THE BRITISH government is considering cutting the number of warheads in its nuclear arsenal, a much more significant move than the plan to reduce the number of new Trident submarines, officials said yesterday.
As Gordon Brown suggested that the existing four-boat Trident-missile carrying fleet could be replaced by just three, there is widespread speculation in Whitehall that the government will offer to cut the number of nuclear warheads before the nonproliferation treaty review conference in May next year. A decision could be taken shortly before a general election expected at that time.
Mr Brown told the UN in New York yesterday that he was prepared to consider the move as part of a multilateral “global bargain” to reduce the risk from nuclear weapons. He told the BBC earlier that there were no proposals concerning warheads “at the moment”. However, officials in several departments say cuts in nuclear warheads are being actively considered. Britain has about 160 “operationally available” nuclear warheads, plus an unknown number in a stockpile.
The announcement in New York provoked fury among some in the UK Ministry of Defence who had been unaware that he was to make it. The navy was said to be particularly concerned about the potential consequences of reducing the number of future Trident submarines. Lee Willett, head of military capabilities at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, in London, said the government appeared to want to “provide a buffer against growing domestic calls to abandon the deterrent completely”.
He described a decision to reduce the number of submarines as “incredibly risky”. John Hutton, the former defence secretary, whose constituency is Barrow and Furness in northwest England, where the submarines are built, said the fleet should not be reduced. “You have got to have cover all the time, every single day of the year, and we have not found a way of doing that with less than four boats and no other navy has either.” He warned of what he called “potential gaps in our ability to deploy continuous at-sea deterrents and we become vulnerable to blackmail, or at worst nuclear aggression”.
Officials travelling with Mr Brown said maintaining the UK’s nuclear missiles was “non-negotiable”. But they argued that the submarine reduction proposed by the prime minister would send an “important political signal”.
However, critics and independent analysts said Mr Brown’s proposal yesterday had little to do with disarmament. John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said: “Cutting the number of nuclear submarines from four to three is a welcome gesture, but is only a gesture. The fact remains that three submarines are enough to maintain the constant alert needed to launch nuclear weapons.This doesn’t get us beyond the cold war thinking of the last century.”