The intense activity of the war on terror, combined with the build-up of US forces in the Gulf for a war with Iraq, has taken attention away from one other core aspect of US security policy national missile defence. This was a key issue before 11 September last year and acquired renewed salience with the US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which gave the United States the freedom to develop defences against long-range ballistic missiles.
Even in the midst of current crises, though, the missile defence programme is proceeding apace. Moreover, it is doing so with considerable momentum. Last week, a two-day conference at the Royal United Services Institute in London was part-funded by US defence companies and involved some leading figures from the Bush administration and from US defence industries linked to missile defence.
What came across from these participants was an absolute conviction of the need for missile defence and that it would proceed apace. There was an assumption that UK participation would be forthcoming, and a belief that other European states would see the value of buying in to the system to give themselves protection from future threats.
The need to have a British commitment is an important part of the missile defence programme as currently conceived. As it stands, the first stage would be a network of interceptor missiles and supporting radar systems based in the United States, offering a degree of protection to US cities. This might eventually lead on to a much more general system giving a high level of protection, as foreseen in the Reagan era, two decades ago.
To make such a system work, though, the United States has to have the cooperation of Britain, Denmark and Australia. One of the key early-warning systems required is a network of satellites that give an immediate indication of missile launches anywhere in the world. There already exists an old and rather obsolete system known as the Defence Support Programme, but it is being replaced by a much more effective Space-Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS).
Some of the SBIRS satellites will be in geo-stationery orbit, high above the Earth, and are not in the line of sight of the continental United States, so there have to be overseas relay stations to pick up their signals. One of these will be in Australia, and the other is being completed at the US base at Menwith Hill, a few kilometres from Leeds and Bradford in Englands North Yorkshire.
The US missile defence programme also needs information about the trajectories of incoming missiles once they have been launched, and this requires the upgrading of the three existing ballistic missile early-warning stations at Nome in Alaska, Thule in Greenland and Fylingdales in Britain (also in the North Yorkshire moorland).
British involvement in missile defence is thus significant, with two different land-based sites involved, and there is already a campaign being mounted against their use in the programme, see the website of the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases. For the moment, though, the British government seems committed to accepting the US plans, which leads on to the question of what is the motive for the whole programme?
Many analysts asked this very question in the light of the attacks on New York and Washington fifteen months ago. If an international paramilitary movement could do such damage as a result of the actions of a handful of people armed with parcel knives, what on earth was the point of spending tens of billions of dollars on missile defences? After all, it was even doubtful that the technical capabilities for intercepting warheads moving at nearly 20,000 kph were likely to exist for at least a decade.
In an extraordinary piece of logic, the proponents of missile defence were quick to turn the whole process on its head, arguing that the very existence of such groups was incontrovertible proof that the United States was vulnerable to external attack.
In reply to this, critics pointed out that small paramilitary groups might be able to stage deeply harmful attacks and then slip back into the shadows, but any state firing missiles at the United States would know that it would be identified immediately and that a terrible retaliation would follow.
This, in many ways, is at the core of the argument over missile defence. If the United States does go ahead, as now seems certain, it may throw enough money and expertise at the problem to make the whole system work, in a way that incorporates the forthcoming revolution involving high-energy lasers and other directed energy weapons (see an earlier article).
The end result of this is clear: the United States will be in the unique position of being the only country able to offer some defence against missile attack, even while it maintains the worlds most powerful arsenal of offensive strategic forces. Such a combination will be made organisationally effective by the recent decision to merge Space Command with Strategic Command.
The new right agenda and the world
How will this be seen abroad? Given Russias parlous economic state, Putin may just have to accept it, at least for the time being, but not so the Chinese. China maintains a small force of about twenty nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the United States and has no desire to increase these numbers.But it would not accept a situation in which those missiles offer no deterrent to the US, especially in view of a possible future crisis over the status of Taiwan.
It is therefore likely that China would respond to US missile defence deployments by rapidly expanding its own offensive ballistic missile forces, setting off an arms race as US hawks use this as justification for an expansion of their own missile defences.
In this connection, there is an interesting division of opinion in US conservative circles over attitudes to China. Many mainstream Republicans, especially those linked to international business, see China as a market absolutely ripe for development. They recognise that China may become an industrial giant and could even rival the United States one day, but they are more concerned with the profitability of short-term business links.
Such people are not particularly concerned with the effect of US missile defence on China, but would be reluctant to see too big an increase in the Chinese defence budget, because it might limit the development of the civil economy with all its scope for US business interests.
Many US neo-conservatives take a very different view; they see China as the only state capable of undermining US economic hegemony. For them, an arms race between China and the United States is one that the latter is bound to win just as the US did against the Soviet Union in the 1980s thus ensuring, once again, that it remains the world leader.
For the moment, those Republicans advocating close economic ties with China probably have the upper hand, but even the alternative view does not really take us to the heart of the case for missile defence.
Central to the new right agenda in the United States, as promulgated by the Heritage Foundation, the Project for the New American Century, the Washington Weekly Standard, and many other groups and publications, is that this really is the American Century. According to this agenda, it is essential for the United States to be free to intervene anywhere in the world where its own economic interests, and those of like-minded allies, might be threatened.
Missile proliferation, especially to rogue states such as Iraq, North Korea and Iran, could well hinder this, so what is required is a defensive system to go alongside all the offensive weapons and tactics that might be required. What is most definitely not acceptable is for any oppositional state to develop, in any shape or form, the military means to deter the US and its allies from pursuing its own security agenda.
Of course, missile defence is also a matter of very high expenditure, so an important contributing factor is the sheer profitability of new contracts. It is therefore hardly surprising that defence contractors are so ready to finance research that demonstrates the risks from missile proliferation.
Yet in the long run the project is simply self-defeating. For if states or organisations opposed to the US and its allies see that they cannot maintain their own security through conventional means, because of US military developments such as missile defence, they will simply seek to find other methods. Once again, asymmetric warfare and paramilitary violence are likely to be the chosen ways, and efforts by the United States to maintain control will prove illusory.
For the moment, though, missile defence is intimately linked to the war on terror, with European members of NATO being pressed for a serious commitment to both. Britain, as usual, remains sympathetic to the US position, but opinions across Europe are much more sharply divided. There is an assumption in the Washington security community that the rather wimpish Europeans will come into line; indeed this is virtually taken for granted. Whether that will indeed happen remains to be seen. A large part of the answer may hinge not just on attitudes to missile defence but, more immediately, on the character and outcome of the likely war with Iraq.