The UK would be prepared to launch a nuclear strike against Iraq and other rogue states if they used nuclear, biological or chemical weapons against British troops in the field, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, warned yesterday.
Mr Hoon said he had no evidence that countries such as Iraq, Iran, Libya or North Korea were planning an attack, but stressed that the Government had to guard against such an eventuality.
Speaking to the Commons Defence Select Committee, he predicted that Britain could be attacked by ballistic missiles from the Middle East within "the next few years".
The Government was working with the United States to explore whether a national missile defence (NMD) system could combat such a "developing threat", he said.
But his most startling comments came when he made clear that Britain was also "willing" to use its nuclear weapons to counter any attack by a rogue state.
Mr Hoon told MPs that the UK had identified Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea as "states of concern" and could not be sure that they would be deterred by nuclear weapons.
"Saddam Hussein has demonstrated in the past his willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people," he said. "In those kinds of states, the wishes and needs and interests of citizens are clearly much less regarded, and we cannot rule out the possibility that such states would be willing to sacrifice their own people to make such a gesture.
"They can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons."
When asked about NMD, Mr Hoon told the committee that although the Cold War was over, nations faced new, emerging threats and it was "right that we consider all possible elements of a comprehensive strategy." The US would need to use the early warning station at Fylingdales and intelligence gathering facility at Menwith Hill, both in North Yorkshire, for NMD. But Mr Hoon repeated that the Government had not yet made a decision about the system.
The select committee was presented with a joint Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office paper saying it was a "serious cause for concern" that some states were developing a ballistic missile capability at the same time as they were seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. "Were a country in the Middle East or North Africa to acquire a complete long-range ballistic missile system, a capability to target the UK accurately could emerge within the next few years," it said.
"Above all, we need to recognise in the debate the reality of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery." The United States, Britain and its allies should consider carefully how best to tackle the threat with a strategy that could include a missile defence system, it said.