HL Deb 20 October 2000 vol 617 cc1318-36

12.8 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what they see as the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in the light of American and other proposals for the national missile defence system.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, first, I express my gratitude to those Members of your Lordships' House who decided to stay on for this debate on a Friday afternoon, which is always premium time for leaving the House for other purposes. Secondly, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, for coming in when I know that she is extremely busy. I apologise for bringing her into the House but this is a matter of such grave importance, not least given the debate that has broken out in the United States in the course of the American presidential election, that it is a useful moment for this House to express its views and opinions.

Also, I am sure I speak on behalf of all Members of the House when I say how deeply we regret that illness made it impossible for the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, to attend this debate. We all wish her a rapid recovery. We recognise her great contribution to this House, as we do that of her colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons.

Let me start by saying that one of the problems about this whole extremely difficult issue is that the Government have so far resolutely responded to parliamentary Questions with what appears to be a logical response until one looks at it more closely. The Government's position expressed in answer to a number of parliamentary Questions posed by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, myself and others, has consistently been, "We have not been formally approached by the United States with regard to this matter. We do not expect to be formally approached until a decision has been taken and at that point we will say where we stand".

This is crucial because, as many Members of your Lordships' House will understand, the early warning system at Fylingdales and the associated system of infra-red sensors at Menwith Hill are a crucial part of the present configuration of the proposed national missile defence of the United States. Without the facilities in the United Kingdom, and possibly also those in Greenland, the present configuration of the national missile defence would be unable to continue. In other words, in much of the technical argument there has been an assumption that the UK will cooperate. Our position, therefore, is not only that of an ally but also that of an essential and crucial ally in this matter. And no one doubts that we want to be good allies. The record of this country in the Gulf War, in Yugoslavia and elsewhere indicates that we are extremely loyal and supportive allies of the United States.

However, I am troubled by the fact that we in this country are not having the kind of debate which the United States is having; a debate which our own views might substantially influence. Perhaps I may give the House an example. The United States is locked into a technical and highly informed discussion of what kind of NMD there should be, if there is to be one at all. Many bodies have already contributed to that discussion; for example, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Belfer Centre of Strategic and International Affairs at Harvard, the University of Maryland's public affairs department and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) professors concerned with issues of national security. Fortunately, there is now a lively intellectual debate in the United States.

From the United Kingdom, there has been virtual silence. There was, however, an encouraging Answer from the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, to a Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, that: Her Majesty's Government have conveyed their views on the possible deployment of a National Missile Defence system to the US Administration in numerous recent bilateral and multilateral discussions, as have other NATO allies".—[Official Report, 10/10/00: col. WA29.] I believe that the time has come when Parliament might be given at least a glimpse of those numerous bilateral messages to the United States and multilateral messages to other allies.

Perhaps I may begin by looking briefly at the difference of opinion between the two presidential candidates. They are of great importance to this country. Vice-President Gore has indicated that he would continue the line taken by President Clinton, which originally was one of trying to limit national missile defence to the first stage; in other words, the placing of interceptor missiles in Alaska. The original proposal was for 20 interceptor missiles but that was increased to 100.

It is possible that the first stage could be comprised by an amendment to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, although that is not altogether clear and would of course require the agreement of Russia, which is the only other signatory to that treaty. Many experts agree that that treaty has been a fundamental foundation stone to the limitation of the arms race during the past 30 years.

There is no commitment for Vice President Gore to go beyond that stage and he has made it plain that he would try to persuade Congress to ratify the CTBT treaty, which your Lordships will know it rejected a few months ago. That would give great reassurance to countries such as Russia, China and the NATO allies.

Governor Bush began by going much further and talking about a highly sophisticated system of sea-based, but possibly even space-based, missiles—inevitably, that would completely destroy the ABM treaty, which forbids it—and that would constitute the leaping to a new technology of defence for the United States. I am pleased to say that in the past few weeks somewhat wiser counsels have prevailed—no one doubts the quality of many of Governor Bush's advisers. He has announced that there would be a complete review of the missile issue before he decided to raise funds from Congress in order to finance it. He suggested that that decision might be put off until the beginning of 2002. That is a crucial reason why the United Kingdom should contribute to a debate taking place in the circles which surround a man who may soon become President of the United States.

However, the debate goes further than that. Perhaps I may give a brief outline of it and then turn to the issues which we in the United Kingdom might want to raise. President Clinton made it clear that there were four criteria on which he would base a final judgment about the NMD system. In the event, he decided to defer the decision to his successor, whoever that might be.

