HL Deb 12 March 2003 vol 645 cc1381-402

7.9 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

rose to call attention to the policy implications of the decision to upgrade the United States Missile Defence Programme at Fylingdales; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I start by thanking the Government for giving us the opportunity for the debate. There could have been a government debate, but they kindly allowed us to have this debate in respect of the recent debate on Iraq.

The debate will not be a long one, as we do not have a long list of speakers. I wondered why that was, as I find the issue of immense importance. There are two reasons. The first is that the issue is probably overshadowed by Iraq, but that is also incredibly pertinent to the debate. The comments by Donald Rumsfeld over the weekend about the unilateral position of America in its approach to Iraq is of consequence to the development of the National Missile Defence system. If it is to lead to the defence of this country, there will have to be a joint effort between America and its allies. It would be extremely worrying if the missile defence system, which originated as the National Missile Defence programme, did not defend all America's allies equally.

The second reason is because, in a Statement on 15th January 2003, the Minister repeated the words of his right honourable friend in another place. Summing up on that debate—I apologise to him for quoting his words back to him—he said: We are announcing that it is the Ministry of Defence's and the Government's preliminary view that the request from the United States, which has not itself decided on a deployed missile defence system, for the existing equipment at Fylingdales to be upgraded should be given permission by the British Government. That is all. We are not making a decision today about whether or not the United Kingdom requires a missile defence system. That is something that we and Parliament must consider, and that will be done in due course. We are simply announcing that we are tending towards the view that we should be prepared to allow the United States' request".—[Official Report, 15/1/03; col. 264.] That sounds eminently reasonable, and gives the impression that the decision has been taken for a minor change.

Indeed, the decision at Fylingdales appears to be a minor upgrade of software and hardware. It does not include massive changes at Fylingdales at present. However, what is being done has huge ramifications for international stability. The changes at Fylingdales hammer a nail into the coffin of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that was allowed to lapse on 13th June 2002. Obviously, that was a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia. Those who said that there could have been problems with the Russians on the subject have said that their acquiescence means that they do not see it as something of great import.

There is an alternative view. The Russians are not in a position to implement a missile defence system of their own and the Cold War is over. Nevertheless, as they hold a large number of nuclear missiles, the implication could be that they see missile defence as a threat, viewing it as an offensive weapon against a state with few nuclear weapons for first-strike capability. That could be a reason for Russia not to disarm the number of nuclear weapons that it might. I put that forward only as a hypothesis, but it could be extremely dangerous. Over the next few years, we all hope that the number of nuclear warheads held by Russia and the United States will decrease, but that might not be the case, which is of real concern.

A missile defence system, if seen in any other light, could be seen as having an offensive capability against a country with limited strategic capability. I speak of China. That is obviously not the reason for developing missile defence. However, the implications for strategic thinking in China would be worrying. It would see its limited strategic arsenal countermanded by an effective missile defence. That might lead to the escalation of its own nuclear weapons to counter that check. I put that forward only as a hypothesis, not as a realistic scenario. However, it will be in the background thinking of all those who deal with nuclear policy in other countries.

Another question with relevance in this country is this: with an effective missile defence system, what is the role of our own nuclear deterrent or that of, say, France? I put that forward only as a thought for the Ministry of Defence. Our nuclear deterrent is based on the principle of mutual assured destruction. If that principle is broken down by missile defence, is there any need for us to spend scarce resources on nuclear capability, as we will obviously be spending a vast amount of money on missile defence? We will have to meet its cost somehow. There might be a trade-off between having nuclear capability and paying our dues towards the procurement of a missile defence system.

The Minister will counter those arguments by saying that, at the moment, missile defence does not exist. The technology does not exist to make it work, but is being developed quickly. However, it is the declared intention of the US Administration that it should be a priority. They are moving with such speed on it that there is also talk of the deployment of an untried system in Alaska in the next two to three years, and a second system in California. It seems unfortunate to move with such speed, because so much money will be spent on trying to procure the system that it might destroy the whole concept of the system itself if military spending in the US has to be cut back. The Administration have procured an enormous amount of money for missile defence. They have upgraded their defence spending by 50 billion dollars a year, much of it to meet the costs of missile defence.

The concept is not new. It goes back to the Reagan era and the Strategic Defence Initiative or Star Wars. That system of space-based lasers foundered on the problem of technological feasibility. One of the victories of Star Wars is the claim that the Russians could not afford to counter it. However, we have to ask whether the present-day system is affordable. There are some worries about the technology about which we are talking, such as the short-range interceptors that will be positioned around rogue nations to intercept ballistic missiles shortly after launch. I foresee a number of problems with that. It assumes that countries around rogue nations will be used for the deployment of American missile systems, which could be destabilising in many parts of the world.

The second issue is that the ballistic missile would be counteracted when it left the Earth's atmosphere in the space/air area, which has real implications. How would that be done? If it was done from a launch from Earth, Fylingdales would pick up any such launch and an interceptor would be launched at that point. Is that technology currently feasible? Discussions on this issue have started to refer to basing weapons in space to counteract the space flight of any missile. That involves the weaponisation of space, which has real implications for the future. The Minister might respond that that is for the future but it is worth discussing now. Space-based weapons can be seen as a threat to almost any nation on Earth.

