What is national missile defence? Should Britain join the American anti-missile shield? Ben Russell asks The Big Question
Why are we asking this now?
Labour MPs demanded a full debate yesterday on Britain's involvement in the controversial US national missile defence system. They are furious that the decision slipped out just days before MPs left Westminster for the summer, with no prospect of Parliament being given a say.
In the dying days of the parliamentary session last week, Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, confirmed that the US listening base at RAF Menwith Hill, in north Yorkshire, would be upgraded to provide early warning of missile attack that would be fed into the planned US national missile defence system. The statement was one of more than 30 government announcements that day. The UK radar base at RAF Fylingdales has already been upgraded, and Mr Browne announced that it too would feed data to the national missile defence system.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which has long argued against the missile defence programme, also released a poll showing that 54 per cent of people believe that siting missiles and early warning bases in the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic increases the security threat facing the nation. Kate Hudson, head of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: " The majority of the public believes that this unnecessary system puts us all at greater risk - so how can the system be described as a 'defence'?"
What is national missile defence?
The White House is developing a defence system designed to protect the US and its allies from missile attack. Under the US plans, sophisticated early-warning radar, based on sites across Europe, would track hostile incoming missiles. Ultimately, interceptor missiles, based in silos in eastern Europe, will be primed to shoot them down in mid-flight.
The US argues that the system is targeted at possible attacks by "rogue" states such as Iran or North Korea. But the prospect of the system's introduction has enraged the Kremlin, which believes the system represents a threat and could breach arms control agreements.
The Ministry of Defence says the system is merely a missile-tracking operation. Any plans to intercept and shoot down missiles are at a very early stage.
What will Britain's role in the programme be, and are we in control of it?
The MoD insists there are "no plans" to base interceptor missiles in Britain, although Mr Browne did not close the door to a future deployment of missiles in Britain, saying that he will keep the situation under review " as the threat evolves".
Radar systems at RAF Fylingdales are installed and commanded by the British government, although the data it produces is shared between Britain and the United States, according to the MoD. The Defence Secretary insisted that the UK will have full insight into the operation of the US missile defence system when missile engagements take place that are wholly, or partly, influenced by data from the radar at RAF Fylingdales.
The radars at RAF Menwith Hill will be installed and run by the US, although Britain will have access to early-warning information about missile launches, according to the Defence Secretary's statement last week
The MoD insists that Britain's involvement with the system gives the Government a degree of control over policy. However, the development of any missile interceptors is at an early stage, so it is unclear whether the Government would have any control over its operation. The MoD insisted yesterday the US still required agreement from Britain to operate missile defence from the UK. An MoD spokeswoman said: "The upgrade at RAF Fylingdales and installation of equipment at RAF Menwith Hill does not commit the UK to any further involvement in the US Ballistic Missile Defence programme. For the missile defence capability to operate in the UK, the US government would have to seek agreement from the UK government."
Why is RAF Menwith Hill significant?
Menwith Hill, just a few miles from the north Yorkshire town of Harrogate, is operated by the US Air Force and is the 13th field station of the US national security agency. The base, which was established in 1960, has been described as the largest electronic monitoring station in the world.
The base employs about 1,800 staff, plus an unspecified number from GCHQ. With its huge arrays of golf-ball shaped satellite arrays, it has long been a target for protests by peace campaigners and anti-nuclear groups, who say the base is not accountable to the public. The base has become a focus for campaigners because of its new role as a key early-warning station in the US national missile defence network.
CND says hundreds of people have been stopped and searched at the base during a string of protests. In January, a peace campaigner, Lindis Percy, 64, was jailed for failing to pay a £50 fine relating to a protest outside the United States Signals Intelligence Station.
Why does the Government believe that missile defence is so important?
Tony Blair lobbied George Bush to make Britain part of the US defence shield system, arguing it would provide Europe with defence against missile attack. Or as the Defence Secretary said last week: "The Government welcomes US plans to place further missile defence assets in Europe to address the emerging threat from rogue states. We welcome assurances from the US that the UK and other European allies will be covered by the system elements they propose to deploy to Poland and the Czech Republic and we have been exploring ways in which the UK can continue to contribute to the US system as well as to any future Nato missile defence system."
Why are the critics worried?
Critics on the Labour benches have argued that setting up a system of missile interceptors will breach the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the US and Russia. They point to President Vladimir Putin's hostility to such a system and problems with China, warning that a defensive shield could shift the balance of forces between the superpowers and even spark a new arms race.
Critics argue that merely incorporating UK bases in the American missile defence shield will make Britain vulnerable to attack. They also raise questions about the value of such a system, given that no rogue state has the capability to launch a missile attack against the West.
Russia has expressed concern about American arguments that the system will guard against rogue states. Speaking last month, President Putin made clear his concern when he listed US military plans among the "threats" facing Russia. He stressed the US system was a defence against " hypothetical missile threats."
In a letter published yesterday, a cross-party group of MPs warned that the " UK's continued and increasing involvement in US missile defence potentially puts the UK on the front line in future wars. It has already contributed towards increased tensions with Russia."
Should Britain join the American anti-missile shield?
The future threat from states that may acquire nuclear and ballistic missile technology is unknown
Joining the US missile defence programme will guarantee us cover against attack
The system is designed to be purely defensive and can only enhance British security
Missile defence could breach international arms control agreements, and has the potential to spark a new arms race
Siting parts of the shield will make Britain a target for terrorism, and exactly the type of attack the system is designed to prevent
There are question marks over the technology, and critics argue it will do nothing to prevent low-level missile attacks