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17 Oct 2002 : Column 528—continued

Dr. Julian Lewis : May I give the hon. Gentleman a scenario to consider? Let us suppose that the Prime Minister is in possession of top-secret intelligence information that he cannot share with the House. What would then happen in the situation that the hon. Gentleman has described?

Mr. Keetch: I know and understand that some Members believe that it should be the Government's responsibility. However, I believe that in normal circumstances—certainly those that we are discussing in terms of Iraq—there should be a substantive vote. If top-secret intelligence were available to the Prime Minister suggesting that an attack might be imminent, surely he could discuss it under normal Privy Council terms with members of the leading Opposition parties and then seek their approval. In circumstances where we are deploying British forces, I do not see why there should not be a substantive vote in the House.

When we send our forces into the field they have the right to be confident that the country backs them. It is important that they fight with the knowledge that it is Parliament that has asked them to go, and that it is we who bear the responsibilities. The President of the United States has sought and received such a mandate from Congress; I do not see why our Prime Minister should be any different. As elected Members, we are answerable to the people of Britain. A new war powers Act would lay the mantle of accountability where it

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correctly lies: with Parliament. It could only enhance our democracy and people's faith in our democratic institutions.

4.9 pm

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): If two antagonists both deploy military forces for attack, the military balance is unstable because either side might gain an advantage from striking first. That was the nature of the balance of strategic nuclear weapons during the cold war. The concept of mutually assured destruction is still the basis of the strategic balance of offensive weapons between the old cold war antagonists. However, a missile might be fired in error or a malicious or deranged officer may become convinced that the circumstances are right for first strike to gain an advantage. Either possibility could trigger a devastating response that no Government intended. To address those and other problems, Presidents Bush and Putin, to their credit, recently agreed to cut their strategic nuclear weapons by two thirds, but that still leaves 2,000 nuclear missiles on each side, plus weapons owned by the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and so on. When the use of any one of those weapons would be a disaster for the world, that remains a frightening arsenal.

Let us imagine a notable success in arms reduction negotiations so that both sides have no more than a few hundred nuclear weapons each. How do they get below that number? Any move to reduce towards zero will raise suspicions that side A will secretly retain a capability and so leave side B exposed if it complies by reducing to zero. The inevitable suspicion will mean that neither side will ever voluntarily reduce weapons to zero. It was because of similar suspicions that mutual and balanced forced reductions of conventional forces could not be agreed in the past.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty was intended to limit the spread of such weapons outside the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. It has not succeeded. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea all possess nuclear weapons. That encourages states with which they may come into conflict to acquire them too. Containment is a vain hope, especially when both nuclear and ballistic technology are transferred between states or by the migration of experts from the Soviet Union.

A missile defence system, such as the one under discussion, may provide a solution to those problems. First, it would enable a strategic balance to be achieved by means of defensive weapons that is essentially stable, unlike the inherent instability that goes with a balance of offensive weapons. Secondly, the risk of a nuclear exchange being triggered in error by an insubordinate or maverick custodian would be eliminated. Thirdly, a missile defence shield, available to both sides, would provide a climate for safe negotiation towards zero arsenals of nuclear weapons. Fourthly, it would give direct protection against the malicious acts of rogue states. Fifthly, if countries can be offered a place under a missile defence umbrella, they have everything to gain from signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

What then are the obstacles to all that becoming a reality? A major objection is that the missile defence system proposed today is no more than a rehash of

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President Reagan's star wars concept. Not only was star wars technologically impossible to achieve, it would have made the world a more dangerous place. It would have nullified the deterrent effect of the Soviet Union's strategic weapons, so creating the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against the star wars system or of an arms race. Those objections were, and remain, valid, but that is not the missile defence system that the United States now proposes. The concept is of a system that could withstand an attack of up to 100 missiles at most. It could not therefore wipe out Russia's ability to respond to a United States attack, so it would not upset the current strategic balance. On that basis, the Russian Government have agreed to it being an exception to the anti-ballistic missile treaty between themselves and the United States of America.

An anxiety that prejudiced opinion against missile defence proposals in Britain and the rest of Europe was that missile defences would apply only to north America. Even though Fylingdales radar station in Yorkshire would be essential to US missile defence, it was thought that the UK would not be under the umbrella and would be vulnerable to whatever attack the US feared. The United States Government have since made it clear that they envisage any missile defence system extending to NATO, Europe and, potentially, to Russia. Thus those anxieties are overcome.

The outstanding question now is what diplomatic and technological conditions are required to achieve the various benefits of missile defence in practice. Diplomatically, there must be agreement from the beginning that protection will be given to north America, Europe and Russia. Any scheme designed solely to protect north America would divide and possibly destroy the NATO alliance. Unless Russia is included, there would be no incentive for Russia to negotiate strategic arms reductions below currently agreed levels, and the stability of Russian democracy and European security could be threatened.

The second diplomatic requirement is a willingness to extend the protective umbrella to any state that has signed and adhered to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

China is a special case. With an estimated 20 or so ballistic missiles available soon, China has a credible deterrent against attack by either the USA or Russia which would be eliminated by the missile defence system envisaged. There would therefore be an incentive for China to continue building nuclear missiles until it was sure that it could break through missile defences. The whole of Asia would then be under threat from China, and Asian countries would be induced to retain or acquire nuclear weapons. A way of recognising China's strategic interests would be to offer it the protection of the anti-missile umbrella on condition that it did not expand its nuclear arsenal further and on the understanding that it would join strategic arms reduction talks between Russia and America at the same time as Britain and France.

The ultimate obstacle to the missile defence concept could be the difficulty and expense of developing reliable technology. Some commentators have pronounced the proposed scheme to be technologically impossible to achieve. No doubt they draw some of that certainty from the abandonment of star wars because the technology proved too difficult to develop. But that

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system, which aimed to intercept several thousand missiles at once faultlessly, had an infinitely more complex task than intercepting 100 or fewer. Some of the technology, such as sensors, radars, computing, communications, is not new. Some research and development is needed, but given clear objectives for the development programme, experts, such as the RAND Corporation, who have assessed what is needed, do not see the technology as out of reach.

The important question is how development and production will be organised. If the whole missile defence system were to fall under the technological hegemony of the USA, then the strategic concept would most likely be rejected by European countries and Russia on that ground alone. Co-development and co-production by NATO countries and Russia, under American leadership, must spread the technological and economic benefits equitably and, at the same time, build confidence. Negotiated co-operation in design, development and production will be as essential to the success of the project as co-operation in deployment.

I urge the Government to persuade the United States Government of a strategic role and purpose of missile defence similar to the role that I have attempted to outline; to persuade other NATO allies of that role and purpose and to engage their active commitment to the project; and to join the United States in establishing arrangements by which NATO allies and Russia may co-operate in designing, developing and producing the required technology. The British Government have a pivotal role to play in achieving all that, which I hope will become a new dimension of United Kingdom foreign and defence policy. If we can achieve a missile defence system on those terms, it will be an infinitely more precious legacy for future generations than a world littered with nuclear missiles that might be used at any time.

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