I turn to point defence, which would be for specific targets, such as small cities or installations that could be used in a missile defence programme, including Fylingdales. If the missile defence system is brought to a conclusion, we and the Americans might feel that it was necessary to defend Fylingdales with a point defence system. That would cause much concern to those living in Yorkshire because it would involve basing missile systems around the county. There is also the issue that point short-range interceptors when dealing with incoming missiles are most effective when nuclear tipped. That might be totally unacceptable. I realise that at this point no such missile defence system has been developed and that all of this is for the future.

The Government may say that it is inherently responsible for a government to consider this country's defence against the threat of a ballistic attack from a rogue nation. I must admit that I agree. The point of this debate is not to attack the Government's policy. We must in future make a measured judgment. I do not believe that we can say that this is the end of the argument and that there is currently no such issue. It will obviously involve much debate within the MoD and throughout the country—this issue will affect us all.

Is a ballistic attack the only threat that we face? Obviously not. By developing a missile defence system, we might well make it more attractive for potential aggressors to use other forms of delivery. If one wants to deliver a nuclear weapon, one could simply put it in a container, wrap it with lead and send it freight to one of many ports in the world. Current detecting systems would not pick up a nuclear weapon in a freight container. That is an horrendous scenario. One could also go for the non-nuclear option. Nuclear weapons are expensive to produce. As the situation in Iraq shows, chemical and biological weapons are much smaller, easier to mass produce and can be shifted around more easily than a nuclear weapon.

We must also consider the extent to which missile defence is cost effective in that scenario. The cost to the country will be huge. The Americans are obviously paying for the system's research and development. However, is it realistic to expect that we will not have to fork out for the cost of a missile defence system in this country? The cost of such a system could run into billions. The defence for that approach has been advanced. British industry, which has definite capabilities and expertise in missile defence and interceptor technology, will benefit from that. The future benefits must be carefully considered. Analysis of the Star Wars initiative showed that this country benefited financially hardly at all from its industrial research on the programme. We must also question whether the Americans will want to share the system's information technology. I am summing up—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we are into the 17th minute now.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I apologise; I have gone over the time. I had a piece of paper that referred to 20 minutes for starting.

I end with a point raised in the First Special Report. It states: We deplore the manner in which the public debate on that 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". The Government have countered that argument in their response. This debate will not finish at this point; however, this is the starting point for any debate.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

7.26 p.m.

Lord Powell of Bayswater

My Lords, looking at the list of speakers for this debate, I rather get the feeling that I am gate-crashing a private party. Listening to the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I am a hit worried that it is the sort of private party at which hallucinogens will be passed around. However, I am grateful to the noble Lord for initiating this debate, which gives me the chance to put a rather different point of view.

My involvement with missile defence goes back some 20 years, to the discussions that the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—the then Prime Minister—had with President Reagan about his strategic defence initiative in 1983. Like her, I have always supported the concept but recognised from the beginning the immense technical difficulties of building a defensive system, which meant that it would inevitably be many years before a deployable system would be available. Also, it was clear that it would never be 100 per cent effective, which is why it is essential to retain nuclear deterrence alongside defence.

In the 20 years that have passed since President Reagan's initiative, substantial progress has been made. Technical advances have now brought a first-generation system of missile defence within sight. It is not by a long chalk President Reagan's original vision of a global space-based system; it is a land-based system, which will provide a degree of protection against missile attack from rogue states with limited arsenals and against accidental launches.

One would have to be particularly ostrich-like to fail to recognise that both of those dangers have increased and will increase further as a growing number of unscrupulous yet relatively unsophisticated states get their hands on long-range missile technology. Indeed, the need for missile defence becomes clearer almost every day. The North Koreans have resumed testing of their ballistic missiles, just as the noble Lord the Minister warned this House on 15th January they were likely to do. They have the declared aim of developing the capability to strike the west coast of the United States before long. It does not require much of a jump from the evidence of North Korea's programme to understand the likely long-term ambitions of other rogue states in North Africa or the Middle East, whose missiles could one day—possibly quite soon—pose a threat to Britain and Europe as well as to the United States.

Ballistic missile defence also has a vital role in preventing the US and the UK from being deterred by rogue states. To make the point: if Saddam Hussein today had nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting London—let alone New York—would British and American troops be on Iraq's borders? My answer is: only if we had missile defence to protect ourselves.

Of course, missile attack is not the only danger facing the US and the UK, as 11th September demonstrated. But just because ballistic missile defence does not protect against every conceivable threat, that does not mean that it is unnecessary or repugnant. In practice, ballistic missiles are likely to remain the rogue state's weapon of choice. They are easy for dictators to control, and they have a higher probability of getting through than alternatives such as hand-carried WMD materials, against which the United States is strengthening homeland defence. In that perspective, ballistic missile defence can be seen as an adjunct to improved homeland defence.

The downside of ballistic missile defence has been consistently exaggerated and distorted. Over the years, we have heard endless dire warnings from European governments and from the opponents of missile defence in this country that pressing ahead with such defence would be destabilising, would undermine arms control and would jeopardise relations with the new Russia. Actually, none of those calamities has happened or is likely to happen. Instead, developing missile defences has gone hand-in-hand with a commitment to a far greater reduction in ballistic missile and nuclear warheads than we would have dreamed possible only a few years ago. Therefore, missile defence is needed, and it is compatible with reductions in other weapons and with strategic stability.

Turning to the present issue, now that the Americans are confident enough of the progress of the technology to prepare for deployment of a first-generation system, they are seeking to upgrade, here in Britain and also in Greenland, the radar facilities whose role will be to give early warning of any attack on the US. It is hard to think of a more benign purpose than that—providing warning of an impending attack so that our closest ally can defend itself.