The first criterion was the feasibility of the system. Great doubt has been thrown on that feasibility, not just by the failure to date of the tests but, more crucially, by the fact that there has been very little discussion or technical analysis of the issue of the countermeasures which might be advanced by the states against which the NMD system would be directed—rogue states, terrorist groups and others.

The Union of Concerned Scientists points out that countermeasures would be available to states which were regarded as a threat and that those countermeasures which would require sophisticated technology would not require more sophisticated technology than building missiles themselves. As regards countermeasures, little consideration has been given.

More importantly—and I believe it is so crucial that I shall say it slowly—all existing tests have been based on the assumption of 100 per cent knowledge of countermeasures by the other side. That is inconceivable. There is no way that a rogue state would allow other countries to learn all about its countermeasures in advance.

The other aspect of feasibility which is troubling is that there have been no planned tests— apart from two that have taken place in the past two weeks—with regard to how far national missile interceptors could distinguish between decoys and the target weapon. The existing tests have been done with only a limited number of decoys and the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States points out that those decoys are not the ones most difficult to distinguish from the target missile. They are relatively easy to distinguish.

The second of President Clinton's criteria was that of threat. That is something about which the UK knows quite a lot. It is difficult to see why a terrorist group or rogue state—I do not like the term but use it only because it has been used in the American debate—if it were determined to cause great damage to another country would turn to building sophisticated and expensive missiles as its first line of attack, as distinct from biological weapons which are cheap and utterly devastating.

The Union of Concerned Scientists/Massachusetts Institute of Technology report has pointed out that a single container of anthrax could destroy more human lives than the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima and would cost infinitely less. If a country or terrorist group is determined to cause destruction or great damage to another country, building missiles is not the most obvious solution which comes to mind. In case noble Lords think I may be talking in a virtual way, I might point out the devastating consequences of the sarin attack on the Tokyo underground system a couple of years ago. We know a lot about the methods which terrorists use, in this country, and I suggest that the United States would be well advised to look at the wide range of weapons of mass destruction which can be used and to question whether missiles are the only or even the most serious threat.

Thirdly, there is the cost. The present estimate is 60 billion dollars for the first stage and 140 billion dollars for a second or third stage. I repeat that the second and third stages would certainly be in breach of the ABM treaty. These are huge sums which, frankly, could not be matched by other countries.

That brings me to my final and, I believe, most serious point. The effect on external countries of NMD is central to the debate. I look at three. The first country so concerned is Russia. That country has reacted in an extraordinarily constructive way. President Putin went immediately to the Duma and persuaded it to ratify the Start II treaty, which had been held up by the unwillingness of Members of Russia's Parliament to support it. Not only did he secure agreement to Start II in the spring of this year; he gained agreement to commence negotiations on Start III. Start II would reduce the number of strategic missiles from the present 7,000-plus in both Russia and the United States to slightly over half that figure, and Start III would reduce it again by half to about 1,500 warheads on each side.

Like other Members of this House, I spend a good deal of time in Russia. The state of maintenance and care of its nuclear arsenal is terrifying. The "Kursk" is only the most recent example of the failure properly to maintain dangerous and potentially very long-lasting nuclear materials. The Kola peninsula and Sevastopol, which I have seen, are full of sunken submarines and ships. Nobody attempts to deal with them; they are simply left to corrode within the Black Sea, White Sea and elsewhere. To deny a real opportunity to try to reduce that arsenal in a massive way, and do something which will probably lead to its increase, is highly irresponsible.

Currently, China has 20 nuclear warheads in the tense Taiwan Gulf, most of them in Guangdong. China has already said in terms that if NMD went ahead it would feel obliged greatly to increase the number of its warheads and might regard space as militarised; in other words, it would feel free to shoot down communication and other satellites. Finally, NATO allies themselves, in particular Germany and France, have expressed grave doubts about NMD.

I do not ask the Minister to tell us now the position of the Government: I fully accept that she cannot do so. But I hope that the noble Baroness will explore with us some of the issues on both sides which arise as a result of this debate so that we can at least be heard within the great discussion which is taking place in the United States so that our questions, doubts, confidence and trust can all be conveyed to our great ally before a decision is made and not reserved until it is made, in which case, frankly, the loyalty of the UK as an ally would be on the line in an utterly unnecessary way.

12.23 p.m.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for initiating this important debate which, as she said, bears on our national security and, in the long run, perhaps our very survival. However, the noble Baroness will not be surprised to hear that I shall take a position very different from hers on the whole question of the ABM treaty and ballistic missile defence.

