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Blair set to back renewal of UK's nuclear arsenal

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Dec 4 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to defy anti-nuclear members of his Labour Party today by committing to a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines, while promising to cut Britain's nuclear warheads.

Blair, who will announce the decision at 2100 hrs IST, is set to opt for a new generation of nuclear ballistic-missile submarines at a cost of up to 20 billion pounds ( billion), several newspapers reported.

The decision would keep Britain in a nuclear club comprised of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain.

Officials are expected to argue Britain needs a deterrent as an insurance policy against future unpredictable threats, particularly given a growing risk from so-called ''rogue states''.

North Korea carried out a nuclear test in October and the West accuses Iran of seeking an atomic bomb, although Tehran denies it.

India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and Israel is widely thought to have nuclear arms, but has never confirmed it.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and scores of Labour parliamentarians, however, say Britain is contributing to nuclear proliferation by replacing Trident. They argue there is no need for a costly deterrent now the Cold War has ended.

To appease opponents, Blair is expected to say he will consider cutting the nuclear submarine fleet from four to three.

He will also pledge to cut Britain's operational nuclear warheads by a fifth to about 160, The Sun and the Guardian newspapers said. Blair's office declined comment on the issue.

The impact of those concessions could be limited.

CND, supported by more than 30 Labour lawmakers, will deliver an alternative policy paper to Blair's office today opposing the replacement of Trident and urging a more thorough decision-making process.

''What we actually need is to ask some very serious questions about who it is we are trying to deter, whether in fact a Trident type system is the way to deter them, and if it is, do we need to replace these boats and their missiles,'' Labour lawmaker Peter Kilfoyle told Reuters.

''There are sound reasons for saying not.'' WHY NOW? Britain's nuclear defence consists of Trident missiles carried aboard four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered submarines, but it will reach the end of its life in 2024.

The government says it must decide now on replacing Trident because of the time needed to design and build new submarines.

But opponents say the government could wait until 2014 before making a decision, by when the nature of future threats would be more apparent. Some say Blair is trying to rush through a decision before he steps down next year.

Blair's announcement to parliament and the publication of a policy document will signal the start of weeks of heated debate, culminating in a parliamentary vote early next year.

Blair is expected to be able to win the vote with the support of the opposition Conservatives despite a Labour revolt.

The issue is sensitive for Labour, which was committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament until former leader Neil Kinnock scrapped the pledge in the late 1980s.

Government officials in past weeks have said terrorist groups are seeking the know-how for nuclear attacks against Britain and pointed to a growing threat from unstable states.

REUTERS SSC VV1651

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