The Government have been absolutely right to indicate willingness to agree to the upgrading of Fylingdales, which will be an essential part of a future defence network. That is, of course, only a first phase, and I have no doubt that the Americans will have further requests to make in the years ahead—to which I hope our response will he equally prompt and positive.

For the reasons that I have given, we should also consider how the United Kingdom and Europe can benefit directly from the protection of ballistic missile defence. In his Statement of 15th January, the Minister said that the Fylingdales upgrade would indicate no commitment to further missile defence deployments. I accept that it is too early for decisions on that. But I hope that the Government will, at the very least, monitor closely the progress of ballistic missile defence technology within the United States so that they are able to understand the potential implications—and the obvious advantages—of missile defence in protecting the United Kingdom as well.

Informal studies have shown that the cost to the United Kingdom of buying a first-generation, land-based defence system would not necessarily be prohibitive or detract from other essential defence programmes. Moreover, given our important role in the defence of the United States against missile attack, we are surely well placed to bargain for access to missile defence on highly advantageous terms in exactly the same way as we have benefited from the Trident missile programme. And not only should we benefit from the defence but we should participate in the technology and eventually the production of the defensive system.

In conclusion, I encourage the Government to look ahead in their defence planning to ensure that Britain has the whole range of systems needed to defend us against new threats, an effective nuclear deterrent, beefed-up homeland security and, in time, the protection of missile defence.

7.33 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I declare an interest as the vice-president—or, at least, one of them; there are several of us—of the Council for National Parks, and I shall speak first in that role.

The Minister will be aware that the decision to change the use of RAF Fylingdales, which is what the term "upgrade" means, raises the possibility of the need for further development. That has particular implications in planning terms because RAF Fylingdales is situated within a national park—the North York Moors National Park. As my noble friend Lord Redesdale said in his excellent introductory speech, the term "upgrade" is rather disingenuous.

The initial lack of consultation with the park authority and, indeed, with the public on the change of use runs contrary to well-established policy. It was greeted with dismay by many, including the Council for National Parks and, I believe, the Commons Defence Committee. In PPG7, planning guidance is clear on the matter of development in a national park. I know how much this Government value the purpose of national parks because that was restated frequently by the Government and by Members of these Benches in this House during the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.

I believe that the types of issue that must be considered by a development test include the requirement for a demonstration of exceptional circumstances and of public interest before any major development can proceed. They must also include the availability of alternatives—both alternative sites and alternative ways of meeting that need. In my opinion, that test may prove to be especially important. Does Britain, let alone the park, need this development? Lastly, the development must pass the test of the impact on the statutory purposes of the park and on the local economy.

Therefore, I am pleased that Dr Lewis Moonie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, met representatives of the Council for National Parks and agreed a way forward. I believe he has given a written undertaking that any major changes at RAF Fylingdales will include a wide and timely public consultation and, indeed, clarification concerning the use of RAF Fylingdales to track space debris, both military and civil. I believe that the Ministry of Defence is preparing an environmental report that will address the planning and environmental impact and sustainability issues raised by this so-called "upgrade".

That is particularly welcome, as is the greater recognition that the Ministry of Defence intends to give to the protected landscape status of any of its core sites that fall within a national park. I should place on record the help given by the Minister's noble friend Lord Judd in ensuring that both sides—the Council for National Parks and the Ministry of Defence—were able to resolve upon that path within a fairly short time. I hope that, in his concluding remarks, the Minister will be able to put on record that the events in the North York Moors National Park were an exception. I also hope that the Minister has re-emphasised to his department, as I believe he has, the value of protected landscapes.

I turn briefly to my own feelings about this matter. It evokes for me strong memories of the early 1980s at Greenham Common. If Fylingdales is developed as a base in the way that the US Government envisage, I believe that we may well see another Greenham Common-type protest against the use of our country as a kind of island outpost of the United States. The anger that people in Britain felt then will be rekindled. The protests of recent weeks have made the Government aware that people in this country do not wish to be part of the United States' current military plans. People may well not wish to be part of any future US military plans, and certainly not without much consultation.

Greenham Common politicised a generation of women and enabled many of us to find our voice. I believe that recently a new generation has found its voice. At present, it is using that voice to express its disquiet about the situation concerning Iraq. Young men and young women, along with many of the older generation—I do not believe that they are ostrich-like, as the noble Lord, Lord Powell, implied a moment ago—simply do not believe in the same vision of the future. I believe that when the situation with Iraq is resolved one way or the other, people will expect the Government to consult widely on whether to allow Britain to become a missile launch pad. People will expect to be able to use their voice during that consultation.

7.39 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone with a house in Yorkshire who intends to retire to Yorkshire. One of the main pleasures in my life is walking through Yorkshire's national parks. Although the pyramid of Fylingdales is not a particular eyesore, the "golf balls" of Menwith Hill are one thing that hit me every time I walk from Airedale into Wharfedale.

I particularly welcome the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Powell, to the debate and I wish that there were more like him. As he rightly said, this is a very important issue. The issue of weapons of mass destruction is one of the most difficult on the international agenda and we all need to discuss it.

One problem with the way in which the Government have handled the issue is the pretence that it is purely a technical decision. They announced that they had received a letter from the United States on 17th December and that they were to consult widely, but on 15th January they announced that after wide consultation, during a period in which most people were happily occupied with other issues, they were minded to accept the proposal.

