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".

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor