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Britain's new nuke debate

W76-W88.jpgThe conventional Trident may be dead, but nuclear Tridents have sparked a heated debate over the future of the UK's nuclear weapons.Submarine-launched Trident missiles have been Britain's only nuclear option for almost a decade the UK never had independent ground-launch capabilities, and all the British air-delivered nuclear weapons were dismantled by 1998. The missiles are built, maintained, and serviced in the U.S., but Britain insists that it maintains operational independence.Today, the British Tridents are based on four Vanguard-class submarines, which are aging and due to be decommissioned in the 2020s. Since the government believes that new subs will take 17 years to design and build, a decision needs to be made. If Britain does not build new subs, it will lose its independent nuclear deterrent force.Prime Minister Tony Blair's government could have made the decision on its own, but opted instead to open the issue for debate and let Parliament decide a vote is scheduled for March 2007.Supporters of renewing the Trident say that 1) no other nuclear states are considering eliminating their arsenals, 2) the number of nuclear states is increasing, 3) the world is a risky place, 4) it is impossible to predict whether the Tridents will be needed, so it is better to retain them. These arguments together seem to say, essentially, that in an uncertain, dangerous world, it is better to have nukes than not (shhh don't tell Iran!).Opponents argue that the weapons are 1) unnecessary (Britain's role in the world no longer requires nukes), 2) ineffective (deterrence is an "unproven theory" that is "essentially flawed," especially when it comes to terror), 3) expensive (roughly 20 billion that could be better spent elsewhere), 4) illegal (in violation of Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which obligates each signatory to work towards nuclear disarmament), and 5) immoral.The Scots have been particularly virulent in their criticisms this is partially tied up in British regional politics but also stems from the fact that the Trident submarines' only base is located in Scotland. Scottish officials have drafted two provocative but doomed-to-fail bills: one would criminalize "supporting the threat of the UKs nuclear deterrent;" the other would charge the British government 1 billion (almost $2 billion) for each nuclear warhead transported through Scottish territory.Churches and NGOs across the country have voiced their opposition, as well, and polls consistently show a majority of the British public opposed to Trident renewal. Blair has only offered minor concessions he "wants to" reduce the number of subs and warheads slightly but says the issue needs more study.If the Trident debate remains binary renewal vs. no renewal Blair has more than enough votes to push his proposal through Parliament. There may be a third option, though: delay the decision. U.S. nuclear experts Dick Garwin, Philip E. Coyle (disclosure: my boss), Theodore A. Postol, and Frank von Hippel recently argued that the Vanguard subs can last up to 15 years longer than the government said, with refurbishments and light use. They argue that putting the decision off would be the best way to maintain "a variety of options." It is unclear whether the government is interested in this option, but over 100 MPs (out of 646) have called for the decision to be delayed.This will be a debate to watch if the disarmament advocates succeed, Britain may become the first of the big five nuclear powers to give up its weapons. It looks unlikely in the near future, though.-- Eric Hundman

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