This is not a technical change; it is a fundamental change in the main purpose for which Fylingdales was intended. Fylingdales was a radar base intended to detect missile attacks from the Soviet Union in a Cold War context. We are now talking of Fylingdales being part of an American missile system based on different threats.

As regards the threat, I am increasingly sceptical about the way in which an American-led debate talks of weapons of mass destruction as though nuclear, chemical and biological weapons all fall into the same category. Nuclear weapons are easily delivered on ballistic missiles. I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Powell, if I understood him correctly, that ballistic missiles are likely to remain rogue states' weapons of choice. There are many other possible delivery systems now, including the dreadful, what I should perhaps call dual use technologies such as civilian airliners, container ships and so on. They are so much cheaper than ballistic missile systems that I fear that we are moving towards those different kinds of delivery systems. Incidentally, we are discovering that the threat from rogues in the world—not necessarily from rogue states, but non-state actors—is that they have the ability, particular with chemical and biological weapons, to deliver with a high degree of accuracy and they may not require to use nuclear weapons.

What should be the appropriate response of Her Majesty's Government? The first question that we should ask and what worries me most about this is whether we should look for containment of the threat within an arms control regime or whether we should leave it up to the United States to define the nature of the threat and of the response. After all there is a long history of a number of people—Donald Rumsfeld being one—wanting to bust the nuclear arms control regime and space-based arms control and to put into effect a dominant American approach to global security.

The SDI has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Powell, but the current debate started with the 1998 report to Congress commissioned by a Republican majority in Congress led by Donald Rumsfeld. Since the new Administration came into power the drive has been led by the most ideological Republicans. John Bolton was here in November telling us all that we had to get on board because the Americans were going ahead anyway.

I am unhappy about an allegedly left of centre British Government accepting an agenda defined by the right wing of a rather divided Republican Administration in Washington. The Minister shakes his head, but that is what it looks like. The absence of any attempt so far by the British Government to put the matter of missile defence back into a multilateral context causes us concern.

On an appropriate response, we have to ask whether we are happy to tag along behind an American system, designed to protect the United States without any reference to the European allies. Yesterday I was reading a Heritage Foundation paper on my computer that said that of course it is in America's interests to keep the Europeans as divided as possible because then they will not pose any threat to the United States. We continue to define the nature of the case. In recent months they have been successful, as the Heritage Foundation paper said, in ensuring that the Europeans stay divided. The British may have helped in that regard.

On the nature of the current threat, it now comes from the south and the east. The Americans may be better off if this kind of radar were in Bulgaria or Italy. A European framework appears appropriate. In terms of the credible potential threat, if missiles cross British territory they are likely to travel first across Italy, France, Greece and the Balkans.

On UK sovereignty and British democratic accountability, I am becoming increasingly used to the idea that in matters of national security the Government operate on the basis of the Royal prerogative and do not report to Parliament. Yesterday, when reading up on the subject, I was struck by how differently the Danish Government have approached the same request to upgrade the Thule radar. Much more detailed information was available to the Danish Parliament on what the United States have asked and there was information on how the Danish Government will respond.

The Minister kindly sent me a letter on the leasing issue in response to my unanswered question of some months ago. It points out that there is no lease to govern Menwith Hill or Fylingdales because the agreements are not legally binding. It also points out that under assurances given to the American authorities in 1955, and again in 1976, the site will be made available for a period of 21 years. Unless my arithmetic is wrong, that means that the assurances ran out in 1997. Perhaps the Minister could tell me where we are now, why Parliament has not been informed at least in principle about the state of play and why the Danish Government can inform the Danish Parliament of such matters when the British Government believe that it is not necessary to do so.

There are real questions about democratic accountability and about British sovereignty. Fylingdales and Menwith Hill are riot US sovereign base areas, but the British Government appear to operate as though they are. I understand that there are almost no Americans attached to Fylingdales. I gather that the current number is one. I also understand that there were over 1,000 American personnel at Menwith Hill and since 11th September 2001 that number has increased considerably. That has not been reported to the British Parliament, but that is the word that has filtered through to people like me.

We also understand that Menwith Hill is used not only for space-based infra-red systems related to the missile system, but also for a whole range of other activities, including, if recent reports are to be believed, listening in on America's allies in relation to what policy they may take on votes in the UN Security Council.

The democratic acceptability point that my noble friend Lady Miller suggested is a real one. At a time when we have declining trust in the United Kingdom in the overall approach to global security of the current American Administration, the acceptability of the current arrangements is likely to be thrown into question.

That leads me to two other points. What about the potential cost? I love the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Powell, that the cost will not necessarily be prohibitive. I think that means that it will cost an awful lot of money, but it may not mean more than, say, a 25 per cent increase in the defence budget. I hope that that is the case. If the United Kingdom is not simply to serve American needs then we need a more open debate about how far we need to participate. If the United Kingdom is to go down that road, we need to do so with partners. How far do we tag along behind the United States or do we raise this matter with our partners in Europe with whom we share the likely threat? I repeat that arms control regimes are cheaper, as well as better. The pursuit of robust multilateral enforcement regimes is a preferable response to the unilateralism of the kind propounded by John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld and others.

Then there are references to hopes that British industry will benefit if we join in. In the early stages of the strategic defence initiative, I remember well that being one of the supposed advantages for Britain. We did not gain very much. It is likely to be an illusion again. Treatment of the British defence industry is so different from that of other sectors of industry. Our hope that our defence industry will be cut into these deals is increasingly open to question. We are also told that in order to keep the industry going we must approve active pursuit of defence sales to countries which are not entirely stable. There are also some large issues there.