The noble Baroness made much of the possibility that ballistic missile defence, in particular NMD in the United States, might constitute a breach of the ABM treaty. In that, and a good deal of what she said with great force and sincerity, the noble Baroness has given an example of the false attraction of arms control as a substitute for, rather than an adjunct to, defence. Arms control treaties should be an integral element of a wider defence and security strategy, and not something dealt with on their own.

A typical example of an arms control treaty conceived, drafted and signed without much regard to the overall defence and strategic strategy either of the West (as it was called in those days) or anyone else in the world is the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. I do not regard that treaty as a cornerstone of international security as the noble Baroness suggested. I believe that it was quite useless from the moment it was signed. The treaty was largely symbolic anyway, and even as a symbol it failed for one reason which goes to the heart of the whole strategy of arms control as a substitute for defence: the Soviet Union consistently cheated from the moment the treaty was signed. It pursued from day one policies which were forbidden by the treaty that it had signed. It cheated before, during and after negotiation, and continued to do so until the collapse of the soviet empire.

Russia, as the successor to the Soviet Union, continues to cheat now in the context of the SA10 missile which, as the noble Baroness and other noble Lords will know, is a dual-purpose missile designed to circumvent the whole thrust of the ABM Treaty. The most vivid and outstanding example of that was the Kasnoyarsk phased array radar which was built by the Soviet Union specifically against the provisions of the ABM Treaty. It was a flagrant breach of that treaty. No one who knows anything about defence technology can be in any doubt as to what the Kasnoyarsk phased radar array is about; it avoids the consequences of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. If anyone has such doubt, he need only read the speech of Mr Shevardnaze in 1989 in which he admitted in terms that the Soviet Union had, for reasons of its own national interest, cheated on the treaty.

We now know that that radar system was initiated by the Soviet Union in 1972 which was the year in which the ABM Treaty was signed. Let us not place too much reliance upon, or be too affectionate about, the ABM Treaty. It was a useless treaty from the moment it was signed, and it continues to be so. But even if it had been effective at the time of the Cold War, at the time of the bi-polar confrontation, as it was then called, it is now, even if it was not before, archaic and totally irrelevant to modern strategic analysis. It was an element of what was called mutual assured destruction (MAD)—a concept between the two great superpowers which meant that they would not do things which would destroy the capacity of the other side to inflict appalling damage in either a first strike or a retaliatory strike.

I do not need to dwell long on the fact that the changes in the international order since those days have been such that whatever relevance the ABM Treaty ever had, it has now lost. In a world of many countries, not just three, four or five, with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of delivering them, a treaty between two nuclear powers designed simply to ensure that the attack capability of the other is not damaged is not relevant and does not make sense. Mutual assured destruction is no use against the kind of threat which we now face in this multi-polar world. It is no defence against religious fanatics, for example.

Let us not forget that the two signatories to the treaty—only two, as the noble Baroness said—the United States and what was the Soviet Union, both have the right to abrogate that treaty under its terms. Russia wants to keep the treaty for perfectly understandable Russian security reasons. The United States wants it to be amended to allow it to deploy a national missile defence system. If it is not amended—let us be in no doubt—the United States will walk away from it. Anyone who believes that the United States will be prevented deploying one of these systems sooner or later is not living in the real world.

The United States will deploy its missiles. No amount of high-sounding talk from its allies or from anyone else will prevent the US so doing. I believe that to be the case, whether it is President Gore or President Bush. If it is President Bush, I think we need have no doubt that a very full and comprehensive national missile system will be put into effect almost immediately. Governor Gore has openly undertaken to follow the policies of his predecessor. But if it is President Gore, it may take a little longer.

I said that people who do not believe that this will happen are not living in the real world. The question is: what is the real world now? We have heard a lot of rhetoric about rogue states as though they were the only threat we and the United States face in the modern world. The noble Baroness said, with some element of satire in her voice, that these rogue states could not possibly have the knowledge of countermeasures which are implicit in the assumptions of the United States defence establishment.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord understood the point I was trying to make. It was that if the rogue states had the sophistication to build missiles capable of reaching the United States, they would also have the sophistication to produce the kind of countermeasures that would be very difficult to deal with.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. That leads me on to my point about rogue states and the rhetoric about them. Let us not be infants about this. The United States national missile defence system does not concern itself solely with rogue states or with the possibility of attack from religious fanatics. Let us not lose sight of the fact that by the year 2002 the People's Republic of China will have its new missile system, called the DF41, in full deployment.

