18th November 1999
It was, on the face of it, an innocent confirmation of a cosy, almost personal, relationship. 'HMG" it said, referring to her majesty's government, and the United States "are pleased to announce that the European Relay Ground Station for the new Space Based Infra-Red System will be established at RAF Menwith Hill … HMG welcomes the opportunity to strengthen US/UK cooperation in this field".
It went on to explain that the space-based system, which like most things military is known by its acronym, SBIRS, was the world-wide satellite-based network providing early warning of ballistic-missile launches. It added that construction at Menwith Hill, which is near Harrogate in north Yorkshire, would include up to four new radomes (golfball-shaped satellite ground stations) and that local planning would be sought in the normal way.
That was in 1997 when the post-cold war emphasis seemed to be on arms control and on monitoring breaches of agreements designed to make the world a safer place. Two years later that little-noticed announcement has taken on an entirely new significance. Menwith Hill, like the nearby Fylingdales early-warning station and, sooner or later, the deep space surveillance centre at Feltwell on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, will play a key role in America’s planned anti-missile shield.
Washington says the missile defence system is designed to protect the US from the potential new threat of missiles fired by sucg “rogue” states as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. It will not protect western Europe. US bases in Britain will be used not for the defence of Britain, or even of continental Europe. They are being expanded to satisfy a growing lobby in the US, fuelled by hi-tech corporations, for a kind of son-of-star-wars system which both reflects and promotes American isolationism.
Far from cementing the transatlantic alliance, the project is in danger of causing deep cracks in it. Though Washington insists it is not aimed at Russian missiles (not, at least in its initial stage) its plan for what it calls “theatre missile defence” contravenes the anti-ballistic missile treaty signed between the US and the Soviet Union which Moscow says is the cornerstone of strategic balance.
George W. Bush, frontrunner for the Republican party presidential nomination, said this week the ABM treaty should be scrapped if Moscow refused to amend it. “I can’t tell you how important I think it is for America to develop not only theatre-based but strategic-based anti-ballistic missile systems,” he said. He added: “The world has changed since the treaty was signed in the 70s. This is now a world of uncertainty... As I say in my ads, there are madmen and dictators and missiles.”
Britain's European allies have already made it clear, as Joschka Fisher, the German foreign minister has put it, that the proposed US missile shield would lead to “split security standards within the Nato alliance”. The British government is equally alarmed, but appears to take the view that given its special. relationship with the US, quiet diplomacy wou1d be the most effective strategy.
Though Menwith Hill is described as an RAF station, in reality it is a US National Security Agency base used to eavesdrop on military diplomatic, commercial, and civil communications for more than 40 years. It is believed to be capable of carrying out two million intercepts an hour.
The attitude adopted by the government whenever questions have been been asked in parliament about its role has been a mixture of insouciance, obfuscation and denial of responsibility. Two years ago, Norman Baker, the indefatigable Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, asked how many RAF servicemen worked at RAF Menwith Hill, and what were their functions and powers. John Reid, then armed forces minister, replied: “There is a small number of RAF personnel at RAF Menwith Hill. I am withholding the further information requested …” This summer, Baker asked the government to disclose the terms of any agreements covering America’s use of Menwith Hill. Doug Henderson, Reid’s successor, referred to a 1951 Nato “status of forces” pact “and other arrangements appropriate to the relationship which exists between the governments of the United Kingdom and United States for the purposes of our common defence”. He added: “These arrangements are confidential”.
While he was at it, Baker also asked Jack Straw to list all agreements with the US about the interception of communications. “There are arrangements”, the home secretary replied “appropriate to the relationship which exists between the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States for the purpose of our common defence. It is the long-standing practice of this government and previous administrations not to comment on the detail of such confidential arrangements.”
Baker persisted. What international treaties, he asked John Spellar, Henderson's successor, covered the use by the Americans of Menwith Hill? Spellar replied: “The United Kingdom is not party to the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Questions on its interpretation should be addressed to the USA and Russia. Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty requires that the moon and other celestial bodies should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes … It imposes no limitations on other military activities in outer space.”
Another person who has tried to get information about the Menwith Hill base is Lindis Percy, a tireless campaigner who has fought, and sometimes won, her battles against byelaws surrounding US bases in Britain, and has spent time in prison refusing to abide by court injunctions preventing her from entering them. She is now suing named US and RAF officers over the use of the Menwith Hill base, citing the ABM treaty and the 1967 outer space treaty. She may not get very far in her private action. But the issues thrown up by the new and, it seems, irreversible, US proposal for an anti-missile shield in which Britain willy-nilly participates, though not for its benefit, deserves rather more than dismissive responses from government.
The project is in danger of causing deep cracks in the alliance
Ministers refer to the US and Britain’s “common defence”. Yet the British government (albeit sotte voce) is making it plain that, in its view, the US missile shield plan directly threatens that notion. By definition, a project which gives unique protection to the US questions the whole concept of common defence.
Britain’s response will also be eagerly watched by its own continental allies, at a time when the government is placing itself at the forefront of moves towards what the EU calls a European security and defence identity. More and more questions, too, are already being asked across the channel about Britain’s role in the US-dominated world-wide eaves-dropping network, codenamed Echelon, in which Menwith Hill plays a leading part.