By Mohammed Abbas and Rhys Jones
LONDON May 22 Britain moved a step closer to renewing its Trident nuclear weapons system on Tuesday, awarding 350 million pounds worth of contracts to design a new generation of submarines that critics say are the result of outdated, Cold War thinking.
The Successor class submarine would be used to replace the four Vanguard class vessels currently carrying Britain's Trident nuclear missiles, but a debate has raged about whether like-for-like renewal at an estimated cost of up to 20 billion pounds ($31.5 billion) is necessary.
The ruling Conservative Party is pushing for Britain's nuclear capability to be maintained, but their Liberal Democrat junior partners in coalition government are pushing for alternatives, with some arguing that current capability - the ability to obliterate Moscow - is a hangover from the Cold War.
The decision to award Successor design contracts to defence firms BAE Systems, Babcock and Rolls Royce appears to set Britain on course to maintaining its nuclear potency.
"This government is committed to maintaining a continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent. The contracts announced today .... symbolise an important step towards renewing our nation's nuclear deterrent into the 2060s," Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, a Conservative, said in a statement.
A final decision on the Trident system's renewal is not expected until 2016, a year after parliamentary elections, and Lib Dems insist that design contracts do not represent a commitment to like-for-like renewal.
However, some say it is unlikely that cash-strapped Britain would spend 350 million pounds on designs it would later ditch.
The largest share of the design contracts, worth 328 million pounds, went to BAE's maritime unit. Babcock received a 15 million pound portion and Rolls Royce got a 4 million pound deal.
"It's without commitment in theory, but of course it is with commitment in practice. We wouldn't be spending this kind of money on design if it didn't look as if it was going to go forward," said Eric Grove, director of the University of Salford's Centre for International Security and War studies.
The Defence Ministry said the deals would sustain or create 1,900 jobs at sites across Britain and that engineers at the companies would work with it on the design of the submarines, which will use a new nuclear propulsion system.
There is room for compromise, and studies have suggested that Britain could still maintain an effective nuclear deterrent while perhaps reducing the number of warheads or reducing the number of submarines used in the system.
Reports have emerged that the Lib Dems want a more radical downgrading of Trident, in particular a departure from the so-called "Moscow doctrine" - the ability for Britain to act alone against Russia or another nation of similar power if need be.
"It is unthinkable today that Britain would contemplate the destruction of the heavily populated capital of Russia - or of any other city," wrote Lib Dem grandee and former party leader Menzies Campbell in the Financial Times newspaper last week.
"It is no longer enough to plan as if the cold war had never ended and mutually assured destruction, or a variant of it, were still necessary," he added, calling for a downgrade but not complete decommissioning of Britain's nuclear capability.
A senior Lib Dem source pointed to Campbell's views as representative of the party's thinking on Trident.
Minister of State for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey, a Lib Dem, is expected to submit a review of alternatives to Prime Minister David Cameron by the end of this year.
Harvey has downplayed the threat posed by other countries, which Trident is designed to counter, and instead highlighted that posed by non-state actors. U.S. President Barack Obama in 2010 said the possibility of "terrorist organisation obtaining a nuclear weapon" was the single biggest threat to U.S. security.
Still, analysts struggle to see credible alternatives to Trident if Britain wants to maintain its current clout in geopolitical affairs.
While some dismiss the Moscow doctrine as a Cold War throwback, others point to Britain's fraught ties with Russia in recent years, Moscow's increasingly tense relations with NATO and President Vladimir Putin's plans to beef up his military.