LONDON, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- Mnisters are considering a plan to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system with cheaper air-launched cruise missiles, it was reported Tuesday.
Labor parliamentarians reported fierce opposition at Monday night's meeting of the Parliamentary Labor Party to government plans to replace Britain's ageing nuclear deterrent. Members of Parliament argued the estimated $35 billion replacement cost could be better spent on public services.
Clare Short, the former international development secretary, wrote in the Independent newspaper there was "enormous unhappiness in the Parliamentary Labor Party." The Trident issue could become the "breaking point" for loyalty to Prime Minister Tony Blair, she said.
Blair has committed himself to replacing the Trident system before the next general election in 2009. However he is facing a battle not only with Labor parliamentarians but with the Treasury, which has signaled its concerns over the high cost and its impact on already stretched public finances.
Ministry of Defense sources told the Independent an alternative under consideration was the use of cruise missiles with nuclear warheads that could be launched from long-range bombers.
Tomahawk cruise missiles, at the cost of $1.8 million each, could be fitted with British-made nuclear warheads and adapted for long-range use. Firing them from aircraft would enable the Ministry of Defense to dispense with the four Trident nuclear submarines, which cost an estimated $1.2 billion a year to maintain.
Defense Secretary John Reid told PLP members no decisions had yet been made; however ministers have privately suggested the decision in principle to replace Trident has already been taken. The argument is now over what type of system would best replace it.
But MPs told Reid even the cheaper cruise missile system would not mollify their opposition.
Michael Meacher, a former minister, said: "Frankly, this is a neocon idea for using tactical nuclear weapons rather than the massive Trident system. It would simply not address our concerns."
He and several other Labor MPs said there should be no replacement for Trident. Meacher said replacing the nuclear system would impede efforts to stop nuclear proliferation. "I don't think you can say we need nuclear weapons if we are saying to Iran you cannot have them," he said.
A parliamentary debate on the issue is expected.