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January 19, 2011
British Debate Replacement for Nuclear Force

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Ron Gurantz

Activists and politicians in the United Kingdom have begun debating whether and how to replace its nuclear weapons system, known as Trident. Parliament is expected to make a decision on the matter before the current parliament ends in 2010.

The United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal consists of four Vanguard submarines, each carrying 16 U.S.-supplied Trident long-range ballistic missiles equipped with up to three warheads. The Royal Navy deploys one submarine at a time, maintains its missiles on a reduced state of alert, and keeps them untargeted. This posture has been in place since 1998, when the United Kingdom reduced its number of deployed nuclear warheads by one-third and removed nuclear-armed aircraft from service. The United Kingdom, which became the third nuclear-weapon state in 1952, has one of the smallest nuclear arsenals among such states, with fewer weapons than France, Russia, or the United States.

The first Trident submarine entered service in 1994 and is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024. Using as a benchmark the 14-year timetable that was necessary to construct and deploy the current system, the government has decided that it must make a decision on replacement before the next parliamentary elections in 2010. Defense Secretary John Reid has said that, although it is desirable that a decision be made this year, it is not “absolutely necessary.”

The discussion over Trident is in its early stages, but a July parliamentary briefing suggested three options for replacing the system. The first option is a service-life extension to upgrade the current submarines and warheads, which would enable the Trident system to remain operational for up to 20 more years. The second would be to replace the current system with an identical system, which would cost $26-$34 billion. The third plan is to create a new system, one which would potentially couple conventional and nuclear submarine capabilities.

Activists and some British parliamentarians are advocating nuclear disarmament as a fourth option. Prominent members of the Labour Party, including former Labour government cabinet minister Clare Short, have vocally opposed the Trident replacement.

Blair said Oct. 19 that his government is “committed to retaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent.” The government is already recruiting nuclear scientists and investing $8.6 billion in new equipment at its Atomic Weapons Establishment, and Reid has begun talks with the United States and defense contractors about options for replacing the system. Nevertheless, Reid has denied allegations that the decision to replace the system has already been made, promising a “full and open debate” first.

Labour backbenchers have been pushing for a vote on replacing Trident, which the party’s leadership has resisted. Observers believe the issue will be divisive for the ruling Labour Party. Labour supported the policy of unilateral disarmament during the 1980s, but its manifesto in the last election declared that the party is committed to maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons.

Opponents of replacement argue that maintaining a nuclear-armed strategic missile force runs counter to the country’s disarmament obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and that it serves no practical military mission. Article VI of the treaty calls for states to make good-faith efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

Critics also question whether the United Kingdom still needs a nuclear deterrent, given the end of the Cold War. Reid has argued that London should maintain its nuclear deterrent because of future uncertainty, citing India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs and the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities as examples of a proliferating and unpredictable global environment. The Ministry of Defense, however, has refused to release its assessment of against which threats the nuclear weapons are deployed, citing national security concerns.

The United Kingdom has always cooperated closely with United States on nuclear-weapon development and deployment. British scientists participated in the Manhattan Project, and the United Kingdom has been granted access to U.S. weapons designs through the 1958 U.S.-British Mutual Defense Agreement. The United Kingdom currently leases its 58 Trident missiles from the U.S. Navy and is believed to base its warhead design on the U.S. W-76 warhead.