment plans in the UK.”

In November 2008 more than 50 MPs, including former Ministers, issued a public statement calling for a public debate on US plans to push ahead with the missile defence system using bases in the UK and Europe.

An open debate would have been the key to finding out what was going on. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) asked the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in a parliamentary question:

“When does he intend to tell the House of Commons the nature of his discussions with President Bush about the possible deployment of part of an anti-ballistic missile system for the United States in the United Kingdom?”

A pretty straightforward question, I would have thought. Unfortunately, once again, what we all believed at the time to be a commitment by the then Prime Minister was just smoke and mirrors. He replied:

“We will tell the House as soon as there is something to say. At the moment, those discussions are at a very preliminary stage, but it is important that we have them with the United States to see what options are available for this country and whether ballistic missile defence would be good for us or not. It is entirely sensible that we have those discussions—obviously they are on a confidential basis, but as soon as we have something to report we will do so.”

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Having been probed further by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he went to say:

“I am sure that we will have the discussion in the House and, indeed, outside the House when we reach the point at a which a proposition can be put before people. Of course, the technology is untried”—

so we agree on one thing—

“and is under development in the United States which, as was indicated a short time ago, is in discussion with Poland and the Czech Republic…It is entirely sensible for us to work out the possible options and what the country’s possible interests are. When we have a proposition to put, we will come back and put it. No doubt, the right hon. and learned Gentleman can then tell us whether or not he is in favour of it.”—[ Official Report, 28 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 919-920.]

I am sorry to say that that opportunity was not given to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. In a written statement issued to Parliament on 25 July 2007, one day before the House rose for the summer recess, the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), wrote:

“On 5 February 2003 the Secretary of State for Defence announced the Government’s agreement to a request from the US to upgrade the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar at RAF Fylingdales…That upgrade process is now complete and we expect that the radar will switch its operations to the new equipment from August 2007… Also, at RAF Menwith Hill”—

a misnomer, because I think there are only about two or three RAF people at RAF Menwith Hill, and it is wholly American-run, controlled and organised—

“equipment will be installed and operated by the US Government to allow receipt of satellite warnings of potentially hostile missile launches, and will pass this warning data to both UK and US authorities.”—[ Official Report, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 71WS.]

There we have it—a Prime Minister promising one thing and a Secretary of State for Defence doing something entirely different without any reference to the House, showing almost total contempt. So much so that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs later stated in its second report on global security and non-proliferation:

“We regret the manner and timing of the Government’s announcement that RAF Menwith Hill is to participate in the US ballistic missile defence system”—

note the name change—

“and the resulting lack of Parliamentary debate on the issue. In its response to this Report, we recommend that the Government inform us of the date on which it received the formal proposal from the US to include Menwith Hill in the BMD system. We recommend that there should be a full Parliamentary debate on these proposals.”

Almost as an aside, the report continued:

“We conclude that Russian opposition to US ballistic missile defence (BMD) plans in Central Europe largely reflects Moscow’s sensitivity about the presence of NATO infrastructure in its former satellite states. As such Russian opposition will be hard to overcome.”

I fear that the Committee understated the case at that stage.

There was still no explanation of why the promised and heralded debate never eventuated. I hate to pay in aid members of the Liberal Democrat party, but the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) tabled a written question to that end. He asked,

“for what reason no debate, consultation or oral statement took place in the House before the decision… to allow the installation and operation by the US Administration of equipment to allow receipt of satellite warnings of potentially hostile missile launches at Menwith Hill; and whether any intelligence received via the installation will be made available to the United Kingdom at the same time as to the United States.”

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The responsible Minister gave the same sort of evasive, bland non-answer that we received previously. The then Secretary of State said:

“Defence Ministers routinely answer written and oral questions on missile defence issues and there are regular defence debates scheduled throughout the year to allow MPs to raise specific issues on the Floor of the House. My written ministerial statement… was intended to keep the House informed of developments in areas of UK support to the US missile defence programme.”

