UK MPs question London's need for nuclear weapons

(IRNA) - Britain's parliamentary Defence Select Committee Friday called on Prime Minister Tony Blair's government to explain the purpose of the country's retaining nuclear weapons.

There needs to be a "genuine and meaningful" public debate on whether the UK should keep its nuclear weapons, the all-party group of MPs said in a report questioning whether the UK needs to replace its ageing Trident missile systems, reports Trend.

"We need a full discussion of the role and purpose of the nuclear deterrent and the changing strategic environment," said Conservative MP James Arbuthnot, who chairs the committee.

Blair announced this week that the government will decide later this year whether or how to replace the fleet of Trident missile- carrying submarines that form Britain's nuclear arsenal.

But the report said witnesses to its inquiry argued that a strategic nuclear deterrent could serve "no useful or practical purpose" in countering international terrorism, which ministers say is the most pressing threat currently facing the UK.

The Ministry of Defense (MoD), it said, must justify the retention of nuclear weapons after hearing no evidence of an impending military threat from other countries.

"Before making any decisions on the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent, the MoD should explain its understanding of the purpose and continuing relevance of

nuclear deterrence now and over the lifetime of any potential Trident successor system," the committee said.

"If the MoD believes in the value of the nuclear deterrent as an insurance policy, rather than in response to any specific threat, we believe it is important to say clearly that is the reason for needing the deterrent," it added.

The report also suggested that the government should clarify whether it believed the nuclear deterrent was important to Britain's "international influence and status."

"We accept that future threats are unknowable, but, clearly, a world in which nuclear proliferation had taken hold would create deep uncertainties in international relations," the report warned.

The MPs expressed surprise and disappointment at the refusal of the MoD to give evidence to the inquiry and said any decision to keep nuclear weapons, must be made "only after a full public debate ... It must not be made in secret".

They also concluded that Britain could scale back its nuclear arsenal now that the Cold War is over and also pointed out their view that an extension program to the existing system would mean that a decision on replacement could be deferred until 2014.

The report was welcomed as a balanced and reasonable assessment by the Oxford Research Group, which also suggested that a delay would give time for a much-needed fundamental re-assessment of the emerging post cold-war security environment.

"There is a particular opportunity for the UK to bring new life to international negotiations on non-proliferation and multilateral disarmament," said ORG director John Sloboda, who gave evidence to the inquiry.

As well as questioning the purpose of a nuclear deterrent in the context of current security threats, the committee's report also put forward the abolition of nuclear weapons as an option for consideration.

It also considered the supposed independence of the US-supplied Trident system and suggested the public debate over its future should address "the operational and diplomatic impact of any potential dependency on the United States."

But absent from the report was any discussion about the international treaty context and Britain's obligations to disarm under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

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