I end by saying that we on these Benches strongly endorse the criticism of the House of Commons report published in January on the way in which this decision has been taken. That was very strongly put. I entirely agree with it. We call for a much more cautious approach to an issue which is important, to a decision which is not purely technical and to a broad new threat which we need to discuss with all our allies and not simply to accept a ideologically-driven debate by the Right of the Republican Party in the United States.

7.51 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for introducing this debate today. Your Lordships have expressed a number of most interesting points.

On these Benches we have consistently supported the Fylingdales upgrade and have warned of the potential risks and loss of trade to British industry if we do not participate. In our opinion there is no dispute about the threat. The need for missile defence is beyond doubt and we should be fully committed in principle to global defence now.

An assessment has been made that currently there is no significant immediate threat to the UK from ballistic missiles. However, Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Libya cause serious concern as they have developed, or are seeking to develop, or acquire ballistic missiles of increasing range. Some already have active and relatively sophisticated ballistic missile programmes and weapons of mass destruction. However, in this debate there is no time to comment any more on the ballistic missiles of North Korea, Iran and Libya.

Iraq is the most immediate threat to global security as it possesses the combination of missiles and weapons of mass destruction—and has used them in the past—and is seeking to develop long-range ballistic missiles. There is no time to go into specific detail, but what has happened to the 25 Scuds and their 50 warheads covertly retained by Iraq? What has happened to the remaining Al-Samoud 2 missiles and their 567 Volga engines and what has happened to the documents relating to the propellant used in these prohibited missiles?

Iraq possesses and has useable offensive chemical and biological weapon capabilities, which include warheads for the Scud missiles filled with nerve agents, anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin. It has used chemical and biological weapons and killed horrific numbers of Iranians and Kurds, and hundreds of thousands of its own Marsh Arabs. Very recent press reports reveal that Iraq has built secretly a new and potentially lethal unmanned drone that could spray chemical and biological weapons on advancing troops. That was recorded on page 14 of the latest 173-page report from the United Nations weapons inspectors, which was declassified last Friday. This find appears to support allied claims that Iraq has continued to produce the means to deliver banned weapons of mass destruction. It was not declared by Iraq and is a further violation of UN resolutions.

Turning to chemical and biological agents, where are the 550 x 155 mm shells and the 450 R400 aerial bombs filled with mustard gas and the remaining 80 tonnes of mustard gas? Where are the 6,500 chemical weapon bombs? What has happened to the VX nerve agent, the 11,000 litres of botulinum toxin and the 10,000 litres of anthrax? All these chemical and biological substances could be delivered by ballistic missiles if Iraq continued to produce those missiles.

Terrorist organisations are unlikely to use long-range ballistic missiles as a means of delivery as it would be beyond their financial means and even acquisition from off-the-shelf is unlikely. These terrorist organisations are more likely to deliver weapons of mass destruction by covert means such as in suitcase bombs or packages.

However, the role of Fylingdales should enable the USA to develop and enhance its ideas and emerging technologies to produce ultimately a layered missile defence system. The plan is not to destroy large numbers of missiles as in Star Wars, but to provide a capability with a less extensive global protection system against a limited strike programme involving far fewer ballistic missiles. Royal Air Force Fylingdales has been in operation since about 1963 as one of the radars that provide early warning of ballistic missiles against the United Kingdom, western Europe and the USA. It monitors continuously what is happening in space and the launch and track of rockets from sites within its field of view.

Implementation of the agreement to the US request would give the USA protection from missiles from the Middle East, but it brings no immediate defensive missile cover to the UK unless ground or sea-based interceptors are also located in south-eastern Europe. Some local people are concerned that the upgrade to the hardware and software programmes will increase radiation emissions to dangerous levels. The current levels are safe and many times lower than the safety limits set by the authorities. The Secretary of State has said there will be no change in the power output of the radar and no health risk to people or livestock should arise.

However, there is no need to co-locate interceptors with the radars. The upgrade of the USA radars at Fylingdales will provide us, at no cost to the United Kingdom, with a vital building block on which missile defence for this country and for our European neighbours could be developed if the need arose. Surely we should preserve the possibility of such defences protecting the people of the United Kingdom. Some argue that Fylingdales will become a target once it has been upgraded. However, there is no evidence that it will be at any more risk than it is now even with a terrorist threat, and since the end of the Cold War it could well be argued that it is less of a risk.

Some of the implications stemming from missile defence are that the United States is now looking at working closely with friends and allies to develop defences, which enhance global security in the face of potential threats from rogue states. It has also refocused its efforts on the much more limited and realistic aim of defending against potential threats. The United Kingdom needs to maintain the ability with its allies to intervene in regional crises where our national interests or international stability are threatened, or the will of the international community is being flouted. We need to be prepared for a scenario in which a state carries out a regional act of aggression, and then seeks to deter intervention by threatening population centres with ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

The agreed upgrade does not in itself commit the United Kingdom to any greater participation in the United States missile defence programme. It does, however, keep open the prospect of acquiring missile defence capabilities for the UK, should we desire such protection at some point in the future, but it may well be a very expensive, although necessary, option. The risk to the UK from ballistic missiles and hence the desirability of a missile defence system will be driven by the inimical intentions of other states and improvement in ballistic missile technology and accuracy, and not by the existence of the US missile defence programme. Safety lies in recognising threats as they arise, and in taking proactive steps to address them.

On the issue of international stability, the aim is to tackle limited threats from states of concern with emerging missile capabilities, which seek to acquire and threaten to use ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction in contravention of widely accepted conventions.