The noble Baroness said that if the United States went ahead with its national missile defence system, the People's Republic of China would feel constrained to increase its number of warheads. It is already so doing. It has nothing to do with what the United States is doing; at this moment, China is developing its ballistic missile system with nuclear warheads and will continue so to do. Noble Lords will note that the new DF41 missile system is a very sophisticated system. It can carry either a very large yield single nuclear warhead or it can carry three smaller warheads, independently targeted. It is also mobile, which is an extremely significant element in considering the efficacy of a nuclear striking force.

The Chinese are not developing a weapons system of this kind to point vaguely into space. Its computer and guidance systems will be targeted, as nuclear target systems always are. Where do noble Lords think the targets will be? I do not think any great leap of imagination is needed to decide the answer to that.

I conclude by saying that there is one aspect of this issue on which I totally agree with the noble Baroness. I am sorry that I cannot agree with much more of what she said. I agree that there is need now for a serious debate in this country about the whole issue. There has been no debate so far of any great significance. As the noble Baroness said, a few Questions have been asked in this House and in the other place. For perfectly good reasons, the Government have had to give noncommittal answers. But nowhere is there a serious debate going on about an issue which will mean, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, a threat to our national security if it is not handled properly and possibly a threat even to our national survival.

I think—I say this with great respect to the noble Baroness—that we must not be diverted in this debate by out-dated Cold War concepts. I regard the ABM Treaty as an out-dated relic of the Cold War. I make my personal view extremely clear, as I have done in the past. I believe that the arguments for missile defence are overwhelming. Furthermore, I believe that missile defence of one kind or another will be deployed whether we like it or not. So far as concerns the people of this country, of much more importance than national missile defence is theatre missile defence, especially the ability to protect our expeditionary forces against attack, not only from rogue states but from anywhere in the world that they might be deployed.

I know, agree and accept that there are powerful and rational arguments against a national missile defence system and against missile defence altogether. Those are strong arguments. That debate must be engaged. Those arguments must be listened to. But I seriously suggest that one of those arguments is not the ABM Treaty.

12.37 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I must apologise for not having managed to get through the systems of the House and put down my name on the Speakers' List. I was inspired to speak in the debate because this subject reminds me of my late teenage years when the "Star Wars" idea was current. We heard the rhetoric about how we could defend ourselves—we could not—and fear and confusion were engendered among the general public. No one knew what was going on. But it was said that everything would be dealt with at the touch of a button, that a computer would solve all the problems and that we would all be perfectly safe. It never happened. All that happened was that fear and tension were generated in society.

I was one of the only people during my sixth-form and university days who did not wear a CND badge, even if only for fashion purposes. The reason for that was because I assumed that if one had two superstates, displaying what at the time I thought was paranoia, and one started to let them think they could survive a nuclear exchange, that was the best way of ensuring that they would start an exchange. The horribly blunt weapon of mutually assured destruction has guaranteed us a degree of safety.

As my noble friend pointed out, the idea that one is able to stop a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction by having a missile, no matter how sophisticated, is one that is hideously out of date, if it was ever relevant. If a suitcase, car or ship contains a bomb and is brought into the right area and detonated, or if there are suicide bombers or people who are regarded as expendable by those who direct them, one will probably be unable to prevent an attack.

Thus we may have a defence system which probably will not work and which will be dependent on America's allies for the siting of the missile bases. That will raise tension with other states. Many of them have, shall we say, fragile new regimes in place. Their extreme nationalists might well be upset. There are other states which are starting to enter into normalised diplomacy with us, diplomacy which is not hacked up by military force. This new deployment may not help in that regard.

We have heard that we might be entering an age when the capacity for overall missile defence becomes the norm. The technical ability to put something in place is rather different from deploying the system. Furthermore, if we cannot be sure that it will be 100 per cent successful, there is no guarantee that it will do any good. All I ask from the Minister when she replies is that she gives us some idea of what is going on. We are in danger of stepping back in time so that fear and uncertainty once again dominate the relationships between certain of the most powerful nations on the planet, as opposed to what happens now, when there is at least a degree of trust, even if it is one where fingers are crossed.

12.41 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I should like briefly to intervene in the gap. I had not expected to speak but I feel that I should remind the House that when we are talking about the possible states that might carry out such attacks we must remember that there are a number of client states, such as Iraq and Libya, which are very happily taking as much advice and help as they can from the Russians on nuclear attack, and that we do not need to think only about China.