That is an insult to the House’s intelligence. To table that as a substantive reply to a simple question, raising a matter that the former Prime Minister had promised on the Floor of the House, is an absolute insult.

Another Liberal Democrat Member, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) asked the Secretary of State for Defence,

“when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the UK and US governments on the formal use of RAF Menwith Hill in the American Missile Defense System; and if he will place a copy in the Library”.

That is an important question and the answer was:

“There is no memorandum of understanding covering these specific arrangements.”—[ Official Report, 16 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 937W.]

If there is no memorandum of understanding and no consent from the House, who has the wherewithal and the power to take on themselves the task of effectively negotiating a foreign treaty with a foreign military power over a sovereign—at least in theory—British base? I would like to know the answer to that. I hope that the Under-Secretary can provide an answer to that and other questions at some stage, if not today.

I ask the Under-Secretary on what legal basis does the UK support US missile defence. Do the Government agree with President Obama that missile defence should

“not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public”

and, presumably, the British public?

Have the Government joined NATO in welcoming the announcement by Russia that it was

“shelving plans to deploy nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad”?

I believe that the Russians are making a gesture to the new US Administration, and I await with eager anticipation Her Majesty’s Government’s response to it.

Do the Government recognise that the new US Administration offer the UK and the world an opportunity to ease global tension by resiling from many of the aggressive foreign and military policies, including missile defence, of the Bush years, to which we gave knee-jerk obeisance, as an unequal partner in the so-called special relationship?

The Under-Secretary may be glad to know that this is my penultimate question. Do the Government agree with the July 2007 YouGov survey, which showed that 68 per cent. of the British people agreed that UK support for missile defence should be decided by Parliament, while 54 per cent. agreed that siting US missile defence early warning bases in the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic would increase security threats faced by the UK and Europe?

Finally, will the Government allow Parliament to debate and decide whether the UK should continue to participate in the US missile defence programme, as promised by the former Prime Minister, as recommended by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and as
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agreed to by 68 per cent. of the British people in the aforementioned YouGov poll, regardless of whether or not President Obama decides to proceed with it? I hope that at some stage either the Minister or his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence can give me substantive answers to those questions, rather than dismissive ones.

7 pm
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—( Chris Mole.)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) on obtaining this Adjournment debate on a matter of considerable interest to many people, as he rightly said. He speaks not only from deep conviction on the subject, but from a long-standing involvement in it. Indeed, I have noticed his early-day motions and the other initiatives that he has taken to draw public attention to the issue.

It often happens on these occasions that the Minister replies to the Member who has secured the debate by reading a written statement. That can sometimes lead to the two individuals speaking past each other, so it might be more helpful in the time that I have to try to focus on the questions that my hon. Friend asked. Before I do so, however, let me say two things briefly. First, there is an illusion, which I wish to lay to rest, that the Government have a plan to deploy interceptors—an anti-ballistic missile system—in this country. We have no such current plans. That is an error in the early-day motion to which I have referred and I hope that I can lay it to rest.

Secondly, let me explain what national missile defence—or international or anti-ballistic missile defence—is about. If my hon. Friend went to Fylingdales, he would see a radar picture on a screen of the upper atmosphere and the surrounding areas of space over quite a large section of the northern hemisphere. He would be able to see all the various objects in that space, including satellites and the launches of commercial satellites, all of which we will have been notified of, which can be tracked through that system. Occasionally he might also see a meteor or something exciting of that kind.

However, if one fine day—well, it would not be a fine day; it would be a day of horror—an unidentified flying object appeared on that screen and the computers calculated from its trajectory that it was heading for us, there would be nothing practical that we could do about it, and that has been true for decades. It would be possible to notify the Vanguard submarine currently on patrol and to notify the Prime Minister, but nothing could be done. We would simply have to sit and wait to see whether that day was the day of Armageddon. Anti-ballistic missile defence provides an alternative to that. It provides the possibility of doing something about that object, which might be a rogue missile from a rogue state or an error—one does not know. That is the difference between having an anti-ballistic missile system and having no such system.

