Cold War ends except in North Yorkshire

Menwith Hill electronic defence base
Image caption CND Chair Dave Webb leads "guided walk" around Menwith Hill electronic defence base

Peace groups thought the end of the Cold War and the election of Barack Obama would see American military bases in the UK pack up and head for home.

In North Yorkshire exactly the opposite has happened.

This week two new giant 'golf balls' at Europe's biggest electronic defence base at RAF Menwith Hill near Harrogate are thought to be within weeks of becoming fully operational.

It marks a major expansion of the role of the base which has been seen as the electronic 'eyes and ears' of NATO since the early 1960s.

A spectacular array of infra-red, radar and digital monitoring systems has gradually been developed to do everything from tracking hostile missile launches to checking mobile telephone calls for the communications of potential terrorist groups.

Command and control

Each of the 'golf balls' is really a shell which houses revolving dishes able to intercept transmissions or detect hostile military activities.

It is thought around 2,200 Americans operate the equipment and analyse the data it collects.

They are either US military personnel or experts from the National Security Agency.

Golf balls number 31 and 32 are different.

They are the "command and control" systems for a new defensive screen of US missiles installed hundreds of miles away in former Eastern bloc countries.

As the threat of the former Soviet Union has evaporated the missiles are thought to be a deterrent against "rogue" regimes such as North Korea and Syria.

Economic espionage

There are those who believe the activities in the base are far wider than mere military defence.

Lindis Percy is one of them.

In her yellow high visibility jacket emblazoned with the words CAAB - Coalition for the Accountability of American Bases, the veteran peace campaigner stages a protest meeting at the base gates every Tuesday evening.

Image caption Lindis Percy of CAAB-Coalition for the Accountability of American Bases

It is hard to believe that the polite, late middle-aged, former NHS midwife from Harrogate has been jailed in the past for scaling the wire fences in attempts to unlock Menwith Hill's secrets.

"It is an American base serving American interests," she told me in an interview for the Politics Show for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

"It used to be focussed on the detection of missiles launches and terrorism but now there is a great deal of attention on the economic threat from countries like China.

"The Americans monitor every conceivable communications system across the world and share the odd morsel with our government but this is all about American commercial interests."

'Guided walk'

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is also so concerned about the base that it held part of this year's annual conference by the main gate and then went on what must be the most unusual "guided walk".

CND's national chairman, Dave Webb, megaphone in hand, pointed out the "sights" as the 100-strong crocodile of walkers strolled around the perimeter of the base on a network of ancient rights of way.

"It just should not be here in this glorious English countryside," he told me.

"We are told it is for defence but it is just another form of increasing the arms race.

"We have published our own printed guide to Menwith Hill because we feel people need to know what is happening here."

The RAF now publishes a limited amount of information about it on its own website.

It says: "RAF Menwith Hill is an integral part of the US DoD world-wide defence communications network. Its primary mission is to provide intelligence support for UK, US and allied interests."

Political division

The base has plenty of political support from all sides of the house.

Successive governments have made brief statements in reply to parliamentary questions stressing its importance.

Image caption New US defensive missile screen in Eastern Europe with "command and control" centre in Yorkshire

Labour MP for York Central, Hugh Bayley, a member of the parliamentary NATO liaison committee, agrees it is an important factor in the defence of the UK and that it is a logical place to locate the "command and control" centre for the new missile screen.

However, other Yorkshire Labour MPs are far from satisfied.

"Just image if the tables were reversed," says Leeds North East MP, Fabian Hamilton.

"Would the Americans allow the UK to build a base on their soil without Congress and senators being told exactly what is going on there?

"I have asked numerous questions about Menwith Hill and information is rarely forthcoming."

Outside the gates the local community says it has no problem with its American neighbours.

One local farmer told me that they have even been invited to Thanksgiving dinner on the base.

"You are OK as long as you don't ask them what they actually do," he told me.