Turning to Russia, I want strongly to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said about the Russian capacity for signing treaties and not observing them. In particular, I think of the case of the cryogenic rocket motors which the Russians insisted on selling to the Indians in 1991 despite the very strong pleas of both the British and the Americans. It was known that those motors were the last element the Indians needed to have a capacity for nuclear attack. The Russians agreed not to sell them and were rewarded in various ways, particularly by the Americans, who bought, as far as I remember, a good deal of nuclear material from them in order to compensate them for their loss. But then, mysteriously, in the following year the Ministry for Atomic Energy absent-mindedly sold the Indians the cryogenic rocket motors. From then on we had another nuclear power. We ought not to forget that.

12.42 p.m.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I am sad to hear the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for she seems to reflect the normal Liberal argument that if there is a threat put your head in the sand.

Defence against ballistic missiles is one of the most important subjects that the world has to face and it is a grave pity that this debate has not attracted more speakers. However, with respect to the noble Baroness, it is ill-timed. It comes within a fortnight of the American presidential election, at a time when we cannot know what the policy of the United States will be for the next four years and beyond. I cannot see how the noble Baroness can expect a meaningful answer from Her Majesty's Government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, summarised the position of the presidential candidates. She left out Mr Nader, whose views might be very interesting. It is clear that Vice-President Gore will go less hard than Governor Bush. He believes that any missile defence system should be limited in scope and argues that a global Star Wars system would be unworkable. Governor Bush, rightly, I am sure, will favour postponing the decision on NMD until he is well and truly in the chair and will then, build effective missile defences at the earliest possible date". He would be prepared to withdraw from the ABM Treaty unilaterally, having given due notice, if Russia does not agree to changes allowing a defence system that would, protect all 50 states—and US friends and allies and deployed forces overseas—from missile attacks by rogue nations, or accidental launches". The approaches of the two candidates are fundamentally different and it is, I would suggest, impossible for Her Majesty's Government to produce a logical policy for this country until they have a reasonable knowledge of the policy of the United States.

Even for that rich country the cost of a BDM system is staggering. It is estimated to cost 60 billion dollars for 100 anti-ballistic missile launchers in Alaska plus an upgrade of US radar and early warning systems. The thought of that has certainly frightened the Germans whose view, of course, is substantially different from that of the French.

Both American policies centre round the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. I agree with everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, with regard to that treaty. I would further underline that it was signed in 1972 on the principle that the only way to encourage reductions in strategic arms was to restrict ways to counter them. However, 1972 was a very different year from 2000. Twenty-eight years ago, realistically the only possible country against which ballistic missile defence was required was the Soviet Union. Today there are a number of so-called rogue states. Syria has tested a North Korean Scud missile with a range of 600 kilometres; Libya has North Korean ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel and southern Europe; Iran has the Shahab-3D solid-liquid fuel missile with a range of 800 miles and Pakistan is set to test fire the intermediate range Shaheen II with a range of 2,500 kilometres. Life is very different.

A limited BMD programme can proceed without destroying the ABM treaty. The system deployed would not threaten Russia's deterrent. The ABM treaty allows a limited ballistic missile defence system and Russia has maintained an ABM system round Moscow. Significantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, pointed out, Britain is not a signatory to the ABM Treaty. I am sure that that accounts for Her Majesty's Government's answers, to which he referred, which have not been very meaningful.

The real threat to the viability of the treaty comes not from efforts to change it to reflect current reality but from a refusal to modify it to permit countries, including the United States and Russia, to build effective defence systems against those threats. The treaty must reflect contemporary reality. And so it should, for even when modified to permit development of a limited defence system it will remain fully viable and a key element in the US broad strategy to reduce further the nuclear threat.

Today the threat comes not only from nuclear attack but from the threatened use of chemical and biological weapons. An ABM system would add an extra level of deterrence with an aggressor having to consider both the strong probability that his weapon would not get through and the likelihood of retaliation. Had Milosevic possessed ballistic weapons in Kosovo the reaction of the NATO nations would have been very different. Rogue states such as Iraq, which is on the verge of possessing such weapons, see the possession of weapons of mass destruction as an important lever in establishing a new relationship with the West.

So therefore I must ask the Minister whether Her Majesty's Government consider that there is a threat and what is their policy to counter it. The most recent formal statement is that, there is no significant ballistic missile threat to the UK at present".—[Official Report, Commons, 12/7/00; col. 543W.] In answer to a Question in July in another place Mr. Vaz stated that the, current assessment is that there is no significant threat". But what is "current" and what is "significant"? The Foreign Office Minister and CND member, Mr Peter Hain, has said, I don't like the idea of a Star Wars programme, limited or unlimited. Unilateral moves by Washington would be very damaging". Mr Vaz further said that, it is not up to us to make assessments". I will not comment on the sense of that statement by a member of the Government, but it is exactly what we should be doing via NATO. It would be most helpful if the noble Baroness could say what NATO is doing. It is a vital question.

