Britain to consider need for hi-tech anti-missile defence: Rifkind gives warning of threat that could be posed by 'unpredictable countries'. Donald Macintyre reports

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Indy Politics
BRITAIN is considering whether to adopt a defence system which could protect the country and its forces from missile attack in the way that the Patriot system protected the allies from Iraqi Scuds during the Gulf war.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, revealed yesterday that he was commissioning a two-year study to decide whether to develop a hi-tech, anti-ballistic missile defence network as part of a continuing re-evaluation of the country's defence needs.

Although the Government decided last year to halt plans for a pounds 1bn medium-range missile system for the Royal Air Force, Mr Rifkind said that 'in the face of proliferation round the world' the Government 'was considering whether there might be a need for a defence system in the future'.

Defence experts do not rule out the possibility that, within the next decade, unpredictable countries like Libya could have a ballistic missile system that would put Britain within range.

Mr Rifkind told the Centre for Defence Studies in London: 'We are looking with our allies at potential risks both to the UK and to our forces deployed overseas, and all possible means of countering them.' He added: 'Conflict is not always, perhaps not even often, inspired by cold rational judgement. We cannot predict the scenarios which may unfold, or who our opponents might be. But it is clear that we need to maintain a capability to take military action.'

The US is also developing systems with a longer range than Patriot's, such as Lockheed's Theatre High Altitude Air Defence (Thaad) systems. Mr Rifkind emphasised that warfare at all levels was becoming 'much more technologically sophisticated'.

He also confirmed yesterday that the MoD is considering whether to acquire conventionally armed cruise missiles.

The Royal Navy is known to be keen to have submarine-launched cruise missiles. And in a another move which will be warmly welcomed by the Royal Navy, Mr Rifkind identified the aircraft carrier, amphibious forces and equipment, and the nuclear submarine as central to Britain's maritime strategy.

He also underlined the continuing need for tanks, attack helicopters, and an advanced fighter, such as the Eurofighter 2000.

Mr Rifkind added: 'Prudence and caution oblige me to accept that it is entirely conceivable that, before the end of the decade, the West will find a number of different circumstances arising where it must take military action.

'It could also find it necessary to protect and evacuate civilians caught up in a conflict. And it is more than likely that we will be asked by the UN or the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe to undertake new peace support missions.'

Mr Rifkind did not suggest that an anti-missile system might, in the long term, coincide with a reduction in the UK's deterrent capability. But he cited 'the five principle choices which bear Britain's defence capabilities' - the decision to deploy an independent nuclear deterrent; the choice of collective security; the responsibility for 14 dependent territories; support for the RUC in Northern Ireland; and active commitment to the UN and collective global security.

The Secretary of State added: 'We have to ensure that we design military units to make a useful contribution to operations of all kinds. But we have always made clear that we do not necessarily need to plan to have all capabilities within our armed forces.'

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