As US, Russia Cut Back Nuclear Weapons, Britain Forges Ahead with Arms Program

Article excerpt

BRITAIN is expecting to come under pressure from the United States to reduce its independent nuclear deterrent in line with the deep cuts ordered by Presidents Bush and Boris Yeltsin at their summit meeting in Washington earlier this week.

But although government officials privately concede that the pressures are likely to grow in coming months, Malcolm Rifkind, the British defense secretary, has indicated that the government is determined to nearly triple the warhead capacity aboard its fleet of missile-firing submarines.

British strategic analysts say the country's planned fleet of four Trident submarines will give it a nuclear capability well beyond any conceivable defensive need, now that the threat of international communism has receded.

Professor Laurence Martin, director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and a leading authority on nuclear strategy, said:"Russia and the United States are moving into a world in which they are de-emphasizing the need for nuclear weapons.

"There will be a problem over whether Britain, as one of America's foremost allies, can go on maintaining a deterrent with no really plausible utility."

Professor Martin added: "The Americans, who are supplying the Trident missiles, are now talking about collaborating with our former target, and that poses further serious questions."

Britain finds itself out on a limb in relation to this week's Bush-Yeltsin agreement to slash their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds over 10 years partly because of the long lead time required to build nuclear submarines, and partly because of domestic economic problems.

The existing fleet of four Polaris missile-firing submarines is being phased out. But HMS Vanguard, the first of four Trident submarines, was launched as recently as last March.

The full fleet is unlikely to be in service until the turn of the century.

IN addition, the submarines are being built in British shipyards, and the government is reluctant to modify the Trident order because that would mean the loss of thousands of jobs in a shipbuilding industry that has been under severe pressure for more than a decade. If, for example, the government decided not to build a fourth Trident submarine, up to 4,000 jobs would be lost.

Mr. Rifkind greeted the news of the Bush-Yeltsin arms agreement with a brief broadcast statement indicating that work on the Trident fleet would go ahead on schedule.

Defense officials said Britain had been fully consulted before the summit. The officials maintained that the deal struck in Washington would have little impact on Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. …