Election Brief :: Ballistic Missile Defence and the UK

There is an outstanding invitation from President George W. Bush Jr. to the United Kingdom, and other allies, to join the United States in a Global Ballistic Missile System. So far, Tony Blair has made no response, or at least, if he has, the nature of the response has not been made public. Many believe that, if there has been a response, it is along the lines of: "Ask me again after the election." There is, however, a widespread belief that, at official level, discussions about how any deal might be done have been going on between the UK and the US for many months. Last Autumn, there was a flurry of press speculation, soon dampened down, that officials had indeed agreed a deal to place interceptor missiles in the UK.

The widely held view in the UK is that, unless missile defence comes for free – as part of a quid pro quo arrangement with the US – we could probably not afford it. Beyond this, there is even a view that the UK does not really need it. The ballistic missile threat to UK interests is perceived in the UK to be relatively less severe, certainly less of a priority, than other threats to national security, and far less of a problem requiring attention than in the US. Where a potential threat is recognized – to our troops deployed in theatre – the UK is prepared to shelter under a US supplied umbrella (in the short term) and perhaps to look to NATO later. Geoff Hoon has admitted as much, when mentioning missile defence in the same breath as role sharing.

Missile defence is not yet a serious political issue in the UK. Apart from the arms proliferation and peace community, who objected strongly, but with little effect, both to the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and to the UK’s agreement in 2003 to allow the use of Fylingdales by the US for missile defence purposes, there is no anti-missile defence constituency in Britain. The Conservative Party is strongly in favour. The Liberal Democrats are against, but subdued. In the public arena, however, the level of understanding of the issues – in the media and the political parties – is pretty low. While it is true to say that there is only minimal debate on missile defence in the UK, what is still surprising is that there is no public support from any branch of the Armed Services. None of the Services lay claim to missile defence, and none wishes to give up anything to own it. The tone of the public debate could – and probably would – change if and when the UK was to proceed with a BMD programme. For instance, should the government agree to locate an interceptor site on UK territory, the reaction could become as significant as the opposition to cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth in the 1980s.

Alongside the political implications of a US-led missile defence programme, the other major issue for the UK BMD debate is cost. There has neither been any information, nor much speculation, as to the likely cost of a BMD system for the UK. Moreover, the defence budget has no allowance for a missile defence procurement. Arguably, the cost bracket lies between £0.5 billion and several billion, depending enormously on assumptions and weapon system type and effectiveness. The largest uncertainty is to what extent the cost might be shared, either with the US, NATO or with a European grouping of nations.

So will the election prove to be a turning point for the UK and missile defence? Will President Bush renew his offer? Will he demand that we pay for it? Or might we get it for nothing, as pay-off for political support rendered?

RUSI’s Military Sciences Department is currently engaged in a study on the implications of layered ballistic missile defence for the United Kingdom and Europe

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