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Fury over secret US nuclear shield in Britain
by Patrick Wintour - Political Editor, The Observer
Sunday January 30, 2000
A FURIOUS row has broken out in the Ministry of Defence over Britain's decision to let the US government build a huge missile defence system in Britain, in breach of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Preparation for the nuclear shield, designed to protect the US from attack by rogue nuclear weapon states in the Middle East and North Korea, is under way at RAF Menwith Hill, near Harrogate in North Yorkshire.
Some Defence Ministers are angry that the Government is being evasive in answers to Parliament about the site. Ironically, said one Minister, the US military was being far less secretive with its own public.
British political sources say the construction is also causing concern in Nato and undermining Britain's efforts to lead the debate on a new European defence arm.
President Jacques Chirac of France recently attacked the US plans to construct a National Missile Defence system, saying: 'We must avoid any questioning of the ABM Treaty that could lead to a disruption of the strategic equilibrium and a new nuclear arms race.' A fortnight ago the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, failed to win a court order striking out a CND writ designed to stop building work at the site. CND claims the construction has never been debated or sanctioned in Parliament.
A separate legal action against CND is being taken by the US Air Force.
The US claims that only a small adjustment to the ABM treaty would be needed to accommodate a defence system such as Menwith Hill. So far at Menwith Hill concrete bases have been built for the two new radomes - huge golf-ball shaped antennae used in electronic communications - which are intended to house a Space-Based Infra-Red Satellite (SBIRS) system. The satellites, dubbed son of Star Wars, would provide warning of ballistic missile launches.
In a recent parliamentary written answer, Defence Minister Baroness Symons avoided saying whether SBIRS was compatible with the 1972 ABM Treaty. She said: 'The British Government retains legal possession and control over the sites made available for use by the United States visiting forces.
Operational control of deployed forces rests with the US.' Referring to the US and Russia, she added: 'Interpretation of the ABM Treaty is a matter for the parties to that treaty.'
The Government has refused to reveal the legal basis of the agreement with the US over the base. President Clinton is due to decide in the summer whether to go ahead with the $12 billion system, but his Democratic party is under pressure from Republican hawks to do so. In a setback for the Pentagon, a prototype missile interceptor failed to hit a mock warhead earlier this month.
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