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Blair pushes to revamp Britain's nuclear subs

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday 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 Trident ballistic missiles, to assure Britain's seat among the world's major nuclear powers.

"The risk of giving up something that has been one of the mainstays of our security . . . 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," Blair told Parliament, which will vote on the program in March.

"Proliferation remains a real problem," he said. "The notion of unstable, usually deeply repressive and antidemocratic states . . . having a nuclear capability is a distinct and novel reason for Britain not to give up its capacity to deter."

There have been calls in Britain to dismantle the four-boat nuclear weapons fleet. 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, 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 Non-Proliferation Treaty, and drain off colossal sums of money from real threats of terrorism, climate change, and long-term energy security?" Michael Meacher, a deputy from Blair's Labor Party, said during yesterday'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."

Blair is calling for revamping US-made Trident D5 missiles to extend their utility into the early 2040s while reducing their number from 200 to 160.

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