Nato leaders are expected to sign up to an agreement to construct a defensive shield for Europe against a ballistic missile attack.
Prime Minister David Cameron will join other alliance leaders for a summit in Lisbon which is expected to see for the first time a political agreement on a missile defence system for European territory.
It will see the commitment of US resources to the defence of Europe while inserting a Nato command-and-control element into the system.
While much of the focus in the run-up to the summit has been on Afghanistan, the first day of the gathering will concentrate on other matters – most notably missile defence and Nato reform.
Despite reported last-minute concerns by Turkey, British officials are confident that the agreement on missile defence will go ahead.
There is even an expectation that there will be discussion of co-operation with Moscow on the system when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev joins the alliance leaders in the Portuguese capital for a Nato-Russia.
The Russians have largely dropped their previous objections after US President Barack Obama announced that he was abandoning plans by the Bush administration to site the interceptor missiles and radar in Moscow’s “backyard” in Poland and the Czech Republic. The intention now is that – initially at least – the main “hardware” will be carried on US warships stationed in the Mediterranean, although the possibility of land-based facilities has not been ruled out.
The system will be developed over a 10-year period, with Britain contributing the early warning radar station at Fylingdales and the data processing centre at Menwith Hill – both of which are part of the existing US missile defence system – to the programme.
The system was being described in Whitehall as an “insurance policy” for the future, as more countries develop ballistic missile technology. It is also seen as a firm indication of America’s continuing commitment to the defence of Europe – particularly in economically straitened times.
European missile defence is one of the key elements of the new Nato “strategic concept”, expected to be adopted by the summit, which will guide alliance policies for the next decade. It includes the commitment of new resources against the threat of cyber-attack and reform of Nato’s command-and-control structure, cutting the number of personnel by around a third from 13,000 to 9,000.