Let me go through the points that my hon. Friend raised. First, he talked about the effectiveness of the system and said that it was not proven. The system is
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not proven in the sense that there is a great deal of technical work to be done on it. He mentioned electronic counter-measures and decoys. Without going into sensitive areas, let me assure him that all those issues are being addressed. All I can say is that up to now—this information has been in the public domain—there have been quite a number of firings by the Americans of their anti-ballistic missile systems. There have been 47 successes so far, as against 37 failures. The system is certainly making progress, so any assumption that it is technically non-viable would be a rather rash one to make.

My hon. Friend asked whether the information from the radars at Fylingdales to which I have referred and the information from the satellite sensors being downloaded at Menwith Hill is available to our authorities and the Americans at the same time. The answer to that is simply yes.

My hon. Friend raised the attitude of Russia. Russia’s attitude is difficult to understand. As he knows, the intention of the United States—this is the matter currently under discussion with Poland—is to site 10 interceptors in Poland. Under the strategic arms reduction treaty, Russia has the right to 1,600 delivery systems—that basically means missiles—and, if I remember rightly, up to 6,000 warheads. It is inconceivable that 10 interceptors could make the slightest difference to a country with 1,600 missiles or thereabouts and a great many more warheads to deploy. That is not an argument that can be taken seriously.

I agree with the suggestion that my hon. Friend rightly made that there could be a great deal of sensitivity in Russia about a country that was a satellite of the Soviet Union and, for a century and a quarter before 1917, part of the tsarist empire and that is now, thank heaven, part of the European Union and NATO, getting involved in a close, collaborative, strategic defence relationship with the United States. I agree that that might well touch sensitive nerves. Whatever Russia’s attitude is, however, it is not based on a rational calculation of the potential impact of those interceptors in Poland on anything whatever to do with its own missile or second-strike capability. I think that we can lay that one to rest as well.

My hon. Friend asked about the legal basis for Menwith Hill. I can tell him that a legal agreement under which American personnel have worked in Menwith Hill was signed, I believe, in 1955. I might not have got the date absolutely right, but it was certainly in the ’50s. That agreement was introduced under the status of forces agreement that we signed with the Americans a few years earlier, at the beginning of the constitution of NATO. That agreement is still in place; it has never been rescinded. We do not need to sign an agreement with the United States every time we have a defence co-operation arrangement or every time we exchange information, which we do the whole time, I am glad to say. Our symbiotic relationship with the United States is the basis of a large amount of British national security. We share a lot of information and we have a very productive and important relationship, which is a great national asset.

My hon. Friend also asked me whether I believed that we should divert resources from our core defence budget to missile defence. We are not doing that, and the incremental costs involved in putting the new equipment into Menwith Hill and Fylingdales were met entirely by
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the United States, so that issue has not arisen. As I have already told him, there are at the present time no plans to site an anti-ballistic missile system in this country, so that question does not arise.

My hon. Friend asked me whether we joined the rest of NATO the other day in welcoming the Russian Government’s statement that they no longer intended to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad. Of course we welcome that; I can give him that assurance. He also asked whether the Government agreed with a particular survey. My answer is the one that I think he will have anticipated. The Government do not make it their business to agree or disagree with a survey, which is simply a series of questions. Of course, the Government listen to these surveys and take account of them, however, and I take on board what he has told me about that particular one.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked me about Parliament. Naturally, Parliament has had several opportunities before this evening to debate the ballistic missile defence issue. The last occasion was, I believe, 8 May last year,
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when we had a debate on defence in the world. The Government have made a commitment that, if we should take a decision to locate an anti-ballistic missile system with interceptors in this country, there would certainly be an opportunity for Parliament to debate the matter before we did so. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that no such decision has been taken and none is in prospect at the present time.

I think that our time is up, but may I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on his success in pursuing this cause with his characteristic tenacity? My colleagues and I remain entirely at his disposal, either for future occasions on which we can debate this matter in Parliament, or if he wants to come to see us privately to talk further about it.

Question put and agreed to.

7.9 pm
House adjourned.

Hansard debate index “United States Missile Defence Shield” (