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U.K. Defense Chief Bashes Idea of Reducing SSBN Fleet

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond in a Sunday op-ed ridiculed the idea that the United Kingdom could reduce the size of its Trident ballistic missile submarine fleet without sacrificing some degree of national security.

Writing in the British Daily Mail, Hammond -- a member of the senior governing party, the Conservatives -- defended the party's "like-for-like" plan for entirely replacing the country's aging fleet of four nuclear-armed Vanguard-class SSBNs. "The government remains 100 percent committed to maintaining and renewing the Trident system," he wrote.

Hammond was preempting the Tuesday publication of an official report by the junior governing party, the Liberal Democrats, that examines a range of options for maintaining the British nuclear deterrent. 

One expected component of the Trident Alternatives study that has gotten a lot of attention already is the possibility of building fewer than the presently planned four new Vanguard SSBNs. The country for decades has wielded a fleet of four ballistic missile submarines in order to maintain its posture of "continuous at-sea deterrence."

"There will be those who seek to use this review to argue that, even if we continue with Trident, we can downgrade to a part-time deterrent -- claiming that our potential adversaries will always give us months of advance warning of an intention to strike," Hammond said. "I believe that taking such a risk would be reckless"  in light of efforts by Russia to modernize its nuclear forces and the activities of outlier states such as Iran to acquire nuclear weapon capabilities, he said. 

The defense chief also pushed back on the idea that building fewer than four new SSBNs could result in significant taxpayer savings. "The evidence shows that building three new submarines rather than the four ... would save, on average, less than 0.17 percent of the annual defense budget over their lifetime." The Trident renewal plan is projected to cost a minimum of $30 billion.

Though the Conservatives have agreed to hold off on making a final decision on proceeding with the like-for-like plan until after the next general election in 2015, hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent in designs for the new vessels and to build a new generation of atomic reactors to power them.

British Prime Minister David Cameron believes a "continuous at-sea deterrent" is necessary in an international environment with "evolving threats around nuclear proliferation," the London Telegraph quoted a spokesman as saying on Monday. "He has seen no evidence that there's a way of providing an alternative."

Advocates of moving away from the like-for-like plan argue it makes sense in today's post-Cold War security climate and would send an important message to the international arms control and nonproliferation community. "If the U.K., as one of the original nuclear powers, were to do this, it would give fresh encouragement to nonproliferation," Liberal Democrat and former Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey was quoted by the London Guardian as saying.

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