Select Committee on Defence Memoranda

Joint Memorandum from The Ministry Of Defence and The Foreign And Commonwealth Office ( 26 February 2002)


  1.  The Committee asked for a memorandum covering our understanding of the international issues relating to the development of missile defence systems (in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom), the threats they are intended to face, and their technical progress.

  2.  This memorandum has been prepared jointly by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.


  3.  We currently assess that at present there is no significant threat to the UK from ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, it is a serious cause for concern that some states have developed, or are seeking to develop or acquire, ballistic missile capabilities of increasing range. We continue to monitor developments closely. We also recognise that our Armed Forces are often deployed to areas of the world in which ballistic missiles are available to our potential adversaries, and in which such weapons have been used before. Furthermore, the ballistic missile threat to some of our NATO Allies is already very real, either because they are closer to regions of missile proliferation than is the UK or, in the case of the US, because they have security commitments in areas of the world that we do not.

  4.  A number of states that have ballistic missile development and/or production programmes have the potential to develop, or to obtain, inventories of longer-range ballistic missiles. They include North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria. North Korea and Iran are among the states that possess medium range ballistic missiles. And North Korea has the technology needed to develop ballistic missiles of intercontinental range. A particular cause for concern is the fact that North Korea appears to be willing to sell its missiles to any country prepared to pay for them. Were a country in the Middle East or North Africa to acquire a complete long-range ballistic missile system, a capability to target the UK accurately could emerge within the next few years.

  5.  We also take very seriously the fact that some states that are seeking to develop or acquire missiles of increasing range have, or are seeking to acquire, weapons of mass destruction. Iraq is an example. Of course, ballistic missiles are not the only method of trying to deliver weapons of mass destruction and—as the events of 11 September showed—massive damage can be achieved by the use of other means. We believe we must be vigilant in respect of all these threats, including that which could be posed by ballistic missiles.

  6.  We recognise that threat depends on both capability and intention. We currently have no evidence that any state with ballistic missiles has the intention specifically to target the UK. But intentions can change rapidly, and the fact is that the proliferation continues of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. We believe that all responsible nations need to remain alert and take action to deal with the potential threat.


  7.  A comprehensive strategy to address the proliferation problem should encompass diplomacy, conflict prevention, non-proliferation, counter-proliferation, arms control, export controls, intelligence co-operation, law enforcement, deterrence and defensive measures.

  We are already working hard in all of these areas with our allies, partners and friends. And we must look to do more where we can.

  8.  Defence against missiles is not a substitute for other measures in response to the proliferation threat. The US Administration recognises this. Last February[1], President Bush and the Prime Minister agreed that:

    "We need to obstruct and deter these threats with a strategy that encompasses offensive and defensive systems, continues nuclear arms reductions where possible, and strengthens weapon of mass destruction and missile proliferation controls and counter-proliferation measures."

  9.  This is the context in which we need to set the missile defence debate, and specifically US plans. The US has made clear its commitment to deploying limited missile defences against emerging threats as one element of its response to the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This commitment raises a number of issues with an international dimension, including the US's relations with its NATO Allies, with Russia, and with China, and more widely to arms control and concepts of deterrence.


  10.  The current US Administration, like its predecessor, is committed to consulting NATO Allies (as well as others) on its plans for missile defence. It has kept Allies closely informed of progress in its dialogue with Russia on a new strategic framework. The UK continues to engage actively and constructively in these NATO discussions, as a close ally with common strategic interests. Other allies have done likewise—all are committed to a serious and constructive dialogue on the subject. Separately, NATO is pursuing work on theatre missile defence—the Feasibility Studies it has commissioned will be completed at the end of this year. There is also a continuing dialogue with Russia on the subject.


  11.  The US has set out its intention to conduct an intensive programme of research, development, testing and evaluation of a wide range of missile defence options. Some of these options are currently prohibited under the terms of the bilateral 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The US has made clear that it will not violate the Treaty while it remains in force, and on 13 December 2001 announced that it had given Russia six months notice of its intention to withdraw from the Treaty, as entitled under Article XV of the Treaty. Her Majesty's Government takes the view that the ABM Treaty is essentially a bilateral issue for the US and Russia and that its future is a matter for them.

