British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday called for building a multibillion-dollar, new-generation nuclear submarine fleet to counter future threats from "rogue" nuclear states and nuclear terrorism.
The move, which Blair justified as a hedge against potential threats from terrorists and states with nuclear ambitions, such as Iran and North Korea, rekindled debate over Britain's nuclear future and the role of such weapons in the post-Cold War world.
Blair said his government would support a top-to-bottom renewal of the nation's nuclear-powered Trident submarine fleet, which is equipped with nuclear ballistic missiles, to ensure that Britain retains its seat among the world's five major nuclear powers for decades to come.
"The risk of giving up something that has been one of the mainstays of our security since the [Second World] War, and moreover doing so when the one certain thing about our world today is its uncertainty, is not a risk I feel we can responsibly take. Our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance," Blair told an occasionally skeptical Parliament, which will vote on the program in March.
"Proliferation remains a real problem," he said. "The notion of unstable, usually deeply repressive and anti-democratic states, in some cases profoundly inimical to our way of life, having a nuclear capability, is a distinct and novel reason for Britain not to give up its capacity to deter."
There have been mounting calls in Britain to dismantle the four-vessel nuclear-weapons fleet that many believe has outlived its purpose. Spending billions on a new fleet could undermine negotiations with North Korea and Iran at a time when those nations are being asked to adhere to international nonproliferation obligations, these critics say.
"How can this cost be justified in the post-Cold War environment, when it will severely restrict much more needed conventional military expenditures, undermine the Nonproliferation Treaty and drain off colossal sums of money from real threats of terrorism, climate change and long-term energy security?" Michael Meacher, a lawmaker from Blair's Labor Party, argued during Monday's opening debate in the House of Commons.
But Blair's proposal can survive misgivings in his own camp because he is assured of substantial support among opposition Conservative lawmakers. Tory leader David Cameron said "the case is very powerful" for building "a credible system ... that isn't vulnerable to preemptive attack," and even questioned Blair's commitment to a 20% reduction in the number of Trident nuclear warheads.
"Does he realize he doesn't have to make concessions to those who've never supported the concept of deterrence?" Cameron said.
Blair is calling for revamping U.S.-made Trident D5 missiles to extend their utility into the early 2040s while reducing their number to 160 from 200. British designers would immediately launch the design and construction of as many as four new submarines to replace within 17 years the current fleet of four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered submarines, launched in the mid-1990s.
The estimated cost would range from $30 billion to $40 billion, an average of 3% of the defense budget over the next two decades.
Britain would continue to field the smallest stockpile of nuclear weapons among the five recognized nuclear powers and would be the only one with a single delivery system, Blair noted.
He said the end of the Cold War had not ended Britain's potential future vulnerability to possible threats. "The new dimension is undoubtedly the desire by states, highly dubious in their intentions, like North Korea and Iran, to pursue nuclear weapons capability," he said.
Gavin Ireland, a military sciences researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, said Britain's nuclear posture was founded on the concept of deterrence based on ambiguity.
"It's there in the back pocket. It's not intended to be an overt threat," Ireland said.
Unlike U.S. nuclear policy, he said, which calls for deployment of a wide range of missiles on multiple platforms capable of striking a broad range of targets, Britain's strategy calls for keeping at least one sophisticated and elusive nuclear submarine deployed somewhere in the world's oceans whose orders to launch would be difficult, if not impossible, to subvert.
Ultimately, Blair said, relying on the substantially larger U.S. arsenal to shield Britain is not a foolproof option.
"The independent nature of the British deterrent is again an additional insurance against circumstances where we are threatened but America is not," he said. "These circumstances are also highly unlikely, but I am unwilling to say they are nonexistent."