What therefore is the considered policy of Her Majesty's Government? The position of the Foreign Office seems to be that we should take up a pro-Europe, anti-American position. But this would not seem to be the position of the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State has pointed out that the ABM treaty is irrelevant and that Britain is not a signatory to it. He further said on Channel 4 News, in reply to a request for the use of RAF Fylingdales as an early warning radar station, that, the history of our close friendship with the US is that we are sympathetic to such requests". Clearly we shall see the CND argument re-ignited.

I should say to the noble Baroness that I fully appreciate that it will be impossible for her to say anything meaningful, but it would be interesting for the House to be given a hint of whether the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence is in charge of the defence of this country. Do Her Majesty's Government support NATO or are they following the St. Malo line, which would lead inevitably to a European army? Monsieur Chirac has said, how are those who could agree to forgo acquiring new arms to be persuaded when the most powerful deem it necessary to develop technologies which call the hard won strategic balances into question?". The setting up of the European security and defence policy and the view that Europe needs to counterbalance the USA have placed the issue at the heart of the European debate. Those who wish to see NATO sidelined are using this to drive a wedge between the USA and the nations of Europe.

Given the nature of the strong and growing threats to western security, in particular from so-called "rogue states", it is clear that the best means to confront and defend against them is through NATO. A strong NATO is as vital now as it was during the Cold War.

The Conservative view is that we should take a lead in building support in Europe for co-operating with the United States on the development of ballistic missile defences, to counter rogue states—which might perhaps better and slightly more politely be described as "states of concern"—and terrorists equipped with weapons of mass destruction. Britain should reassert its traditional role and lead the debate in Europe over ballistic missile defence, working to establish a NATO programme which can counter the growing threat from states in possession of missiles capable of mass destruction.

As a part of this, I recommend the consideration of a domestic preparedness programme, based on the American model. Too many people use the terrorist threat as an argument against the threat of ballistic missiles. This argument does not stand up. The extra threat does not disprove the existence of the other threat. All of them need to be contained.

I repeat that I am sorry that this debate should have taken place at this particular moment. I feel, to some extent, that at present we are wasting our time. This is a question for the future. It is an immensely important question and we should be discussing it at a time when we might reasonably expect to get some answers.

Lord Acton

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he referred to Mr Ralph Nader in what I took to be slightly jocular terms—I hope that I have not misinterpreted that. Is the noble Lord aware that Ralph Nader is the person principally responsible on this planet for safety features in cars, including the wearing of seatbelts? Is he further aware that Ralph Nader may take away from Mr Gore in California sufficient votes to deliver that state to Governor Bush, thereby delivering the presidential election?

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I am well aware of Mr Nader's connection with road safety. I think that he probably knows more about that than he does about ballistic missile defence. However, thank goodness that it is not likely that he will become President of the United States.

12.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for giving us the opportunity to address this issue today. Slightly in common with the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, I am not entirely sure how far the noble Baroness really expects me to be able to go in taking the arguments forward. However, I agree with the comment made by the Prime Minister in July; namely, that this is, one of the most important issues we shall have to face over the next few years". I pay tribute to the noble Baroness's longstanding interest in, and detailed knowledge of, the complex issues involved here. I thank, too, the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont, Lord Addington and Lord Burnham, for their contributions and for their fortitude on a Friday afternoon. Like the noble Baroness I, too, hope to see my noble friend and colleague Lady Scotland back with us shortly. However, I should assure the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, that when I speak on this issue, I do so on behalf of both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, perhaps I may make it clear that I am well aware—indeed, we have pointed it out on many occasions—that any Minister speaks on behalf of the whole Government and not on behalf of his or her department.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is excellent. There will be no misunderstanding on that point.

The Government have all along recognised that national missile defence raises some difficult and complex issues and is indeed a highly controversial subject. As has been evident from this debate, the issues go far wider than the question of the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Perhaps I may focus first on that question, which has been the starting point for today's debate.