It has been said that we are trying to protect ourselves and friends and allies from threats from countries that may not be deterred by our possession of nuclear weapons, reserving the right to use them in specific circumstances. However, future decisions on the existence of effective missile defences should help to dissuade any states that might be weighing up whether to embark on the costly and technically difficult path of developing or procuring ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction in the first place. It is important to consider missile defence in the context of emerging threats from states that pay no attention to the safety and welfare of their own people.

I end my comments with statements from the Prime Minister and the Chief of Defence Staff. The Prime Minister said: There is a threat to our security from unstable states acquiring nuclear weapons … and if you can develop a defensive system, and this is a defensive system, that can give us some protection against that, I don't think that is the wrong thing to do. On the contrary I think there is merit in it". The Chief of the Defence Staff said: If there is a defence system around which we can make use of, then it must be essential for us to investigate it … It would benefit the Country in the longer term". I agree with those statements and that it is right for the United Kingdom to have agreed to the upgrade for the Fylingdales radar, not least because of the importance of the United States/United Kingdom special relationship. In addition, the upgrade will improve the vital early warning capability and we shall retain the opportunity to keep open the prospect of future missile defence for the United Kingdom and the potential for UK industrial participation.

Missile defences threaten no one and the capability would have to be used only if a ballistic missile had been fired. Once such a missile is in the air and threatening a devastating impact, it is unthinkable that anyone could not want to be in a position to shoot it down. I reiterate that we should be fully committed to global missile defence now.

8.2 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on securing the debate and all noble Lords for their contributions. It has certainly been an interesting discussion However, having heard both defence and foreign affairs spokesmen for the Liberal Democrats, I am left in a dilemma. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, may be able to assist me. In spite of the many words spoken with passion by both noble Lords, I still do not know whether the Liberal Democrats support or oppose the decision made by Her Majesty's Government. That is not an academic point; it is an important one. The Liberal Democrat Party is a serious political party. It must have views on whether the Government's decision is a good or a bad thing. I hope that we shall hear what is its view.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. As I said in my speech, if he reads it carefully, we are concerned about how the Government reached that decision. We do not think that they needed to reach it with such haste. We had hoped that there would be a great deal more debate. We are not opposed to a missile defence system and have not said that we oppose it; we just wish that there had been more debate about the implications before we moved forward. We may well support missile defence and the decision at this stage; we are just concerned about the implications for the future.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, but it must be me. I still do not know whether that is a yes or no about whether the Liberal Democrats support the Government's decision. That is probably the best answer I shall receive, but I still do not know whether they support the Government's decision to agree to the United States request for an upgrade of Fylingdales or not. From what their spokesman in another place said, it is impossible to tell. Having heard the debate today, I still do not know. It is quite important that the electorate should know.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, the system is unproven in the United States. The decision to deploy missiles in Alaska has been criticised by many in the US Congress, because the system is still experimental. Our case is that it is unnecessary at this stage for the British Government to give such a rapid reply. There is room for debate—especially about the multilateral framework within which we should have replied.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am afraid that I am still none the wiser as to whether the answer is yes or no to that government decision. As a serious political party, it is my view that the Liberal Democrats should tell us. This is a perfect debate for them to do so. I take the view that they have declined to do so.

I begin with the position that we have reached. Back in October, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence set out the Government's thinking on the development of ballistic missile defence systems and called for debate on how missile defences might be relevant to the United Kingdom's own strategy for dealing with the potential threat from ballistic missiles.

We have been criticised about timetables. That criticism is completely unjustified. On 9th December the Ministry of Defence published a discussion paper to inform the policy debate. On 17th December we received the request from the United States Government seeking permission to upgrade the early warning radar at Fylingdales for missile defence purposes.

The Government were keen to encourage people to make their views known: in Parliament, where there were opportunities for debate on 15th and 22nd January; in two public meetings attended by the Defence Secretary in North Yorkshire on 6th January; in a large number of letters and e-mails to the Ministry of Defence; and through the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. The committee's report, which has been referred to tonight, was published on 29th January. It recommended that the United Kingdom should agree to the upgrade. It, at least, was decisive.

Once the Government were confident that they had taken all the views and arguments into account, we were able to come to a final decision. The fundamental test was whether the upgrade would ultimately enhance the security of the United Kingdom and the NATO alliance. It does so by providing the opportunity in future to defend our country and the European continent against the increasing threat from ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction. Those missiles do not, we believe, present an immediate threat to the United Kingdom population. But it would be an irresponsible government who could claim that such a threat would never develop. RAF Fylingdales would be a crucial building block on which protection for this country could be acquired. Therefore, as I informed noble Lords on 5th February, we have now replied to the United States Government agreeing to their request.

We have debated today the policy implications of that decision. The most important point is that the upgrade of RAF Fylingdales does not imply any commitment to greater participation in the US missile defence system. The US has not requested the basing of interceptors in the UK; nor has it any plans to site an X-band radar in this country.

The United States has, however, offered to extend missile defence coverage to the UK as the evolution of the system permits and subject to appropriate political and financial arrangements. At the appropriate time, the Government will need to consider whether we wish to acquire missile defence capabilities for the United Kingdom. That would involve broad consideration of the strategic circumstances of the time, including an analysis of how the threat is developing and the technological solutions available, and an assessment of the approach that offers best value for money. The insight that the Government and industry will have of the US programme will be of great benefit in informing that analysis. But that would be a discrete decision some way downstream.

