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Joe Bord © 2003


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As the year turns, UN weapons inspectors are busy combing Iraq. Across the border in Iran, the Islamic revolution is convulsed by a power struggle between reformers and reactionary clergy. Meanwhile Libya woos the West with promises of oil and compensation for Lockerbie victims. To the east, North Korea faces renewed famine and power shortages. And in Britain, New Labour inches towards a vast scheme of anti-rocket militarisation, obediently rolling in the glistening trail of the Bush administration. Admitting that missile defence is irrelevant to the struggle against international terrorism, the men from the ministry have lined up a rag-tag collection of ‘states of concern’ which they feel might be tempted to brave Nato retaliation by firing ballistic missiles at the USA and Europe.[1] Little of the case stands up to scrutiny, on strategic, diplomatic or economic grounds.

First, though, what are the arguments put forwards in favour of missile defence? Advocates stress that the scheme will not be able to guard against traditional challenges from Russia and China. Far from being an all-encompassing ‘star wars’ system, the shield will only be able to deal with small numbers of incoming warheads. Thus, it is argued, there is no prospect of an arms race with well-established nuclear powers.[2] Non-state actors are unlikely to have the capacity to use missiles. Therefore the scheme is directed against threshold or recent states with ballistic capability. It will raise the cost of proliferation, as small numbers of missiles become ineffective.[3] It will also neutralise the selfish risk-taking of dictators.[4] And it will stop rogue states in regional conflicts from deterring outside intervention with a missile threat.[5]

The last point is perhaps the least familiar, and deserves to be dealt with first. The scenario is one in which ‘a state carries out an act of regional aggression and then seeks to deter intervention by threatening population centres’. So Iraq pounces on Kuwait, or North Korea invades the south, and the US and her allies are paralysed because Nato territory is vulnerable to ballistic assault, either by conventional warheads or weapons of mass destruction. What is at stake is the West’s ability to react with impunity. Now, it is a fact that in every inter-state conflict since 1945, no antagonist has ever tried to hit the western powers out of theatre. The only such attacks have been terrorist attacks, most signally on 11 September, and states wishing to damage the liberal democracies have occasionally sponsored clandestine acts of terror. Needless to say, missile defence does nothing about this. The USA, France and Britain possess overwhelming means of retaliation, both conventional and nuclear. The surest way for an aggressor to lose a regional conflict (by definition, a limited conflict for local gains, such as acquisition of territory) is to fire missiles publicly at the west. For a state to threaten to do so would push the most powerful nations in the world behind its regional opponents.

The other arguments are equally dubious. Religious fundamentalists might be prepared to commit suicide, but states rarely are. There is little point scraping together a couple of warheads to face an enemy that can obliterate you – proliferation is usually oriented towards keeping pace with immediate competitors. The most dangerous situation like this in the world today is the Indo-Pakistani confrontation over Kashmir. Characteristically, this is ignored in the MoD consultation document. But if and when the technology of missile defence has been perfected, it will become a matter of the highest national priority for ‘face-off’ states (including Israel and her Arab enemies) to obtain versions of it. During the last Gulf war, the US provided her Israeli ally with an early type of intermediate missile defence. The proliferation of missile defence itself will drive the multiplication of ballistic weapons, as regional competitors try to undermine one another.

Missile defence will act as an incentive for states that already possess ballistic missiles to protect their investments by increasing their numbers. It will also act as a barrier to arms reductions: both Russia and China will feel unable to reduce their arsenals below the level necessary to overwhelm western systems. It is clear that the shield is meant to be additional to, and not a substitute for, Nato armoury. The claim that there will be no arms race is highly implausible. Popular and military-industrial pressures within the USA and Britain will push for ever-more comprehensive protection, a course that is bound to provoke counter-escalation. The only thing that might contain this is substantial offensive disarmament.

In its softening-up mode, the British government insists on readiness for any threat, vaguely insinuating that the ‘states of concern’ do not exhaust the list of potential menaces. This mixture of paranoia and self-importance is necessary because the rogues singled out are distinctly unimpressive. The nearest ‘state of concern’, Libya, has, out of the four, recently shown itself the most ready to seek accommodation with the west. Iraq will be dealt with while missile defence is still on the drawing board: either placed under de facto permanent inspection, or invaded and reconstructed by an American-led alliance. Iran is absorbed in its own internal political struggles and has no interest in threatening its European investors. North Korea is isolated, and has been obsessively pursuing weapons of mass destruction as a guarantor of its own survival. It cannot conceivably risk a repeat of the Korean war without Chinese support. Of all the candidates, it is the most likely to accelerate its arms programme to beat any missile shield. Deterrence, and the presence of US forces in South Korea, continue to be the ultimate dissuaders. Again, North Korea has no interest in firing missiles at Europe, and scarcely has the capability to do so.

Thus we are left with the prospect of a huge and indefinite expenditure in order to chase shadows. The government confesses that there is ‘no immediate significant missile threat’.[6] Maybe dirt-poor Myanmar or Zimbabwe will emerge to challenge the west with ballistic missiles. Or maybe, if tension became acute, they would settle for a suit-case bomb. After all, ‘States and terrorist groups can attack their enemies in many different and novel ways’.[7] The point is to make an assessment of priorities and cost-effectiveness in spending finite budgets. Perhaps it makes better sense to increase our spending on foreign aid, or the secret services. The government denies that there is a trade-off, but transparently one exists: cash poured into ‘hitting a bullet with a bullet’ will not be there for spies or soldiers.

Here there is another troubling concern. There is large vested corporate welfare at stake, and the government seems eager to subsidise the balance sheets of defence companies. We learn, from the MoD, that BAE Systems has hooked up with Boeing, a ‘prime contractor’, and that the government is already intending to sponsor a ‘Missile Defence Technology Centre’.[8] This centre is to be run as a public-private partnership, giving firms another opportunity to swing defence policy in their direction. Yet more research talent will be sucked away from productive industry, and new civil technology. To begin with, British arms companies are looking to New Labour to subsidise their pitch for Pentagon contracts. However, it is also obviously in their interest for Britain to participate in the missile shield. Up for grabs are years of profit at the expense of the taxpayer, draining the public purse of cash that could be used for schools, hospitals or even tax cuts for the low-paid.

This is not an especially left-wing argument. You don’t have to be a socialist, raving or otherwise, to see that the general insecurity generated by the ‘war against terror’ has been and is being exploited for commercial gain. A couple of years ago, there would have been general public outcry against this fundamentally irrational waste of public money. But now the reaction is muted. The terrorists are coming to get us. A real threat deserves a realistic response: at the time of writing several men have been arrested for crushing castor-oil beans in a north London flat. The suspicion is that they were preparing an attack with the poison ricin. If it takes spooks to catch the fanatics, then (subject to proper public oversight) by all means let us increase the funds available to the police and intelligence services. But the idea that Bin Laden is Dr. Strangelove is farcical.

[1] ‘Missile Defence: A Public Discussion Paper’ (London: Ministry of Defence, December 2002) available at Numbers refer to paragraphs. See 9 & 33.
[2] Ibid. 64, 67.
[3] Ibid. 72.
[4] ‘desperate attempts to cling to power’, ibid. 69.
[5] Ibid. 70.
[6] Ibid. para.20.
[7] Ibid. para.4
[8]ibid. paras. 86-8.




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