LONDON (Reuters) - Britain announced for the first time Wednesday that it had set a limit on its nuclear weapons stockpile, at 225 warheads, and said it would re-examine its policy on using nuclear weapons.
The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government said the announcement, timed to coincide with a U.N. nuclear non-proliferation conference in New York, was intended to build trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states and to contribute to worldwide nuclear arms reduction efforts.
Britain had until now disclosed only the number of operationally available nuclear warheads for its Trident missile-armed submarine fleet, and had given no figure for the overall stockpile.
“In the future our overall stockpile will not exceed 225 nuclear warheads,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament.
The ceiling on operationally available warheads would stay at 160, he said. The extra warheads allow for “processing, maintenance and logistic management,” officials said.
Hague said the new government would review Britain’s policy on when it would consider using nuclear weapons as part of a defence and security review launched by the new government, which took office after the May 6 election.
Britain had long said it would consider using nuclear weapons only in “extreme circumstances” of self-defence, including the defence of NATO allies, but had been deliberately ambiguous over the precise circumstances of use, he said.
“The time is right to look again at our policy as the U.S. has done,” Hague said, making clear his government remained committed to maintaining a “credible minimum nuclear deterrent.”
President Barack Obama last month unveiled a new policy restricting U.S. use of nuclear weapons.
Britain and other nuclear weapons states are trying to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to countries such as Iran. Those countries often argue that established nuclear powers are doing nothing to reduce their arsenals as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) urges.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute thinktank said Hague’s disclosure “brings the UK into line with what the U.S. and France have already done.”
“The wider significance is that the Western powers want, as part of their contribution to the nuclear disarmament process, to get all the nuclear weapons states to be more transparent, including Russia and China,” he said.
The United States disclosed for the first time this month the size of its nuclear arsenal, saying it had 5,113 warheads.
In 2008, France said it would leave its submarine missile arsenal in place while cutting its stock of air-launched weapons by a third to around 290 warheads.
China and Russia have not revealed their total number of warheads, although Moscow and Washington recently agreed to limit operationally deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550.
Hague’s announcement may ease strains within Britain’s new coalition government over a decision to spend billions of pounds on updating Britain’s nuclear deterrent at a time when the country needs to cut a huge budget deficit.
The centre-right Conservatives support plans to build a new nuclear-armed submarine fleet. The centre-left Lib Dems, the junior coalition partner, wanted to look at cheaper alternatives but have agreed to opt out of any vote on the issue.
Britain has the smallest arsenal of the five legally recognized nuclear weapons states — the United States, Russia, China and France. The previous Labour government said it could consider reducing Britain’s warheads further as part of a multilateral negotiation.
Editing by David Stamp