Political dynamite, but the only insurance policy that is available

By Michael Evans (THE TIMES, 24/02/07):

Ballistic missile defence, so long an American dream but given short shrift by most of Europe, is now firmly on the agenda, and Britain looks set to play a significant role.

However, this country is already part of the United States’ so-called “Son of Star Wars” programme, after the Government gave permission for the radar network at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire to be upgraded for advanced early-warning tracking of any ballistic nuclear missile launch.

Geographically, Britain is in a prime location to contribute to America’s plan for an antimissile system capable of providing a shield against a limited attack from the Middle East or North Korea. For that reason, and because of the shared view in Washington and London about the threat facing the globe within the next 10 to 15 years, it was inevitable that this country would be asked to play an additional role, probably siting missile interceptors on an existing US base in East Anglia.

Son of Star Wars has been given a bad name because it conjures up the image created by the late President Ronald Reagan when he urged American scientists in a speech in 1983 to help to develop a space-based defensive shield that would protect the US from a mass ballistic missile attack by the Soviet Union.

The dream was neither feasible nor affordable, and the political ramifications for relations between Washington and Moscow, and with America’s allies, undermined the concept to such an extent that for years ballistic missile defence was widely viewed as a somewhat cranky notion that died a natural death. The truth is very different. Although Star Wars, as envisaged by President Reagan, was too farfetched, there was never any doubt in the minds of American scientists and engineers that the simple idea of taking out an incoming ballistic missile with another missile up in space merely by aiming it right and hitting it with even a glancing blow was technologically achievable.

A huge amount of work was carried on in the US, regardless of the scepticism in Europe, and, despite the much publicised failures when interceptors blew up or flew off course, those scientists proved the technology, and out of their endeavours, in a world no longer bipolarised by the Cold War, emerged the Son of Star Wars. Putting American interceptors on British territory would be political dynamite and is bound to give renewed life to the antinuclear lobby, which has such strong and bitter memories of the days when this country hosted US cruise missiles at Greenham Common in the Cold War.

However, what is the alternative? Britain cannot afford to go it alone in developing an antimissile system, but if Iran and other countries in the Middle East become nuclear powers, there will have to be an insurance policy, and the only material one on offer at present is Son of Star Wars.

The Russians object because they claim any siting of antimissile missiles in Europe would undermine their own deterrence strategy, despite reassurances from Washington that Son of Star Wars is aimed at rogue states, not Moscow.