London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's opposition Conservative Party Tuesday weighed in behind American proposals to build a defensive umbrella against long-range ballistic missiles, and attacked the Labor government for promoting a European Union army at NATO's expense.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative spokesman on defense, told the party's annual conference in Bournemouth Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had badly mishandled Britain's defenses.
He warned that long-range missiles were already capable of reaching the heart of Europe from the Middle East, and Britain would soon be in range too.
"We are seeing a dangerous and widespread proliferation of long-range missiles, biological, chemical and even nuclear weapons taking place amongst the rogue states of the world...
"The Americans are responding to this new threat, developing anti-missile systems to defeat this new danger."
But rather than support the U.S. National Missile Defense proposal, he said, Blair had "run away from the problem."
Duncan Smith promised that a future Conservative government would "support the Americans in their development of defenses against weapons of mass destruction."
President Clinton recently deferred to his successor in the White House the decision on whether the NMD proposal should go ahead.
The plan to develop a shield that would destroy incoming missiles fired by hostile states has been condemned by Russia and China, and some NATO allies have expressed concern that it could trigger a new global arms race.
Deployment of an NMD system would require amendment of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Signed by the U.S. and former Soviet Union, the treaty restricts missile defense systems on the grounds they only encourage hostile states to deploy more missiles, to overwhelm the protective shield.
If the U.S. goes ahead with the plan, it would need Britain's go-ahead to upgrade two key radar stations located in northern England. The Conservatives want the government to come out with a clear statement of support for such a step, but there have been signs of differences among cabinet members on the issue.
Ministry of Defense spokesman Ben White said Tuesday the government's position remained that it would "consider very carefully" any future request by Washington to participate in the system.
"At the moment we don't know if they're going to say, yes let's go for it - and if they do, what they would request of us. Until then, we will wait and see what they propose."
White said after Clinton's recent decision, it looked unlikely the U.S. would "ask to site elements of the system in the UK before next year. It still remains premature to say how we might respond to an approach about which we don't know the detail."
White said Britain understood U.S. concerns about "the threat posed by the possible proliferation of long-range ballistic missiles. It's a threat no-one should ignore."
Whether or not the U.S. went ahead, it was vital Britain and others "make efforts to reduce the threat, through arms control, diplomatic and other efforts."
Britain supported ongoing dialogue between the U.S. and other interested parties, including those who are concerned about the proposal, he added.
In his speech, Duncan Smith also accused Blair of "playing games with his plans for a Euro Army."
Britain has been a driving force behind plans for a European strategic defense initiative (ESDI), a proposal for an EU military force distinct from NATO, to carry out peacekeeping and other operations not involving the Alliance.
The Conservatives have long accused the government of supporting a European "superstate" agenda, to the detriment of the historic Anglo-U.S. "special relationship."
Proponents deny the force will rival NATO and say the idea is to have a military capability for use in operations in which non-EU NATO members do not wish to become involved.
Duncan Smith told the conference a future Conservative government would "put paid to any divisive and political notion of a Euro Army. We want to improve European defense capabilities - but within NATO, never outside it."
The speech also slammed the government for encouraging a "creeping tide of political correctness" by applying the European Convention on Human Rights in the armed forces, saying this was undermining their effectiveness.
"Ministers don't understand that being a member of the armed forces isn't about rights. They give up many of their rights to defend ours. They are expected to kill or be killed if necessary."
He said a Conservative government would remove the forces from this "politically correct morass."
Last January the government lifted a ban on homosexuals in the military after a European Court of Human Rights ruling that it was unlawful. The Conservatives immediately gave notice that they would review the decision when next in power, and could rescind it.
A 450-page Ministry of Defense report compiled in 1996 concluded that ending the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces would damage fighting efficiency.
Duncan Smith also accused the government of underfunding and overstretching the armed forces, which have been cut by 5,000 servicemen since Labor came to power in 1997.