I shall now outline the implications for RAF Fylingdales. Visitors to the station are often astonished to discover that it is controlled and staffed entirely by the Royal Air Force. The only US military presence at the base is a single liaison officer. I emphasise again that Fylingdales is a British base. It will continue to he controlled by the UK. Operational command will continue to abide by the principle of joint decision-making. The radar will continue to play a crucial role for Britain within the ballistic missile early warning system as a whole. That system of radars and satellites provides warning of ballistic missiles heading towards the UK. It also tracks all objects in low space orbit around the earth. We have access to all the data that we require for those two missions from the whole system, and those arrangements will continue after the upgrade.

Noble Lords will be aware that the upgrade involves no new development, no expansion of the base and no changes to the radar's external appearance. The power output of the radar is also unaffected. As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, the upgrade essentially involves the modification of computer hardware and software within the base. When a ballistic missile is launched, the upgraded radar will be able to track the incoming missile accurately enough to enable it to be intercepted. Other than in that extreme circumstance, the radar will be in missile defence mode only for brief testing periods. The UK will have access to the data generated during those periods as well.

I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, whose expertise in environmental matters is well known throughout the House, that the Ministry of Defence has been in close touch with the North York Moors National Park Authority about the upgrade, as I think she knows. It is preparing for the planning authorities a detailed report that will include environmental and health issues. But I am afraid that the noble Baroness is wrong in what she says is envisaged for Fylingdales. It is not a change of use. The radar will continue to play a crucial role for Britain as an early warning radar. Its missile defence role would be used only to track a real incoming missile or for training for around a few hours a year. Nor is it a major development. Indeed, there is no development work at all. It is, frankly, a computer upgrade.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, commented on leasing arrangements for both Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. I am grateful to him for referring to my recent letter to him. I shall try to make the position as clear as possible. As he said, there is no lease for RAF Fylingdales. The base is not made available to the United States visiting forces (USVF). It is, and will continue to be, commanded and operated by the RAF. The United States visiting forces have never been granted a lease to occupy RAF Menwith Hill, which is a joint US/UK base. The presence of the USVF at RAF Menwith Hill is governed by the NATO SOFA—the Status of Forces Agreement 1951. There are additional confidential government-to-government arrangements covering administrative matters. But before noble Lords get too excited about that, it is not peculiar or special to Menwith Hill. It exists at all USVF bases in the United Kingdom.

In 1955 and again in 1976, in order to facilitate the commitment of funding by the US Congress for investment in the base, the US authorities were assured of security of tenure at Menwith Hill for a period of 21 years. The arrangements were an administrative mechanism, were not legally binding and did not constitute any form of renewable lease for the site. In 1997, the assurance expired, and no further such security of tenure assurance was required.

Menwith Hill has nothing to do with missile defence. In 1997 the US no longer required the security of tenure assurances that we had provided in the past so that Congress investment could be secured, so they were allowed to expire. I have taken a little time on that matter, as I know that the noble Lord has a considerable interest in it. He deserves an answer to the points he made.

Some noble Lords referred to strategic implications. The decision has no major strategic impact. It is hard to argue that it changes fundamentally the relationship between this country and the United States, two countries whose security interests have been closely intertwined for many years. Nor does it affect strategic relations with Russia and China. China has expressed some concerns, and both countries have given measured reactions to the development of missile defence. I need hardly point out that the United States and Russia are involved in an active process of dialogue to explore the possibilities for co-operation on missile defence systems.

The upgrade does not alter the strategic importance of Fylingdales as part of our ballistic missile early warning system. It will enable the United States to intercept a ballistic missile fired by a state of concern at its territory. I cannot believe that anyone would want such a missile to land.

Of course, should we so decide, Fylingdales would also in the future be able to help defend the UK and Europe, provided that it was linked to interceptors based in Europe. I have emphasised that that is a decision for the future, but perhaps it is worth briefly considering some of the issues surrounding the prospect of missile defences for this country, an issue that noble Lords have raised.

We already have a wide and comprehensive strategy to deal with the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. It includes a wide range of measures, from non-proliferation and counter-proliferation to intelligence co-operation; and from law enforcement and conflict prevention to diplomacy and deterrence. All those will remain crucial elements of the UK's response to proliferation. For example, the UK took a lead in instigating the creation of the new Hague code of conduct against ballistic missile proliferation, a politically binding code to which more than 100 countries have already subscribed.

There can be no guarantee that that wide range of measures will be 100 per cent effective. If, at some point, a ballistic missile is launched at this country, there will be nothing more that co-operation and conflict prevention can do. The only means of preventing catastrophe—defending this country and its people—is shooting that missile down. If noble Lords will forgive me for stating the obvious, I must say that that is all that missile defence can do. It is not for killing people. It is not for threatening other countries. It cannot even attack military targets. The sole purpose of missile defence is to find, intercept and destroy a missile that has already been fired at us in an act of aggression or terror and may carry a weapon of mass destruction.

We should be in no doubt about the existence of that threat. The noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, referred to it. It is a huge threat to our security. It is often said that threat is a combination of capability and intent. North Korea may be a single flight test away from confirming her ability to reach Europe and the United States with a ballistic missile. Iraq has already shown intent to use weapons of mass destruction and to fire ballistic missiles at its enemies. We must not ignore the evidence.

Why do those countries and others—often with a desperately poor population to feed—choose to spend their resources on such weapons? There are two reasons. The first is that they seek to hold other states to ransom by threatening the delivery of weapons of mass destruction. The second is that they seek to export missile technology to other countries trying to acquire such capabilities. It is not exaggerating to say that the danger is spreading. We cannot just wait for a direct threat to the UK to emerge, before exploring what we might do to defend ourselves against such a threat of devastation.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, made some remarks about a left-of-centre British government and a right-wing Republican American administration. In putting the argument that way, the noble Lord forgets that, as far as concerns missile defence, the previous administration, led by President Clinton, who could not, by anyone's definition, be described as a right-wing Republican, took almost precisely the same view as the present Administration. Indeed, in some regards on space he may even have taken a different and more hardline attitude. Therefore, I do not believe that it helps the argument to compare governments of whatever political persuasion.

The question is: is there a real problem here—a real threat? The answer of Her Majesty's Government is that there is. It is not just the United States and the UK who face that increasing threat. All our NATO allies recognise the potential threat from weapons of mass destruction.

On a number of occasions the United States has made plain its willingness to extend protection to friends and allies. NATO heads of state and government agreed at the Prague summit, an important decision, to examine ways to address the increasing threat posed by ballistic missile proliferation—not just ballistic theatre missiles, but ballistic missiles that would attack homelands—and initiated a new missile defence feasibility study in that regard.

I hope that this part of my argument will appeal to the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. The Government strongly support this work within NATO. In agreeing to upgrade Fylingdales, we have opened the possibility of this radar being the foundation of a missile defence system protecting the whole of Europe.

I want to conclude by providing noble Lords with more detail on the industrial implications of our decision. British industry—rather cavalierly dealt with in one or two speeches today—has been involved alongside the United States in research on missile defence since 1985. Industrial opportunities for UK companies will now increase, with the United States looking to bring in the expertise of a wider "international team" as its programme expands. British companies, large and small, as well as universities and research centres, have an excellent opportunity to contribute to the international effort. We are playing a major part in facilitating that.

We are negotiating a new memorandum of understanding with the United States to allow a proper two-way exchange of technical information with the UK. That is very important, not just in this field but in the wider one too. We are establishing a new missile defence centre which will form the main vehicle for bilateral discussions with the United States. It is proposed that the missile defence centre will be jointly funded by government and UK industry. Through it we shall seek to understand the missile defence architectures being developed for the defence of Europe and to influence the emerging concepts to our advantage.

Lord Roper

My Lords, the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard made a remark when my noble friend spoke into his 21st minute. It seems that the Minister is speaking into his.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I spoke after the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, had gone two minutes beyond his time.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am sure that this is my fault, but as I understand it, if the actual time for the end of the debate has not been reached, the Minister winding up is entitled to use that time. I am told I am wrong about that—not for the first time—by my noble friend the Deputy Chief Whip. I shall wind up if I may, but please do not leave me in mid-air.

Our objectives are to inform our future decision-making while at the same time promoting UK industry—and what is wrong with that?—to enable it to win work fairly on a value-for-money basis. Negotiating the necessary arrangements will, of course, be critical. I recently visited the US Missile Defense Agency in Washington and discussed the missile defence programme with American colleagues. I received the clear indication from the United States that it seeks the closest possible involvement of the UK—both government and industry—for our mutual benefit. Therefore, I remain confident of success. That does not mean that we are to have our own missile defence system. It means that our industry which has great expertise in this field, as conceded by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, should be able to compete.

In conclusion, the upgrading of Fylingdales has essentially no financial cost to this country, no environmental cost to this country and comes at no material cost to our security. On the contrary. In addition to contributing directly to the security of our closest ally, the upgrade keeps open the opportunity for the United Kingdom and Europe to defend themselves should a potentially ruinous threat become a reality.

The Government's decision is unquestionably in the best interests of this country's security. We shall continue to work closely with the United States and other allies to ensure that Britain has the security which it requires into the future. I hope that we may have the support of all parts of the House.

8.25 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, it remains for me to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. They have approached the issue from slightly different angles.

Perhaps it is only fair to answer the question put to me by the Minister, because he has asked for a "yes" or "no" response to whether we are for or against the decision. I think that that is the wrong question; we cannot say "yes" or "no" because obviously we shall come to a conclusion about the matter. Our problem is that we do not believe that the decision should have been taken when it was taken. That is not only our view—we are a serious political party—it was the view also taken in the introductory statement of the House of Commons Defence Committee special report. I shall not read out the quotation at this point.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the committee goes on to state that it supports the Government's decision. Why cannot the Liberal Democrats say that?

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, perhaps I should read out the quotation: But by announcing on 15 January that it was his preliminary conclusion that the UK must agree to the request, he effectively prevented that debate from taking place". The committee goes on to state that We can find no reason for this sudden urgency". We believe that there was no need for the decision to be taken in such haste. Indeed, missile defence involves multi-European co-operation. The issues were not discussed in either the European Union or in NATO. The Government's decision pre-empts the conditions that have locked missile defence into a multilateral rather than a bilateral or unilateral framework.

This issue will raise its head again. The Government have reached a decision. However, I think that we are looking at a real threat. Noble Lords on these Benches support a missile defence programme that would stop a real threat to this country. No one could say that we are against the concept of a missile defence system that actually worked to prevent a threat. However, there is al present no system that works, so there was no need to rush into the decision. We believe that the country should have been given the time to make a decision. It should not have been reached as a result of the Americans simply asking for it and us agreeing to it. It is something over which we should have taken time.

Having said that, I thank the Minister for his courteous response to many of our questions. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.