  12.  But we believe it is important to recognise that the strategic context is changing. At the Crawford Summit last November, both President Bush and President Putin have stressed their desire to work together to establish a new strategic framework based on openness and mutual trust rather than enmity. And both recognise the need to focus on tackling today's emerging threats, including international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. And both have emphasised that this new relationship is strong enough to withstand differences of view on individual issues. HMG welcomes the fact that the US and Russia have both committed themselves to significant reductions in their levels of operationally deployed nuclear weapons, and that they are this year continuing discussions on future arrangements for transparency and verification of their nuclear arsenals. The two Presidents plan to meet again in the coming months.


  13.  China has expressed concerns over US plans for missile defence. The US has stated its intention to "reach out"[2] to China on missile defence, and has since then sought to engage constructively with her on the issue. The US has also made clear on numerous occasions that its missile defence proposals are intended to deal with very limited threats—in the first instance a handful of warheads - from states of concern with emergent missile capabilities. They are not intended to defend against responsible states with established strategic forces. And it is a fact that China has for some years been pursuing a programme modernising its nuclear forces irrespective of US missile defence proposals.


  14.  Concern is regularly expressed that US plans for missile defence could lead to new arms races. These concerns are understandable, but we believe it is important to look at the facts, and distinguish between cause and effect. As set out above, the US and Russia are both aiming to make significant reductions in their operationally deployed nuclear weapons regardless of the US giving notice of its intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, and China's nuclear modernisation programme continues irrespective of missile defence. And US missile defence proposals do not drive the dynamics of the regional relationships between China, India and Pakistan.

  15.  More generally, improved defences against ballistic missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction could help to tackle proliferation. They could do so by reducing the perceived value of pursuing such programmes for any state that has not yet renounced its weapons of mass destruction capabilities, or is seeking to acquire them in contravention of its legal obligations, or might consider doing so in the future. Of course, it could also make some states try harder to maintain or develop the capability to threaten the US, its friends and allies with these weapons, but the substantial technical and financial implications of that should not be underestimated.

  16.  It is important to remember that missile defence is a response to an existing proliferation problem, not the cause of that problem. Proliferators have been trying very hard for many years to obtain weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, and great efforts continue to be made to prevent their non-legitimate use. These efforts pre-date, and are not the consequence of, US missile defence proposals; and they are likely to continue regardless of how the US ultimately decides to proceed.

  17.  Implementing and seeking to enforce agreements on non-proliferation and arms control will continue to play a vital role in a comprehensive strategy to tackle the proliferation problem. They continue to slow the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, but even with these agreements in place, such proliferation has not stopped. That is why these elements of a comprehensive strategy must be complemented with the ability to deter and defend against such a threat.


  18.  Concern is sometimes also expressed that missile defences could undermine our ability to deter states with emergent ballistic missile capabilities. Put simply, deterrence is about preventing aggression in the first place by presenting potential adversaries with the prospect of losses outweighing any gains they might hope to make. Therefore, US plans to defend against missile attack could in fact reinforce their ability to deter. A potential aggressor contemplating a ballistic missile attack on the United States would need to reckon not only with the likelihood of a powerful retaliatory response, but also with the possibility that active defences would prevent his attack from succeeding at all. And missile defences for the US would not undermine the efforts of states without missile defences to deter attacks on them that use weapons of mass destruction—for the UK, we continue to make clear that such an attack would invite a proportionately serious response. What is important is that all states should consider how best to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery in a changed and changing strategic environment.


  19.  It follows from the analysis of the threat and the international dimension above that we understand the role that missile defences can play as one element of a comprehensive strategy to deal with the emerging threat from the proliferation of ballistic missiles. But it is important to distinguish between missile defence as a concept, and any specific proposals or systems. For our part, we believe it remains premature to decide on acquiring a ballistic missile defence capability for either deployed forces or defence of the UK. And it remains the case that the US has yet to decide how it will seek to proceed with the deployment of a missile defence system for defence of its territory.


  20.  We would emphasise that it is difficult at this stage to provide details of specific US systems or plans. While President Bush has made clear his commitment to missile defence, the detailed thinking of the US Administration is still evolving and questions about their deployment plans, as well as the capabilities, efficacy and cost of the systems they are considering, are first and foremost a matter for them. The US Administration has told us they are currently considering a range of options for future missile defence systems. Their aim is to develop systems that could defend US deployed forces against the ballistic missile threats they might face, and against limited ballistic missile threats to US territory. They have said that such systems might also be capable of defending the US's friends and allies.

