pounds 5m missile-defence study fails to take off

A pounds 5m study into defences against ballistic missiles, completed last June, is still "on hold" in the run-up to the British general election because of uncertainties about a future government's attitude to anti- missile defences and inter-service rivalry within the Ministry of Defence.

Missile experts fear that having built up a momentum, and a recognition that missiles fired from third-world countries are a threat that European governments cannot ignore, future United Kingdom programmes will be "at best, limited and half-hearted".

Last week Rolf Ekeus, a senior United Nations weapons inspector, warned that Iraq was still able to build missiles and engines which could hit Moscow, Rome and Paris and could almost reach London. While these missiles - re-engineered Scuds - are not in production, they are at an advanced prototype stage. In order to achieve greater range, the Iraqis have concentrated on small warheads, suitable for chemical and biological weapons, rather than high-explosive or nuclear warheads.

Such missiles would ideally be destroyed before launch or in the boost phase as they climbed into space. But they could also be destroyed by a combination of airborne laser weapons - the United States hopes to field seven lasers in converted Boeing 747 aircraft by 2003, at a cost of pounds 4bn, and point-defence missiles similar to the US Patriots used in the 1991 Gulf war.

Experts who have seen the highly classified pre-feasibility study say it is disappointing. It surveys the types of technology likely to be available in the next 10 years, and any likely threats, but adds little to what is known from open sources. It was commissioned in autumn 1994 and carried out over an 18-month period by a consortium led by British Aerospace, with the help of US firms including Lockheed-Martin.

The study is still highly classified. The most positive reaction to the study occurred last October when Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, addressed the Belgian Royal institute for International Affairs. "We need ballistic missiles defence," he said, "and we need to develop it jointly in Nato, with Europeans and Americans deciding together how best to respond to threats to our shared security interests".

Mr Portillo said that 20 countries outside Nato now had ballistic missiles and that some Nato territory was already within the arc of a threat from the Middle East. "The threat for our Nato allies may grow," he said, "and none of us will want to deploy forces within range of hostile ballistic missiles without affording them the best possible protection".

The speech was highly significant. Mr Portillo made the speech before the British Government officially announced any follow-up to the pre-feasibility study, but it would have required prime-ministerial approval. It suggests that the Government was preparing to commit some of its scarce post-Cold War defence resources to ballistic missile defences.

Proponents of ballistic missile defence now fear the momentum has been lost. The House of Commons Defence Committee is of the view that there may be a missile threat to Britain in 10 years as well as to Nato states much closer to the Middle East and North Africa, and that work on defences should start now. The MoD's attitude is that there will not be a threat for 10 years, and that nothing therefore needs to be done.

A conference on ballistic missiles at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) in Whitehall, scheduled for 15-l6 March, has been postponed until September because the MoD and ministers have pulled out. The Rusi intends to hold the conference in September, with or without the MoD.

Roger Freeman, the former Armed Forces minister, said in 1995: "The threat comes from the Club Mad countries [in North Africa and the Middle East]. We have a 10-year window before the UK effectively could be targeted from the Mediterranean and the Gulf".

But a year and a half of that window has now elapsed and the delays to following up the study might cost another two.

Humphry Crum Ewing, a former naval officer and now a research fellow in Strategic Studies at Lancaster University said the issue should be the subject of public debate.

"My view is that any change in government is unlikely to result in any difference in the substance of the policy. The policy will be to continue to take note", he said, "to watch to see what happens elsewhere and, in the meantime, to continue with a programme of low-profile, relatively low-cost activity.

"This means, I fear, that `opinion' will result in UK programmes being, at best, limited and half-hearted".

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