Armed Forces: US Missile Defence

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to make this contribution, which addresses one of the most important defence issues facing our world, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on securing the debate. It is important that all aspects of these issues are explored in great depth.I am fully supportive of the principle of a missile defence system in Europe. The threat that we are confronted with through nuclear proliferation underlies the important need to look at such a system very seriously. We must be able to defend ourselves, and while few would wish to see a growth in the number and sophistication of weapons around the globe, it is essential that we have the capacity to defend those values that constitute our national culture against the ever growing threats and dangers. Ignoring the risks is no safe way to reduce the number of weapons or the dangers that we face.The Government’s decision to co-operate closely with the United States, particularly alongside our allies in the Czech Republic and Poland, adds to the protection of the United Kingdom and to the broader region as a whole. Co-operation with the United States on defence issues has proved to be of great value to this country for a long time, and I want to see that continue. That is not to imply that we should become slaves to American foreign policy. We should be able to have a distinctive voice of our own, and evaluate our own contribution to global defence. The important role that NATO has played in our national defence should not be forgotten, and we must ensure that the proposals in the treaty of Lisbon, soon to be debated in your Lordships’ House, are not allowed to undermine the importance of NATO and our relationship with the United States. A common European defence policy must not be allowed to interfere with the effectiveness of NATO, as our participation and support of NATO is vital for our safety and involvement overseas.The United States nationwide missile defence system programme was started in October 1999, and resulted in its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002. American interest in developing this form of defence system has been extensive and long-standing. Their perception of the danger faced is severe; the possible threat of attacks from other states through ballistic missiles armed with conventional, nuclear, biological or chemical warheads is considered real. The consequence for international security is grave—if we get this wrong, we are included in those at risk.There has been some negative impact on relations with China and Russia as a consequence of the handling of the missile defence system programme. It is important that ways are found to ensure that no permanent damage is done, and that good channels of communication are kept open. Yet the Government have failed to be as open to the House as would be beneficial on the development of a missile defence system in Europe. Parliament has a right to be treated better, and it does the Government no credit that they have not decided to be more open in their communication on the project. I could cite the example of dozens of parliamentary questions which demonstrate the evasive approach that the Government have adopted in communicating with Parliament. This may seem to be a constant critique on the conduct of this Government, and it is a real shame. With that in mind, it is also a shame that this debate is not being held in government time. Will the Minister update us on the discussions that have been held with her counterparts from the United States, and give a commitment to returning to the House in government time for a further debate in due course?An example of this is demonstrated by the Government’s indecision. As recently as 2001, the Government were proclaiming that there was,“no significant ballistic missile threat to the UK”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/11/01; col. 129W.]At the same time, the Government were expressing support for the development of the American programme, and were proactive in co-operation. What is the current position with the radar system at RAF Fylingdales? The site in north Yorkshire has been a part of the United States ballistic missile early warning system since 1963. Can the Minister provide us with further details on the use of RAF Menwith Hill? The Government need to demonstrate greater clarity on the use, by United States forces, of United Kingdom facilities.The suitability of our defence research capacity is important. We spend significantly less than our allies in the United States on defence research. What is the contribution of research conducted in this country, and by our allies, to the development of a missile defence system? Are we able to deliver our own defence?To conclude, of course we all appreciate that the defence of our nation is the primary function of government and we need to be vigilant at all times. Yet I kindly ask the Government to be more open. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply. 

Updated: 27/08/2009 — 3:59 PM