  21.  Rather than thinking in terms of "National Missile Defence" and theatre missile defence, the US is considering how it might best defend against short, medium and long range ballistic missiles in all phases of their flight. These are: the boost phase as the missile accelerates away from the launch point; the mid-course phase spent mainly outside, or high up in, the atmosphere; and the terminal phase as the warhead approaches its target. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages, and poses different technical challenges. By looking at a full range of approaches, the US "will evaluate what works and what does not"[3] before making decisions on what systems it will seek to deploy. The US will evaluate the role that fixed and mobile ground-based systems, as well as sea-based and airborne options might play. And the US is conducting some research into the longer-term possibilities of space-based interceptors and lasers.

  22.  In order to consider a wider range of possible approaches than previously and to enable more varied testing programmes, the US intends to expand its missile defence testing range. This expansion will include developing test facilities in Alaska that could be used to give an operational rudimentary ground-based mid-course system to defend against an extremely limited threat from North Korea within two to three years, if such a capability were judged necessary. The US might also consider using a prototype airborne laser, which would aim to engage a hostile ballistic missile in its boost phase, against such threats if early flight tests, planned to start in 2003, are successful. And it will consider what sea-based options might be available within this time frame.

  23.  PAC-3, a development of the Patriot system used during the 1990/91 Gulf conflict, is starting to enter service. It is a point defence for deployed forces, and aims to engage shorter-range missiles in their terminal phase. But longer-range missile defence systems are in earlier stages of development, and are generally scheduled to start entering service towards the end of this decade, or even later.

  24.  We would emphasise again that, as the foregoing illustrates, the US continues to consider a wide range of options, and has made no decisions on how it will seek to proceed with deploying specific systems for defence of its territory. The possibility that the US will envisage the use of facilities in the UK, specifically at RAF Fylingdales and RAF Menwith Hill, has been the subject of great interest. However, it remains the case that the US has not asked to site elements of a missile defence system in the UK. Nor are we able to say when we might receive any such requests or what their exact nature might be. It also remains the case that if we do receive a request, HMG will consider it very carefully and respond on the basis of our national interest, which of course includes our very strong strategic relationship with our closest ally.


  25.  It is important to remember that active missile defences are only one potential element of an overall defensive posture against weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. We believe it is still premature to decide on acquiring an active ballistic missile defence capability for either deployed forces, for whom we already have considerable capabilities for passive force protection against weapons of mass destruction, or for defence of the UK. But we have for some years been monitoring developments both in the potential ballistic missile threat and in the missile defence technology available to counter it, which is evolving rapidly. The Technology Readiness and Risk Assessment Programme (TRRAP) set in train by the Strategic Defence Review was completed last year, and an unclassified report on it will be placed in the Libraries of the House.

  26.  We need to evaluate further the potential role of missile defences as one aspect of the broad-ranging defence response to missile proliferation, and two further programmes of work are underway. They are focusing on the technical feasibility of defending against more complex and longer range threats, and continuing to assess the significance of active theatre missile defences as part of a balanced defensive posture. We will continue our national work, and rule nothing out for the future. We will also continue to support fully the ongoing NATO TMD Feasibility Studies, and we have a long-standing technical dialogue with the US.

  27.  As well as supporting the NATO work, some European allies are pursuing national procurement programmes or collaborating with the US. For example, the Netherlands and Germany have the Patriot system and are procuring PAC-3, and Germany and Italy are, with the US, working on MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defence System), which is intended to complement PAC-3 next decade. For most European nations (including the UK), the focus is on looking at the protection of deployed forces, who can already face a missile threat in certain parts of the world. But emerging ballistic missile capabilities are already able to reach the territory of some allies, for example Turkey, and as they develop will be able to reach further. In this context, the US Administration has made clear its wish to see friends and allies protected. No specific proposals have yet been made, and we expect that the issue will be discussed in more detail in due course.


  28.  Issues relating to potential threats, technology, and the international dimension, are closely linked. Missile defence raises complex issues - too often in the debate the complexities are ignored, and missile defence is simplistically characterised as being either a "good" or "bad" thing. HMG believes it is important to take full account of this complexity in formulating our policy on the issue. Above all, we need to recognise in the debate the reality of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. HMG believes it is right for the US, its friends and allies, and all responsible states, to consider carefully how best to tackle it with a comprehensive strategy, and the role that missile defences might play as one part of this.

1   Joint Statement by President Bush and the Prime Minister, Camp David, 23 February 20. Back

2   President Bush in speech at National Defence University, Washington D.C., 1 May 20. Back

3   - ibd. Back

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Prepared 21 March 2002