Missile Shield puts Blair to the ultimate test

Is the US missile shield a political dilemma or an industrial opportunity?

On the day the election was announced, the American missile men came to town. As Mr Blair delivered his opening speech about social mission and democratic humility to an audience of schoolgirls, his officials were listening to experts from Washington deliver the first big sell of missile defence, or NMD.

The coincidence was resonant, signalling one of the gulfs between the campaign and life after the campaign. Here is a development that could drastically alter western security in the next five years, touching all our lives. Yet if it’s mentioned once in the next four weeks, no one will be more surprised than the pollsters and focus groupies who largely determine the election agenda of all parties.

The meeting was very civilised. What Bush wanted, it turned out, was a ‘high-minded approach to common problems’. Around the table, under the chairmanship of Sir John Kerr, top man at the Foreign Office, the sell was astonishingly soft.

Nervy debate

The Americans said what had dismayed them about European critics was their concentration on the hardware of this contentious system: the way-out technology of a mini-star wars, the improbability of it working, the nervy debate about which interceptor rockets might be planted where, the radar stations such as Fylingdales that would be needed for enemy surveillance, and so forth.

Their tactic is that these sensitive and politically unhelpful issues are not the point. At this stage what they are setting out to do is to persuade allies and former enemies of the case for a new model of global security from which everyone could benefit: after motherhood and apple pie, we give you NMD.

The world scene, they kept insisting to British listeners, has changed. It didn’t make sense to rest security solely on a system of nuclear deterrence directed at an enemy – Russia – which should no longer be seen in that light. A few infamous ‘states of concern’ were now the problem. A CIA man was on hand to unload his huge knowledge of the North Korean long-range missile potential. But, to a British audience, the name of Saddam Hussein was the one intended to strike chords of doom and emphasise how Europe, being closer within the range of Iraqi missiles yet unbuilt, had the greatest interest in missile defence.

The Brits received this politely. The Foreign Office and the MoD have been privately sceptical, on myriad counts, about both the technology of any version of NMD and its capacity, if done with the crude unilateralism Bush trumpeted during his election campaign, to destabilise world security. But one part of their scepticism has begun to evaporate. Countries that were scornful of the rogue-state threat now acknowledge that there could be a threat, even though they’re not persuaded how best to deal with it.

Failed most interests

This is not the only reason why Washington’s sortie went well. Another is that so much of missile defence is a long way off. Bush officials opened the Clinton cupboard and found only a single system – the star wars architecture that has failed most of its tests – and are now talking about years of R&D into many more models fired from land, sea, air and/or space. It is all experimental. It will be discussed with Russia.

China’s fears will be allayed. The allies, moreover, will have many industrial opportunities, it was emphasised, to share in the building of this brave new 21st-century world, and take cover under its security umbrella.

All this sounded reassuring. But it was apparent that this soothing ‘consultation’ has strict limits. Though Bush refrained from saying he will abrogate the ABM treaty, on which nuclear peace has partly rested for 30 years, the message was that this was only a matter of time. Here is one upheaval that may beckon sooner than we think.

Another is the apparent determination of the Bush administration to establish a missile defence ‘fact on the ground’, however rough-and-ready its shape. The R&D for a serious system may take years, but some Washington officials indicate general zeal for some serious action before the end of Bush’s first term, probably in the form of a sea-based interceptor system designed to catch North Korean missiles in the boost-phase of their flight.

Each part of that statement begs many questions. What system? What missile? Prompted by what Korean madness, directed against which enemy? Within what hypothetical timeframe? But these questions are not the point. Washington is looking to fix in concrete a strategic statement proving that it means what, until recently, seemed an absurd and dangerous thing to promise.

In time, after billions of dollars are spent on trial and errors, the full version of NMD may still seem a futile project. But much sooner than that, the US is plainly setting a test of political allegiance, none more severe than for Britain. It may be hard to imagine a Blair government being anything other than compliant, when put to the question. Neither public nor party opinion, however, has been tested. Both are certain to be worried.

It will be a moment of political truth. Unlike Europe, NMD is an issue that will divide Labour deeply. It could be one of the top five nation-changing developments of the second Blair term. It is moving forward. Yet not a word will intrude as the fresh mandate takes shape.

An industrial opportunity

THe Government is treading carefully over the US missile defence project, in an attempt to keep all options open before committing the UK to any involvement. UK industry, however, is ready and waiting to supply technology and expertise to the US project. Indeed, the old prefix ‘national’ has been dropped from ‘Missile Defence’ to keep open the possible involvement of allies.

While no single company has yet to make any formal request for information, the sheer size of the project will mean there is considerable potential for those with missile and radar expertise to get involved.

A precedent was set by its forerunner, Star Wars, promoted by President Reagan in the 1980s with the offer of millions of dollars in R&D contracts for the UK.

A spokesman for Boeing, the systems integrator for missile defence, told The Engineer it would call on the UK’s state-of-the-art technology to take part in the project.

However at this stage of missile defence, which so far has failed two out of three live firing tests, things are still uncertain. Apart from diplomatic questions surrounding the size and function of the defensive umbrella, the US has yet to decide which type of system (land, sea, aircraft or space-based missile shields) it wants to pursue.

For this reason any number of companies might get a slice of the cake, including ‘the usual suspects’ and their sub-contractors.

In effect, BAE Systems, Thales, Alenia Marconi and Raytheon are ‘the sitting tenants’, having already modernised the RAF X-band phased-array radar at Fylingdales in north Yorkshire, a collaborative US-UK facility. If this is updated, there would also be a need to modernise the RAF Menwith Hill communications relay station near Harrogate. Brown & Root is also a likely player in any construction work.

On the question of UK involvement in developing the missile system itself, progress will be slow until the US gives clearer signals about which system it prefers. There are a range of options, all of which vary greatly in cost. The land-based system (costing around $60bn) could be ready as soon as 2004, and involves around 200 interceptor missiles fired from US soil.

This has been the Pentagon’s favoured system for a decade, but the project was put on ice to await Clinton’s successor.

Otherwise there is the sea-based Theatre Missile Defence system (costing around $15bn excluding ships), and available around 2010, and which would not require the UK-based early-warning radar facilities.

Sources indicate that a mobile sea-based system may now be preferred by President Bush, as it could be wheeled into play in global troublespots, to intercept missiles in mid-flight. Other options include space-based systems, which would be the most expensive by far ($100bn) and probably not available until 2020, if then.

Among UK contractors, BAE Systems is well placed for possible involvement if the US government adopts a TMD system.

BAE spokesman Mike Peters said participation could centre on BAE Systems Avionics, which has expertise in TMD radars, including Maser 2, a technology demonstrator jointly developed with DERA, and which has been involved in a US target acquisition research project.

It now looks likely that BAE Systems’ missile and space-related joint-ventures with Astrium and MBDA Missile Systems (which includes Eads and Finmeccanica) could also be involved if the project goes ahead.

However all this depends on the government successfully negotiating a tricky political path between those in its own party who are against missile defence, and the appearance of caving in to pressure from the US and other parties who are in favour.

‘There seems to be some political manoeuvring by a government which does not want to seem to be caving into pressure from the Conservatives for involvement in MD,’ said Robin Ashby, director of industry think-tank the UK Defence Forum.MoD spokesman Ben White said that following last week’s visit to the UK by a high-level US delegation, the government ‘understood there was a need’ for the missile shield.