You thought the nuclear arms race was over? Think again

American plans to establish a `Son of Star Wars' anti-missile system threaten to undermine the global balance of deterrence and weapons control.

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t sounds like something from a previous era. But if you thought talks on nuclear missiles were a relic from the Cold War, think again. Last week officials from the US State Department returned from Moscow after failing to get their counterparts there to agree to rewrite the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. t was not a happy end to the encounter.

The Americans were hoping to persuade the Russians to change the terms of the treaty to allow the US to deploy a nationwide anti-missile defence system - allegedly to protect them against attacks from so-called "rogue states" such as raq, North Korea or even ran. This follows a much-disputed CA warning that the US could face an intercontinental ballistic missile attack involving nuclear, chemical or biological warheads within the next 15 years. The proposal is essentially a return to President Reagan's Star Wars project.

The Russians refused point blank. One of their military leaders last week threatened "retaliatory steps" if the US goes ahead with plans to build a "Son of Star Wars" anti- ballistic missile system. General Anatoly Kvashnin, the chief of the Russian General Staff, insists that "rogue states" are not the real targets. "The selection of the deployment areas makes the objective of the national system clear," he said. "t is to intercept ballistic missiles launched from Russia and China."

The Russians have said no. So have the Chinese. So have the French. But what of the British? Usually Tony Blair has been eager to support Mr Clinton in his military activities: sometimes, as with the bombing of an aspirin factory near Khartoum, too eager, as he himself must surely realise. But this time the stakes are much higher - as high as they could possibly be.

t is important that Mr Blair should understand why so many nations are firmly opposed to the US proposal. For it could re-open the sluice gates that at present hold back not only the old-style arms race but also new ones. There has been a revolution in military affairs since the treaty was signed. Ever more sophisticated techniques for hacking into and disrupting hi-tech computer systems could lead to a devastating new style of "information warfare".

Anti-ballistic missiles may at first glance appear to be purely defensive: a shield, as Ronald Reagan thought of his Star Wars project, to protect you from attack. But in fact their role in nuclear deterrence strategy is not simply, or principally, defensive: they also provide their owner with protection against an enemy's second-strike retaliation to his own first-strike attack. Thus they undermine the mutual fear of retaliation which is the essence of "stable deterrence".

Margaret Thatcher understood this. She also knew that a substantial Russian system would neutralise the British independent nuclear deterrent - which is why she visited President Reagan in December 1984 and secured from him a commitment not to endanger the ABM Treaty or indeed deterrence itself with Star Wars. He agreed to confine Star Wars to "research" and accepted that anything beyond that should be "a matter of negotiation". These commitments bound him only, and have long since lapsed. The research has already swallowed $100bn.

At present (and possibly Mr Blair does not appreciate this) Britain is preparing to take part at least as landlords in the American National Missile Defense System. At what is misleadingly called "RAF" Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, the US is already installing the ground parts of the new space-based infra-red system that would form the listening post for the "Son of Star Wars" which President Clinton and the US Congress are intent on setting up.

Although this base is on our soil British officials have no role in it. "Operational control rests with the United States," as the Ministry of Defence puts it. No British government minister has been there. The necessary planning approval for the present expansion was given under Ministry of Defence auspices in March 1997 by the Major government. And Menwith Hill is governed by only one of 500 or so bilateral UK/US defence agreements, many of them dating from the Cold War, which have never been reviewed.

The uses made of the information gathered by US electronic systems at Menwith Hill and elsewhere in the UK and in British Overseas Territories may well not be compatible with the Prime Minister's hopes (elaborated at St Malo a year ago and reiterated in the past few days) of promoting a real European security identity. Much of the material gathered will be of commercial rather than military use.

But there is more to it than that. The ABM Treaty, saved by Thatcher, remains the essential cornerstone of the Russian/American Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, Start and Start , and - as the Russians have pointed out - of the treaty banning all intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. For it is only when both sides can count on their "retaliation" getting through that they feel able, in tandem, to reduce their nuclear forces.

But more than instability would follow the loss of the ABM Treaty. Facing an opponent's anti-ballistic missile system, you have two choices: you can build a similar system of your own - a new, hugely expensive, arms race - or you can simply build more missiles (or develop other weapons) to overcome or to bypass the opposition's system. This leads to more instability. The Chinese and the Russians have both said this would be their response to any American national missile defence system.

Then there is the recently reconfirmed1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Article 6 of which binds the five states, which in those days had nuclear weapons, to nuclear disarmament. But this treaty, too, is a fragile affair, at risk from the nuclear weapons built by ndia, Pakistan and srael and reportedly being developed in raq, North Korea, ran and most recently Japan.

Behind the "Son of Star Wars" proposals lies a habit of "worst-case analysis" which combines America's most deadly paranoias with the commercial interests of a vast, ethics-less industry. f the United States, after spending trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons, and currently spending nearly $300bn a year on defence, is still afraid of the world outside, what hope of safety and security can it ever have? Can it wonder why the rest of the world fails to see the attractions of its weapon-bedecked leadership?

Except for the British government. We, the UK, seem somehow to have bound ourselves to this paranoid view of the world. After our Strategic Defence Review, our forces are configured to act alongside American forces. We support and participate in the American bombing of raq, in the American desire to deprive the Serbs of fuel, in the American refusal to re-open the Danube. Even our legislation against anti-personnel landmines has a careful loophole to allow British troops to do everything alongside American troops but actually lay the mines - our troops may still hand mines to theirs to lay.

t is time that Mr Blair began the process of developing a foreign policy of our own. The alternative is to allow the complete militarisation of all international relations and to connive in opening the sluices again to an arms race without end.

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