The Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, has today made a statement on missile defence.
In an oral statement to the House of Commons, Mr Hoon said:
The House will recall that in the Defence Debate on 17 October I described the work in the United States on the development of ballistic missile defence systems and the Government's thinking on this issue. Subsequently, on 9 December, as I informed the House during Defence Questions that day, I placed in the Library a discussion paper produced by the Ministry of Defence setting out the role which active missile defence might play within a comprehensive strategy for tackling the threat from ballistic missiles. And on 17 December, I informed the House of the receipt of a request from the United States Government to upgrade the early warning radar at Fylingdales for missile defence purposes.
"I have repeatedly emphasised that the Government would not respond to such a request without a further opportunity for discussion in this House. Next week's Defence Debate is a very timely further occasion for the House to discuss the challenges that the United Kingdom faces in the new international security environment, including those posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology. I hope the House will find it helpful if today I set out today the Government's thinking on the US request.
"The Government recognises that missile defence raises important strategic issues, as well as local concerns in North Yorkshire. Following the release of the discussion paper in December, with its invitation to all interested parties to contribute their views, we have had around 300 responses. In addition, I visited North Yorkshire last week, and heard the views of local people and their elected representatives, as well as meeting representatives from the planning authorities.
"We have taken these views into account as we have considered the key question, which is the key test which the Government will apply to the US request - would agreeing to the upgrade of Fylingdales ultimately enhance the security of the UK and the NATO Alliance?
"The background to the US request is the marked increase in the potential threat to our security from weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. The Prime Minister has described weapons of mass destruction as 'the key issue facing the world community'. It is a real threat to our security, fanned by proliferation from irresponsible regimes As we all know, threat is a combination of intention and capability. Intentions can be debated but they can also change at very short notice.
â€œThe evidence of expanding capabilities cannot responsibly be ignored. The hard fact is that a number of states of concern are making major investments in developing ever-longer range ballistic missiles. We are not referring here to countries developing standard military technology against the risk of conventional conflict. These ballistic missile programmes are being developed in order to threaten the delivery of mass destruction - nerve gas, toxins, biological agents or even nuclear warheads. It is the combination of ballistic missiles and the possession of these weapons of mass destruction, together with the demonstrated willingness to use these capabilities, that makes Iraq the most immediate state threat to global security.
â€œElsewhere, if North Korea ends its moratorium on flight testing, it could flight test a missile with the potential to reach Europe and the United States within weeks. Other countries may acquire similar missile systems, not least through the proliferation of missile technology from North Korea.
"Based on the analysis and discussion which we have undertaken so far, I have therefore come to the preliminary conclusion that the answer to the US request must be yes, and that we should agree to the upgrade as proposed.
"RAF Fylingdales has operated since 1963 as a ballistic missile early warning system, which together with other radars in the United States and Greenland provides tactical warning and attack assessment of a missile attack against the United Kingdom, North America or western Europe. It has been upgraded a number of times over the years: many Hon. Members will recall the old "golf balls" which were dismantled in the late 1980s and replaced with the existing pyramid-like structure. Indeed, a life extension programme is currently underway to maintain its capabilities to provide early warning and track objects in space. These missions will continue to be the primary function of RAF Fylingdales.
"There are a number of misapprehensions about the US request which I have sought to dispel in various meetings in North Yorkshire:
-- The proposal is for an upgrade of the existing radar, not some massive new construction. No change to the external appearance of the radar should be involved. The upgrade essentially comprises modification to the hardware and software of the computers within the base.
-- There will be no change in the power output of the radar, which is many times below statutory safety limits. We therefore believe that no health risk to people or livestock would arise. We have already explained to the local planning authorities that we see nothing in the upgrade proposals which would require formal planning consultation, and we have promised to provide them with full supporting evidence in due course.
-- The upgrade of the Fylingdales radar can and should be considered as a discrete proposition. It does not commit us in any way to any deeper involvement in missile defence - although it gives us options to do so, should we decide on this at a later date.
-- It will not involve huge costs. The upgrade will be performed at US expense, and we do not expect any significant variation in the running costs of RAF Fylingdales which, as is appropriate for an RAF station, we already bear.
-- Agreeing to this upgrade is not at odds with the wider approach of our NATO allies. The Prague Summit agreed "to examine options for addressing the increasing missile threat to Alliance territory, forces and population centres". The Danish government has received a parallel request to upgrade the early warning radar in Greenland.
"Missile defence is a defensive system that threatens no one. We see no reason to believe fears that the development of missile defences will be strategically destabilising. Reactions from Russia and China have been measured. And missile defence would only need to be used if a ballistic missile has actually been fired. At that point, no matter how much we emphasise our other means of addressing the threat - non-proliferation, intelligence, law enforcement, conflict prevention, diplomacy and deterrence - those means will have failed and cannot be of further help. There would be no way of preventing a devastating impact without intercepting and destroying the missile. Once the missile is in the air, it is unthinkable that anyone could not want us to be in a position to shoot it down.
"These are the reasons for concluding that agreeing to the US request would not prejudice the UK's interests. But beyond this, the key consideration is that it would represent an invaluable extra insurance against the development of a still uncertain, but potentially catastrophic, threat to the citizens of this country. It does not yet represent an immediate threat to us as of today. But there is a distinct possibility that this threat could materialise in the relatively near future. It would therefore be irresponsible for the Government to leave the United Kingdom without a route map to acquire a defence against this potential threat. An upgraded Fylingdales radar would be a vital building-block on which missile defence for this country and for our European neighbours could later be developed, if the need arises and if we so decide.
"We are confident that agreeing to the request will not significantly increase the threat to the UK. The security interests of the UK are already closely identified with those of the US and other NATO allies, and this will not change regardless of decisions on missile defence. Keeping a low profile and hoping for the best is not an option. We also believe that any increased threat to RAF Fylingdales itself is negligible. For the foreseeable future, states of concern are very unlikely to have the sophisticated capability or size of arsenal to consider targeting specific points or military installations. Long range missiles in their hands will essentially be weapons of terror. And as with all military installations in the UK, the station is well defended against terrorist attack. But we must not forget that what drives the threat against the UK is not the deployment of missile defences, but those states of concern who develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.
"The upgrade would indicate no commitment to further involvement with missile defence deployments. Separately, we intend to agree a new technical Memorandum of Understanding with the United States, which would give us full insight into the development of their missile defence programme and the opportunity for UK industry to reap the benefits of participation. But any UK acquisition of missile defence would be subject to a separate decision, at the relevant time. We must approach this in stages, considering each step in the light of how both the threat and the relevant technologies evolve.
"The Government has not yet replied to the US Administration on its request to upgrade the Fylingdales radar. I await with interest the views which Hon Members will wish to put forward, today and in next week's debate. But it is only right that the House should know the Government's preliminary conclusion that it is in the UK's interests to agree to the request. From the UK's national perspective, this specific decision is one that has real potential benefits at essentially no financial cost. But it will ensure that, if in the coming years we find that a potential devastating threat is becoming a reality, we have the opportunity to defend against it."