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Britain's Role in U.S. Missile Defense

Authored by Dr. Jeremy Stocker. | July 2004

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Despite the apparent novelty of the subject, defense against ballistic missiles has been a persistent topic in transatlantic relations for over half a century. In particular, America?s European allies, especially Britain, have frequently been concerned by the wider implications of U.S. repeated efforts to develop and deploy missile defenses.

The end of the Cold War has completely altered the strategic circumstances within which ballistic missile defense (BMD) policy is formulated, while technological developments are making effective defense more feasible. However, the subject retains a large historical legacy of attitudes derived from earlier times and has lost little of its controversy.

Britain has a particular role to play in U.S. BMD plans, beyond its long-standing status as America?s most important ally. The United Kingdom is host to one of three Ballistic Missile Early Warning Stations (BMEWS) and to the European ground station for the Space-Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS), both vital elements in U.S. missile defense architecture. Britain also has a long record of technological cooperation in missile defense.

However, British Governments have consistently taken a different view on the nature and severity of the ballistic missile threat, and on the appropriate means by which to deal with missile proliferation. The UK is generally sceptical about the technological promise of active defense, heavily constrained by limited defense resources, and has a greater attachment than American governments to other means of nonproliferation.

Tactical defense against shorter-range missiles is now regarded as uncontentious, though also unfunded. In regard to strategic homeland defense, Britain does not regard itself as under a ballistic threat other than the long-established Russian and Chinese rocket forces. Continued adherence to diplomatic means and established deterrence postures is the preferred method of dealing with those capabilities. Britons do not share American concerns about North Korea, and are not prepared to view China as a long-term strategic competitor requiring a BMD response.

The UK is not prepared, however, to let disagreements over missile defense prejudice the two countries? wider security relationship. It is also progressively shedding many of its previous concerns about the wider consequences of missile defense deployment and gaining a better appreciation of the advantages of collaboration in both the policy and technical fields. For America?s part, an understanding of the UK?s stance and a willingness to engage in honest and forthright consultation are essential if the United States is to maximize the advantages of international cooperation in missile defense and avoid some of its penalties.

Despite a recent focus on events in Iraq, missile defense remains a vital issue in U.S.-British relations and a subject of considerable intrinsic importance. Both countries need to better understand each other?s policies and concerns, and cooperate in providing effective and appropriate defense capabilities.


The end of the Cold War, and with it the demise of the West?s common foe, the Soviet Union, has put transatlantic security relations on a new and less sure foundation. A junior defense minister in Britain stated recently that, ?. . . the UK and the U.S. have largely shared security interests.?1 Those interests are not identical, however, and nor are the strategic cultures, threat perceptions, and political policies that underlie them. James Steinberg suggests that, just when Europe is seeing the end of a century of bloody conflict, America, after September 2001, is feeling a new vulnerability to violence.2

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are Atlantic nations. But the United States is also a Pacific nation and the UK, a European one. However close the two countries remain, there can never be a complete coincidence of security perceptions or interests.3 While the Anglo-American ?Special Relationship,? as demonstrated by the war in Iraq, appears to be as strong and as close as ever, important security issues do separate the United States and its principal ally, the United Kingdom.

As the world?s sole remaining superpower, the United States operates on a scale, both geographic and military, that is quite without peer. But it is not omnipotent. ?Even Mr. Big needs friends,?4 a basic geostrategic truism seemingly well-understood on both sides of the Atlantic. But without the strategic ?glue?? provided by the Soviet threat, the potential for damaging political differences is clearly increased.5

A recent SSI study identified two possible causes of friction. One is the growing European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) and another the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD).6 Nothing like the widespread American consensus in favor of missile defense is to be found in Europe, not even in Britain, the most maritime and insular of European countries.7 The implications for transatlantic relations of U.S. missile defense ambitions have been a subject of prominent debate in Europe since the Clinton administration?s limited National Missile Defense (NMD) plan became prominent in about 1998. Some commentators have warned that the effect of U.S. BMD on its key allies could represent a net loss of security to the United States.8

One irony surrounding missile defense is that, following the election of President George W. Bush, much more committed than his predecessor to active defense, some of the heat has gone out of the debate. European governments in general, and Britain in particular, have become largely reconciled to the prospect of widespread BMD deployment. That does not mean, however, that the issue has gone away or lost any of its intrinsic importance to transatlantic relations. ?Outright opposition has been replaced by penetrating enquiries about the purpose, extent, and means of missile defences.?9 For Americans? part, though a greater awareness of the international dimensions of BMD exists, the policy debate has been largely conducted in a domestic context, despite it being self-evidently a matter of international security.10

The relevance of Britain?s missile defense policy for the United States is two-fold. First, BMD is a major issue of international security, and the UK is America?s most important ally. Second, building on an extensive history of missile defense cooperation, Britain and the United States have important, even vital, roles to play in each other?s BMD efforts. Successful policymaking on both sides of the Atlantic will be aided by a better understanding of the other?s attitudes, interests, and polices with regard to combatting the proliferation and potential use of ballistic missiles, without either country expecting that it can or should exercise a power of veto over the other.11


