London — Britain is to replace its aging Polaris missiles with an entirely new Trident missile system by the mid-1990s. The four Resolution-class submarines, which have carried Britain's nuclear deterrent since 1968 will be replaced by five or six new British-built submarines. They will carry American-built Trident missiles designed to deliver new British-built nuclear warheads at distances of up to 4,000 miles -- well beyond the 2,800 mile range of Polaris.
The long-awaited announcement, by Secretary of Defense Francis Pym July 15, comes from a government widely seen as more hawkish than the previous Labour government. And it followed an exchange of letters about Trident missile plans between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Carter July 10. The announcement, which came rather suddenly, was apparently precipitated by fears of a press leak.
Debate had centered on whether to modernize the Polaris, which had already been improved by a $:1 billion ($2.35 billion) war- head program code-named Chevaline, or to chose one of the newest and most sophisticated systems available in the West -- at a price of $:5 billion ($11.75 billion).
In defending the increased spending, Mr. Pym said that the cost would be spread over five years and that 70 percent of it would be spent in Britain -- which he billed as good news for Britain's ailing economy.
He also argued that a strategic deterrent independent of outside control was essential. "Until genuine wide-reaching multilateral arms control can be negotiated," the secretary told the House of Commons, "any diminution in the pattern and structure of our wholly defensive capability must increase rather than reduce the risk of war, especially at a time when the Soviet Union is building up its massive military strength."
Opposition defense spokesman William Rodgers, however, said many members of Parliament were "deeply skeptical" about the program, especially because of its cost.
Mr. Rodgers, who has stood aside as the Labour Party's left wing has plunged more deeply into the growing antinuclear campaign here, argued that "the case for buying Trident has not been made out and we simply cannot approve it."
But passage of the program seems assured by the Labour's solid majority in Parliament.
At the heart of the matter is the question of how strong Britain's deterrent force should be. The Trident program, argues Col. Jonathan Alford of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, will "substantially increase Britain's nuclear capability when it doesn't need to do so."
But if, in the next 30 years, there were to be "a major shift in American isolationism" and Britain had no independent deterrent, "We would feel awfully naked," Col. Alford told the Monitor.
Arguing an "admittedly Gaullist" line, he feels that a deterrent independent of NATO control -- although not one as costly as Trident -- is needed to give Britain "a bargaining position vis-a-vis the soviet Union."
The 65,000-pound Trident, set to replace the 35,000-pound Polaris in the United States, first went to sea with the US Navy last year. It carries up to eight independently targeted warheads.