June 29, 2006

UK could scale back nuclear force: lawmakers

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain could scale back its nuclear
arsenal now that the Cold War is over, lawmakers concluded on
Friday in a report that will set the tone for months of debate
over the fate of Britain's nuclear weapons.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he will decide
later this year whether or how to replace the fleet of Trident
missile-carrying submarines that form Britain's nuclear

The issue has stirred up debate within Blair's left-leaning
Labour Party. Finance Minister Gordon Brown, Blair's presumed
successor, last week signaled his backing for replacing
Trident, angering some Labour lawmakers who believe Britain
should give up nuclear arms.

Parliament's Defense Committee suggested the size of the
arsenal -- submarine-launched ballistic missiles carried on
four Vanguard-class submarines -- could be reduced since it may
not be necessary to maintain one submarine always at sea.

Under the current Continuous-at-Sea Deterrent cycle (CASD),
one Trident-armed submarine is constantly in service and ready
to fire, a system designed to avoid alarming other nations if a
submarine sets sail at a time of crisis.

Britain could maintain a smaller fleet of missiles if it
abandoned CASD, the committee suggested, or move to a ship-,
air- or land-based missile system.

"If the Ministry of Defense believes that the UK should
retain the Continuous-at-Sea Deterrent Cycle, it must either
extend the life of the Vanguard-class submarine or procure a
new platform to be in service by 2020," the committee said.

"In the light of the reduced threat we currently face, an
alternative possibility would be to retain a deterrent, but not
continuously at sea," it added.

The committee warned that extending the service life of the
current submarines for five years would be costly.

"Such an expensive option should not be used only as a
means of deferring a decision on the future of the UK's
strategic nuclear deterrent," the committee said.

The lawmakers urged Blair to hold a full debate on
Trident's replacement but they criticized the Ministry of
Defense for not participating in their inquiry.

The opposition Conservatives' defense spokesman Julian
Lewis said Blair had already reneged on his promise of a full

"Those of us who have campaigned for a nuclear deterrent
for the past 25 years have always been happy to spell out why
it is key to the nation's security. I can only suspect that the
government's refusal to do the same thing is for fear of
exposing divisions in Labour's ranks," he said.

The committee also said Britain's nuclear arsenal was
smaller than that of other established nuclear powers.

The Trident system was ordered during the Cold War in 1982
and the first of the four submarines made its maiden voyage 12
years later.

The fourth submarine made its maiden voyage just five years
ago, but because of the long development time to build a new
system Britain must decide soon if it is to replace Trident
before the submarines finish their normal service life.