I should begin by saying that, in expressing views on the ABM treaty, Her Majesty's Government have been careful always to stress that the interpretation of it, along with questions about its future, are first and foremost matters for the parties to the treaty, not for non-parties such as ourselves. That is an important point and one that was stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and again by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. There is an important distinction in international law here, which needs to be kept in mind when debating this issue. I hope that it explains, at least to some extent, why we have not been and will not be directly involved in negotiations on the future of the treaty. Furthermore, that should explain why we have not put forward proposals of our own on whether or how it might be amended to accommodate the limited national missile defence system which the present United States Administration have been discussing with Russia.

That said, the Government's answer to the question posed in today's debate is straightforward. We continue to value the strategic stability provided by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. We wish to see it preserved. To a certain extent, our views are somewhat at variance with those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont.

We have always made it clear that, if the United States did decide to proceed with the deployment of a national missile defence system, we strongly hope that it would be in the context of an agreement with Russia. I should like to assure the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that our views are well understood in Washington. The noble Baroness referred to remarks made by my noble friend Lady Scotland, but I remind the noble Baroness that President Clinton announced on 1st September that he would not be making a decision to proceed with NMD. He said: Our NATO allies have all made clear that they hope the United States will pursue strategic defence in a way that preserves, not abrogates, the ABM Treaty". He went on to underline that the present US Administration also strongly favour the preservation of the treaty.

Clearly … it would be far better to move forward in the context of the ABM Treaty". The current US Administration recognised some time ago that, if this were to be achieved, changes to the present terms of the treaty would be required. This applies to the proposed system as a whole, not only the siting elements of it in this country or elsewhere outside the United States.

Perhaps I may refer noble Lords to the recent report from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on weapons of mass destruction, and in particular to the Government's submission to it which set out the position in detail. The Government will respond formally to the report very shortly. I am sure noble Lords will understand that I cannot—indeed, I do not wish to—pre-empt our response to the report.

Since the US recognises that changes to the treaty will be needed to accommodate national missile defence, it has sought to engage Russia in negotiations to that end. A number of rounds of US/Russian discussions on the future of the ABM treaty, and on the equally important issue of further cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, have taken place over the past few years, as I am sure the noble Baroness and other noble Lords are well aware.

No one pretends that these talks have been easy—far from it. As noble Lords are aware, Russia remains in principle opposed to a national missile defence. None the less, this process of dialogue has yielded some positive results. In June this year, in a joint statement by presidents Putin and Clinton, Russia acknowledged for the first time that there was a new and growing threat from the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, that, while she may hold opinions about Russia's past, life moves on and differing views are now coming more together.

Indeed, the two presidents recalled that the ABM treaty made provision for joint consideration of changes in the strategic situation which might have a bearing on the treaty's viability. They also noted the importance of the consultative process and reaffirmed their determination to continue consultations in the future to promote the objectives and implementation of the provisions of the ABM treaty.

Since then, Russia and the United States have agreed a series of modest but positive steps under a joint strategic co-operation initiative. For example, they have agreed to establish a permanent joint centre near Moscow to exchange early warning data to minimise the risks of misinterpretation of missile launches. I am sure we all agree that that is a positive step in the right direction. They have agreed also to explore the possibility of co-operation on theatre missile defence, an important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, to which I shall return in a moment. So there has been some movement forward.

For our part, Her Majesty's Government have welcomed this. We have continued to urge both countries, at the highest level, to keep trying to find a way forward on these difficult areas—namely, the ABM treaty and the START III treaty, to which the noble Baroness referred. From remarks made by my noble friend Lady Scotland and I from this Front Bench, the noble Baroness will be in no doubt about the support that the United Kingdom Government give to that process.

Some commentators have suggested that, despite the United States Administration's wish to proceed with NMD without abandoning the ABM treaty, this outcome is, in practice, unachievable. The noble Baroness did not go quite so far as to say that, but I think I am right in saying that she is clearly uneasy about the future of the treaty, given what the United States Administration have said. Those who veer on that side of the debate have argued that an AMB treaty adapted to accommodate the limited NMD system that the United States has in mind would not be a treaty worth having. That is not the view of Her Majesty's Government.

As noble Lords will recall, the treaty has been amended before. We should not forget that. It is a point which has not been raised today, but the treaty was amended in 1974 and again in 1997 by joint agreement of the parties. We see no reason in principle why it should not be amended again to accommodate the kind of limited NMD system that the current United States Administration have proposed without destroying the essence of the treaty.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. The distinction I was trying to make—I apologise if I was not sufficiently clear in what I said—was between the first stage, where it is recognised that the treaty might be amended to permit it, and the later stages, in particular C3 and beyond, where it is quite difficult to see how the treaty could be made compatible with that kind of development.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not think there is any difference between the noble Baroness and Her Majesty's Government on the point that this is a very difficult issue. It involves not only complex political questions but very complicated technical questions. But Her Majesty's Government hope and believe that, with goodwill on both sides, this is not an impossible position for the two governments. Let us hope that they are able to take their discussions forward.

