Blair to Renew Britain's Nuclear Arsenal
LONDON Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged on Monday to renew Britain's nuclear arsenal, saying new threats from Iran, North Korea or nuclear terrorists made it "unwise and dangerous" to disarm.
Britain will buy up to four new nuclear submarines at a cost of up to 20 billion pounds ($39.60 billion), enabling it to keep a nuclear deterrent into the 2050s, the government said.
The new submarines will replace Britain's existing nuclear submarines which are due to go out of service around 2024.
In a concession to legislators in his Labour Party who oppose a new nuclear weapons system, Blair said Britain would cut its nuclear warheads by 20 percent to less than 160 and may reduce its submarine fleet to three from four.
The decision keeps Britain in a nuclear club comprised of all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain.
Blair argued that Britain needed a deterrent as an insurance policy against future unpredictable threats.
He pointed to a "new and potentially hazardous threat" from states such as North Korea, which carried out a nuclear test in October, or Iran, which the West accuses of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Tehran denies the accusation.
"It is not utterly fanciful either to imagine states sponsoring nuclear terrorism from their soil. We know this global terrorism seeks chemical, biological and nuclear devices. It is not impossible to contemplate a rogue government helping such an acquisition," Blair said.
"It would be unwise and dangerous for Britain, alone of any of the nuclear powers, to give up its independent nuclear deterrent," he said.
COLD WAR WEAPON?
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and scores of Labour parliamentarians, however, say Britain is contributing to nuclear proliferation by updating its arsenal. They argue there is no need for a costly deterrent now the Cold War has ended.
The government plans to build the new submarines in Britain, preserving thousands of highly skilled jobs, Blair said.
Britain's existing nuclear defence consists of Trident missiles aboard four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered submarines.
The government said Britain would take part in a U.S. programme to extend the life of the Trident missile until 2042 when it would work with the United States on a new missile.
"How can this proposal really be justified when there is an utterly different post-Cold War environment?" Labour member of parliament Michael Meacher told Reuters. Labour was committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament until the late 1980s.
"It's going to drain off colossal sums of money from where I think it's most needed for Britain's future, dealing with real threats -- terrorism, climate change and long-term energy insecurity," he said, pointing to estimates the cost of the programme could run to 75 billion pounds.
Countries such as Iran would now say to Britain: "If you need nuclear weapons for your security, why shouldn't we have it for ours?" he said.
Labour legislator Jeremy Corbyn asked Blair if he didn't think that "the security of the 21st century is better served by seriously pursuing disarmament rather than rearmament?"
The government will decide later if it needs three or four new submarines in order to keep one at sea at all times.
Blair's announcement signalled the start of weeks of heated debate, set to culminate in a parliamentary vote next March. He is expected to win the vote with the support of the opposition Conservatives despite a Labour revolt.