LONDON — PRESIDENT Bush's decision to order cuts in the Trident nuclear submarine program is likely to turn Britain's independent nuclear deterrent into a key issue in the coming general election.
The ruling Conservatives worry that the president's cutback may raise questions about retaining the four British Trident boats, equipped with American-supplied missiles, that are the basis of Britain's deterrent for the next 25 years.
The opposition Labour Party, which is searching for issues on which to challenge the government as an election nears, has accused Prime Minister John Major of encouraging nuclear proliferation by increasing the number of warheads aboard the British deterrent at a time when both Mr. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin say they intend to cut back on their nuclear arsenals.
Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Gerald Kaufman, speaking after Bush's State of the Union address, confirmed that if his party wins the general election expected to be called in April or May it will review Britain's Trident program.
Many Labour members of Parliament say Britain needs only three Trident boats. Others say the Trident program should be scrapped altogether.
"What Britain ought to be doing is talking about reducing the world's nuclear threat through negotiation," Mr. Kaufman said.
He was immediately rebuked by Tom King, the defense minister, for putting party politics ahead of Britain's security.
Speaking the day before President Yeltsin was due to meet Mr. Major for talks in Downing Street, Mr. King said: "We have a huge amount of nuclear weapons lying around the territory of what was the Soviet Union. We have a rising degree of social unrest in parts of the Soviet Union. We have considerable anger in parts of the armed forces over the way they have been treated."
It would be madness, King added, to throw away the one safeguard Britain has - a minimum deterrent.
The government however is open to attack on its use of the word "minimum." Britain's existing Polaris nuclear fleet consists of four boats. The planned four-submarine Trident force would be able to carry nearly three times as many warheads and they would be able to strike much deeper into the former Soviet Union.
The four Polaris boats have a total of 64 missiles, each with a range of 2,875 miles and two or three British-made Chavaline warheads - giving a maximum of 192 warheads.
Four Trident boats would have 64 missiles, each with a range of 6,062 miles and up to eight warheads - giving a maximum of 512.
The Trident fleet is scheduled to begin operations in 1995 and will have a planned operational life of 25 years.
Menzies Cambell, the defense spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party, said that Britain should immediately announce that it would not deploy more warheads on the Trident system than there are on the existing Polaris boats.
King has argued that Britain will need four Trident boats to be able to ensure that at least one is at sea all the time.
White House spokesmen, after Bush's speech, stressed that contracts to supply Britain with Trident missiles would not be affected by changes in US defense procurement policy. The first 23 Trident D-5 missiles are due to be delivered later this year.
The government has nondefense reasons for not wanting to cancel its order for a fourth British-built Trident submarine. It would save around British pounds500 million (roughly $890 million) but cost up to 4,000 jobs in and around the Barrow shipyard, which is located in a parliamentary seat currently held by the Conservatives with a slender majority.
By sticking to the view that a full Trident fleet is essential to Britain's security, the Conservatives may be courting longer-term trouble on another front: international arms control.
Britain's retention of its own independent deterrent has always been controversial. Successive governments have argued that they would not put the United Kingdom deterrent fleet in the balance in East-West disarmament negotiations. But the deeper the cuts the US and Russia make in their arsenals, the stronger the pressure will be on Britain to review its nuclear defense needs.
Labour Party official spokesmen, while conceding that for the time being some kind of Trident fleet is necessary, also argue that retention by Britain and its European neighbor France of their own nuclear deterrents undermines the argument that currently nonnuclear nations should eschew such weapons.
A group of 30 or 40 Labour MPs continue to believe that Britain should renounce nuclear weapons. If Labour were to win the general election with only a modest majority, this group of unilateral nuclear disarmers could expect to have political influence out of proportion to their numbers.