The embarrassing test failure of the US National Missile Defence system earlier this month has thrown the whole $60bn (£40bn) programme into jeopardy. This might be of no concern to the UK were it not for the fact that UK companies are involved in ballistic missile defence research work which could have uses in the NMD – or `Son of Star Wars’ – programme, if the system is ever deployed.
BAE Systems, for instance, plans to send its experimental Mesar 2 multi-function radar to the US for ballistic missile defence trials. Current Mesar 2 trials on Benbecula in the outer Hebrides against a range of threats, including ballistic missiles, are going `extremely well’, according to Les Gregory, sales director of BAE Systems Land and Sea Systems. These trials will continue until October, when Mesar 2 will be taken to New Mexico to investigate performance against ballistic missile-type targets, Gregory says, although he adds that there is no link with the US NMD programme.
Mesar technology dates from 1980 and was developed by what became Siemens Plessey and then British Aerospace, in co-operation with the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, with the aim of designing a revolutionary search radar, superior to the technology available then. Mesar 2 dates from August 1995 and is described by BAE Systems as a `technology demonstration radar for ballistic missile defence development’. It consists of commercial off-the-shelf technology with a transportable sensor. A derivative of Mesar 2, the Sampson multi-function radar, will equip the Royal Navy’s new Type 45 destroyers.
The UK may also be involved in the Star Wars project as a location for ballistic missile detection systems. The US Ballistic Missile Defense Organisation, which is responsible for the NMD programme, has proposed modifications for ballistic missile defence use to the US-UK early warning radar at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire. The organisation also mentions the potential use of Fylingdales on the NMD website, even before the UK has given formal approval for such work, provoking protests from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, the Ministry of Defence said it has no plans to carry out changes to Fylingdales in the absence of any formal proposals from the US.
After the failure of the system on 8 July, there may not be any proposals. The system failed because the second stage of the interceptor vehicle which was supposed to destroy an incoming test missile, launched from Vandenberg Air Force base in California, failed to detach from the booster rocket which launched it. The BMDO was unable to give any further details.
The next test could happen in October at the earliest, just before the US presidential election. All the indications from US defence secretary William Cohen are that America really does want to deploy NMD if it can, despite the many doubts about whether such a defence is feasible. President Clinton, however, is said to be keen to fudge the issue of NMD deployment in a way which will hand over the problem to the next occupant of the White House.
The other threat to the NMD system may come from its potentially destabilising effect on the balance of international relations. The US administration has insisted that deployment of an NMD system would not be a breach of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty signed by the US and former Soviet Union. It is supposed to provide the US with a defence against missiles launched by so-called `rogue states’ such as Iran or, until recently, North Korea. But Russia and China are concerned that it could destroy the doctrine of deterrence, which states that an attack by one power on another will always be met with retaliation. If one power can take another power’s missiles out, it cannot be bound by deterrence. It is possible, Russia and China say, that Star Wars may push them into a strategic alliance.