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Blair wins vote on subs

Lawmakers OK the next generation of the nuclear vessels despite a Labor Party split.

March 15, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — British lawmakers Wednesday authorized construction of the next generation of nuclear submarines, despite warnings that it would give a green light to nations such as Iran to develop their own nuclear weapons.

In a vote that fractured Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party and led to warnings of a new nuclear arms race, the House of Commons voted 409 to 161 to approve the $39-billion overhaul of the nation's Trident missile "nuclear deterrent," the network of submarine-launched ballistic missiles the government said must remain a backbone of the nation's security over the next 50 years.

With his own party in open rebellion -- the biggest show of Labor defiance since the 2003 vote on the Iraq war -- Blair won the vote only with the help of the opposition Conservatives, who agreed that Britain cannot afford to give up its nuclear arsenal at a time of unknowable future threats.

"With the end of the Cold War, it was understandably hoped that the role of nuclear weapons in shaping the international system might become less relevant.... But unfortunately, they still have a major relevance," William Hague, the Tories' point person on foreign policy, said during the six-hour debate. "The abandonment of our nuclear deterrent would be extraordinarily ill-advised, and indeed a national act of folly."

But critics said Britain's continued commitment to nuclear defense is useless against the threat of terrorism and could diminish its ability to act as a moral force for nonproliferation.

"If the argument is made that the future is uncertain, what right does anyone have to say that Iran should not get a nuclear weapon? If Iran gets a weapon, Saudi Arabia will want one, as will Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and perhaps even the Gulf States.... There will be very dangerous proliferation in the most unstable region in the world," said Clare Short, a former Blair Cabinet minister who resigned over the Iraq war.

Four Labor lawmakers quit the government before Wednesday's vote, and more than 85 Labor deputies defied Blair to vote against the renewal. Public protests were staged from Westminster to Scotland.

The government said it would take at least 17 years to design and build three or four vessels in a new class of submarines to replace the Vanguard-class fleet, expected to reach the end of its operational life in the early 2020s. The plan envisions a reduction in the number of operational nuclear warheads this year by 20%, to fewer than 160, as a continuing commitment to nuclear disarmament.

"Since the Cold War ended, we have withdrawn and dismantled our tactical maritime and airborne nuclear capabilities. We have terminated our nuclear-capable Lance missiles and artillery. We have the smallest nuclear capability of any recognized nuclear weapon state, accounting for less than 1% of the global inventory," Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said last month that the West risked losing its moral authority in seeking to prevent nations such as Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"They are told nuclear weapons are counterproductive because they do not protect your security," he said during a lecture at the London School of Economics. "But when they look to the big boys, what do they see? They see increasing reliance on nuclear weapons for security, they see nuclear weapons being continually modernized."

Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said the government's "rush to deploy nuclear missiles whose service life would extend until 2050 is, to say the least, astonishing."

In a letter to The Times of London, he said Britain should postpone its decision on renewing the Trident program at least until the next review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2010.

Wednesday's vote was a statement of policy direction that allows the government to begin the design and procurement process for new submarines. The government also is proposing to participate with the United States in a program to extend the life of the D5 Trident missile for an additional 20 years, through the 2040s, a plan that some lawmakers pointed to as the real reason for the Blair administration's haste in seeking a vote in Parliament.

"The Americans are extending the life of their D5 Trident missiles, and they want answers in 2007. They need to know whether we are willing to join them. There is no pressing military, political, technical or other reason to make the decision now," said John Barrett, a lawmaker with the Liberal Democratic party.

Blair's intention to step down as Prime Minister this summer also may have been a factor in pushing for the vote, some lawmakers suggested.

"In effect," said Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrats' main spokesman on defense, "his objective is to continue to rule the Labor Party from beyond the political grave."



Britain's submarines

Britain's Parliament approved a program to replace the nation's fleet of four nuclear-armed Vanguard submarines. Here's a look at Britain's sub fleet:

Submarine class

*--* Vanguard Swiftsure Trafalgar No. of subs 4 6 7 Type SSBN SSN SSN Purpose Surveillance/ Pursue and attack Pursue and attack nuclear deterrent enemy subs, ships enemy subs, ships First launch 1992 1971 1981 Missiles Trident Tomahawk Tomahawk



SSBN: ballistic missile sub; SSN: attack submarines


Source: Military Periscope

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