What is more, we and many of our friends and allies share US concerns about the growing threat posed by the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. We do not believe that any responsible government can afford to ignore the problem. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that we are trying to find a way forward on these closely related issues which preserves the positive momentum of recent years on international arms control.

As the Prime Minister explained: We are trying to ensure that the fear that the United States has—perfectly legitimately and justifiably—is taken account of in a way that does not put at risk the substantial progress that has been made on nuclear disarmament over the past few years".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/7/00; col. 767.] Agreement on a way forward on these closely related issues is, in our view, not only possible but strongly in our interests.

President Clinton's decision not to proceed with NMD deployment at the present time means that any such decision will now be left for his successor to take, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, indicated. The Government welcome that decision and the measured terms in which President Clinton set it out. The President made it clear in his announcement that research and testing would continue. We would expect his successor, whoever that might be, to want to visit the question of actual deployment in due course.

But we cannot know at this point whether—or, indeed, when—President Clinton's successor will decide to proceed with the deployment of a national missile defence system. As the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said, we cannot know precisely what form the system he might choose to deploy would take. Nor can we know what the international political background to such a decision might then be.

These would all be vital considerations for us should the US approach us at that point with a request to make use of any facilities in this country for NMD purposes. That is why, when asked whether the United Kingdom would agree to any such request, the Government have all along said that they would have to consider it carefully in the light of the circumstances in which it was made. We believe this approach has been an eminently sensible one. I make it clear today that we intend to stick to it.

In the meantime, we want to try to take the opportunity afforded by President Clinton's decision to defer deployment to make some progress in international dialogue on this issue. We shall continue to encourage the United States and Russia to discuss the matter bilaterally.

We shall also continue to promote debate in NATO on NMD. A certain amount has been made of the public comments of some NATO allies on NMD. One or two noble Lords referred to the allegedly more robust views expressed by some of our allies. However, I can assure the House that the discussions in NATO so far have been entirely serious and constructive. They have increased the understanding of all the allies of the issues and arguments involved. We want to build on this positive start. We shall continue to work more widely internationally to fight missile proliferation.

There have been some positive developments in this area in the past week. A few days ago we reached agreement with our partners in the missile technology control regime on a new code of conduct for ballistic missiles. This is the first ever draft international agreement covering missile proliferation. It is an important step in the right direction, which we hope will attract widespread support and adherence.

Last week, a senior team of North Korean officials visited Washington, for the first time, to discuss, among other things, the future of their long-range missile programme—again, an important step in the right direction. Not a massive one, but an important one.

A number of points were raised by the noble Baroness in regard to the Russian arsenal, about which I shall write to her. However, I think that she is aware of the steps Her Majesty's Government have taken in regard to that. I should remind her—as did the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont—that we are aware of China's concerns about NMD. But, as the noble Lord said, it is worth noting that China decided in 1998 to invest significant funds in the modernisation of its nuclear arsenal, but not necessarily connected with NMD.

The points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, about theatre missiles are equally important. Indeed, they are the focus of the present research work we are doing nationally. They are also the focus of a feasibility study that we and our allies in NATO commissioned earlier this year. At this stage we still judge that it would be premature to decide on acquiring missile defence either for our deployed forces or to protect UK territory. It is an issue on which further work is being undertaken.

A point was raised about assessing threat. We assess that there is no significant ballistic missile threat to the United Kingdom at present. To answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, we recognise that both the threat and the technology to counter it could change very rapidly. That is why we have ruled nothing out, and why we continue to monitor developments closely. I hope that that gives the noble Lord the assurance that he was seeking.

The Government are convinced that the approach that we have followed hitherto of seeking to promote calm, measured international dialogue on what is an important, complex and sensitive issue, is the right one. That approach has already borne significant fruit and we believe that it is the one that is most likely to secure eventual agreement.

Of course, we are happy to continue to engage in discussion with your Lordships. However, I say particularly to the noble Baroness that some of the issues raised in regard to assessing risk can be discussed in detail only on the basis of highly sensitive information—information that is intelligence-based and security sensitive. There will always be a point, particularly in discussing risk, when Her Majesty's Government must ensure that whatever is said from these Benches puts the security of the United Kingdom before everything else.

House adjourned at twelve minutes past one o'clock.