Joseph Nye warns that ?The bad news for Americans . . . in the 21st century is that there are more and more powerful things outside the control of even the most powerful state . . . We will have to learn better how to share as well as how to lead.?143 Martin Aguera believes that ?European allies and friends often misunderstand the U.S. interest in [missile defense] as a replay of past debates . . .144 As an absolute minimum, Americans need to talk more clearly, and Europeans need to listen more acutely. Britain, in particular, is so closely bound-up with U.S. missile defense that mutual understanding is an absolute precondition for the future of effective and worthwhile BMD and the wider ?special relationship.?

The International Institute for Strategic Studies observes that:

Missile defences have not yet seriously affected strategic stability. But . . . layered defences will likely demonstrate significantly greater performance effectiveness . . . In light of these technological prospects . . . and a national security strategy explicitly emphasising preemption, global missile defences seem destined to resurrect concerns about

strategic stability.145

Deployment of missile defense by the United States, or any other state, does not have to lead to greater instability in international affairs. But whether BMD produces a net gain in the security of the United States and its allies will depend on the manner in which it is pursued. Defenses developed and deployed by the United States in isolation will be compromised in their utility in both technical and strategic senses. As defense technologies mature and operational systems are fielded, the international dimensions of BMD will gain in salience and require constant and careful attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Britain?s attitude remains ambivalent:

There are complex issues to be considered before the UK and others can determine the best overall strategy for addressing this threat [ballistic missiles], and the role that missile defence could play as an element of this strategy: issues of technology, timescale, international relations, and cost, all of which are closely linked.146

But, largely unheralded, a sea-change in official thinking has occurred, for which the end of the ABM Treaty was a major catalyst. The UK?s future position on BMD remains uncertain. On the one hand, fears for the implications of U.S. policy have largely been assuaged, and technical cooperation is growing. But cost remains a crushing obstacle to a British active defense capability, no matter how modest. Moreover, the threat may, in the short term at least, be declining. The Iraqi problem has been eliminated. Diplomacy may be solving the Libyan problem. The signs from Iran are ambivalent. Europeans will never fully share American concerns about North Korea. No one even wants to think about missile defense vis-รก-vis China (or, for that matter, Russia).

The British approach, which stresses the part active defense can play in relation to other means of countering missile proliferation, such as deterrence and nonproliferation measures, has much to commend it. The American readiness to directly confront security problems, and commit large sums of money to their resolution, is also praiseworthy. Each can, and should, learn from the other.

The gap in transatlantic thinking on missile defense has narrowed. But it has not been eliminated. The mutual dependence in BMD terms of the United States and the United Kingdom, though very far from being a relationship of equals, is increasing. The Anglo-American security partnership remains as important to both countries as ever. Missile defense is not a ?done deal,? and will continue to require careful management by both Britain and America.


1. Lord Bach, Minister of State for Defence Procurement ?Missile Defence-UK Policy? in Jeremy Stocker and David Wiencek, eds, Missile Defence in a New Strategic Environment, Whitehall Paper, No. 60, London: Royal United Services Institute, 2003, p. 2.

2.James B. Steinberg, ?An Elective Partnership: Salvaging Transatlantic Relations,? Survival, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer 2003, p. 114.

3. For a convincing, if sometimes overstated, discussion of the divergence of U.S. and European security interests and views, see Robert Kagan, Paradise & Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, London: Atlantic Books, 2003.

4. Martin Aguera, ESDP and Missile Defense: European Perspectives for a More Balanced Transatlantic Partnership, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, December 2001, p. 19.

5. For a very full and authoritative explanation of why America needs others, see Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World?s Only Superpower Can?t Go It Alone, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

6. Aguera, ESDP and Missile Defense, p. 1.

7. Colin S. Gray, European Perspectives on U. S. Ballistic Missile Defense, Fairfax VA: National Institute for Public Policy, March 2002, pp. iii, 2.

8. For example, Dean A. Wilkening, Ballistic-Missile Defence and Strategic Stability, Adelphi Paper No. 334, London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2000, pp. 16-17.

9. Ivo H. Daalder and Christopher Makins, ?A Consensus on Missile Defence?? Survival, Vol. 43, No. 3, Autumn 2001, p. 61.

10. Klaus Becher, ?Missile Defence and International Statecraft,? Survival, Vol. 43, No. 3, Autumn 2001, p. 77.

11. Philip H Gordon, ?Bush, Missile Defence and the Atlantic Alliance? Survival, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring 2001, p. 18.

143. Nye, The Paradox of American Power, p. 40.

144. Aguara, ESDP and Missile Defense, p. 20.

145. IISS, Strategic Survey 2002/03, p. 40. 146. MoD, Public Discussion Paper, p. 30.