National Missile Defence. Pine Gap. Star Wars.

Flawed defences: Bush's missile plan may explode in his face

Special report: George Bush's America. The Guardian. February 6, 2001

The contradictions and paradoxes inherent in US missile defence plans are proliferating faster than the weapons of mass destruction the Americans seek to neutralise.

Donald Rumsfeld says the Bush administration has a constitutional and moral duty to build new missile systems. But the American defence secretary, speaking in Munich at the weekend, did not elaborate on the morality (or wisdom) of a superpower tearing up arms control treaties and appearing to intimidate weaker nations with its advanced weaponry.

Mr Rumsfeld asks for European support and assures Russia and China that they are not under threat. But he does not say exactly what is proposed; will it be sea-based, land-based, space based or all three? Nor does he identify the source or scale of the supposedly urgent, emerging threat, other than vague mutterings about "outlaw regimes".

The national missile defence program developed and then delayed by the Clinton administration is, in the Bush era, becoming something vastly more ambitious and (for public relations purposes) more inclusive: "allied missile defence" or even the grandiose "global missile defence" are the incoming, user-friendly monikers.

But nobody in the Pentagon seems to have asked Britain, for example, what it thinks in principle of a missile shield. Therein lies another paradox: Mr Rumsfeld pledges to consult the allies while in the same breath vowing to press ahead come what may.

Much of the proposed technology, especially space weapons, is unproven and in any event, is no defence against one-off terrorist "suitcase" mini-devices. The project is becoming inextricably confused with existing theatre and tactical missile defence systems which, to give one potentially incendiary example, the Taiwanese would like to deploy against China.

Nobody, not even the Americans, quite knows how all this will be paid for.

Put all these considerations together and the dangerous confusions attending this ill-thought-out scheme are plain.

The political implications are if anything even more complex and disturbing. Russia has heard Washington's justifications yet still adamantly maintains that most variations of its plans would effectively destroy the keystone anti-ballistic missile treaty.

China and India fear the US will provoke a new arms race, forcing them to expand their nuclear arsenals. Talks to reduce offensive strategic nuclear weapons and the effectiveness of international anti-proliferation mechanisms, such as the missile technology control regime, may be compromised.

The US plans risk exacerbating tensions within NATO and alienating Germany.

Clearly they may also widen the transatlantic divisions already exposed by the EU's rapid reaction force.

The government's response has so far been to play for time. It stresses that the US plans are far from finalised; that any deployment would take up to 10 years or more. Evidently, Labour does not want a row before the general election. But when the foreign secretary, Robin Cook, says missile defence is essentially a US debate, he deliberately ignores the fact that America's stated overall intention is clear - and it concerns us all now.

When the defence secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, says Britain should wait and see what the US decides, he looks like a pedestrian standing in the middle of the road waiting to be run over. When Tony Blair goes bridge-building in Washington later this month, he must not let his desire to nurture the "special relationship" lead to further obfuscation of this pressing issue.

He should tell George Bush frankly that his missiles could blow up in his face.