Ballistic Missile Defence

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:47 pm on 7th July 2009.

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence 1:47 pm, 7th July 2009

May I reassure my Friend Mr. Kilfoyle that what drives me as a politician and a Minister on these issues is our national interest? That is my overriding and fundamental priority. I congratulate him on securing this debate. Although we do not always agree, as will become clear in this debate, I greatly respect the honesty and integrity that he has brought to these issues over many years.

Other than the US, the UK and France, about 20 countries possess ballistic missiles. In 2007, there were 100 non-US ballistic missile launches around the world, which is 30 per cent. more than in 2006 and slightly fewer than in 2008. Those figures reflect the determination of many countries to acquire a ballistic missile capability. Although many countries possess only short-range weapons that do not threaten the UK mainland, we remain concerned by missile development in countries such as Iran and North Korea.

We recognise that neither of those countries has a confirmed long-range ballistic missile capability, but Iran does possess a medium range missile, the Shahab 3, that could reach Turkey and much of the middle east. The recent test firings of those missiles and the accompanying rhetoric is a worrying development. Reports suggest that Iran is developing longer-range missiles that in time could pose a greater threat to the UK and our European allies. Tehran has acknowledged that it is pursuing a space launch capability. The successful launch of the Safir rocket, which put a small satellite into orbit earlier this year, is testament to the growing Iranian mastery of rocket and missile technologies.

As we have seen recently, North Korea continues to develop and test its missile capabilities, and shows gradual improvement in its understanding of missile and rocket systems. It continues to develop the Taepodong-2 missile, and earlier this year attempted to use Taepodong-type technology to place a satellite into Earth’s orbit. That vehicle failed to reach orbit, but the North Koreans’ intention to develop long-range rocket technology cannot be ignored. Both Iran and North Korea claim that their developments are designed for civilian applications and are meant to allow them to join the ranks of peaceful space-faring nations. However, the technologies could equally be used to develop missile systems capable of delivering military payloads over intercontinental distances. Those payloads could include chemical, biological or nuclear weapons that are capable of killing many people and inflicting massive damage with a single missile.

We assess—this is the nub of the challenge—that within the next 10 years, both North Korea and Iran could have the capability to target the UK with ballistic missiles if they so wished. Of course, the development of technological and technical capability is only one facet of the threat; the other is the intent to use missiles. We can monitor the development and proliferation of ballistic missiles and the associated technology, and we can prepare to defeat them, but it is more difficult to know with any certainty when, or even if, intent changes. At the moment, the Government assess that there is no ballistic missile threat to the UK homeland, but if we look to future trends, that could change.

Let me address some of the questions that my hon. Friend has asked. First, I shall respond to his underlying challenge about what we as a country, and particularly as a Government, want to do about the threat of nuclear proliferation and the challenge of nuclear weapons. We are very clear that we want to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons—that is our absolute intent. Of the existing nuclear weapon states, under the auspices of the non-proliferation treaty, we have the best and most forward-leaning record on disarmament. That has been attested by independent observers and is borne out by the fact that in the past decade we have reduced the explosive capability of our nuclear arsenal by 75 per cent. We want to go through further multilateral negotiations, and that is why we are emphatically committed to, and have signed up to, a comprehensive test ban treaty. That is also why we want a fissile material cut-off treaty.

My hon. Friend referred to the START 2 process, involving the United States and Russia. One of the most encouraging aspects of the current debate about nuclear weapons is the impetus and vigour that President Obama has brought to discussions. He is considering taking a comprehensive test ban treaty to Congress, which would be a very positive step forward, and he is committed to bringing about further multilateral nuclear weapons reductions through the START 2 process. I think we should support that approach.

My hon. Friend asked about the cost of ballistic missile defence. Let me be clear that the cost to the United Kingdom—that is what we are principally concerned about—is limited to the cost of running Fylingdales at the moment, which we would be paying for anyway. He also asked an important question about whether BMD systems actually worked. I do not resile from the fact that the technological challenges involved in constructing an effective missile defence system are considerable. The US is deploying an initial operational system that has undergone a great deal of testing. There have been many successful test intercepts to date—38 out of 48 tests—so a rudimentary capability exists, but we recognise that there is scope for further development and improvement as the technologies mature.

My hon. Friend discussed the situation in Iran. To paraphrase him, he said that there was a concern about Iran because its face did not fit, but I disagree wholly with that view. There is concern about Iran because it has concealed its nuclear programme for decades in contravention of its international commitments. There has been a wholesale failure by Iran to engage with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and it has failed to enable the IAEA to obtain reassurance about its studies that have a military dimension. That is why there is such significant concern about Iran.