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UPDATE 3-UK to delay major spending decisions on nuclear subs

* UK to delay major spending decisions on nuclear weapons

* Government awaiting outcome of key nuclear conference

* Decision increases doubts over commitment to new system

(Adds comment from Brown’s spokeswoman paragraphs 7,8)

By Adrian Croft

LONDON, July 16 (Reuters) - Britain is to delay major spending decisions on a 20 billion pound ($32.8 billion) replacement for its Trident submarine-based nuclear weapons system until next year, a government official said on Thursday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government wanted to see the outcome of a five-year review conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the United States next May.

“Because of the review conference in May next year, we will delay decisions that involve spending significant sums of money into 2010,” the official said.

He said decisions might be taken at the conference that would affect Britain’s plans given that replacing Trident was a very long-term project.

The decision raises new questions about Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s commitment to proceed with an expensive new weapons system when government borrowing is ballooning due to the recession.

It means key spending decisions on the new weapons system are likely to be delayed until after the next national election, due by early June.

A spokeswoman for Brown said there had been no change in the government’s position on Trident.

“The policy remains as set out in the 2006 white paper (confirming the government’s plans to replace Trident) and there has been no change to the timetable,” she said.

The opposition Conservative party, which like Labour is officially committed to keeping Britain’s nuclear deterrent, leads in the opinion polls.

CONTRACT DELAY

Britain’s parliament gave the go-ahead in 2007 to plans to replace Trident, due to go out of service in the 2020s, with a new system.

The government had been due to place an initial design contract for a new class of submarine towards the end of this year but officials indicated that would now be delayed.

This contract, known as the “initial gate” stage, would have committed the government to spending up to 3 billion pounds, according to trade publications.

Parliament’s influential Foreign Affairs Committee said in a report in June that the government should not move forward with this initial contract until parliament had debated the issue.

John Hutton, the then defence secretary, suggested in April that Trident might be negotiable “at some point” as part of multilateral disarmament negotiations.

Further doubts about the future of Trident and other expensive defence projects were raised last week when the government announced plans for a strategic defence review.

A poll in the Guardian newspaper this week found that 54 percent of voters would prefer Britain abandoned nuclear weapons rather than put money into a new generation of warheads.

Britain set out its strategy on Thursday in the run-up to next May’s review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which aims to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

The government said it could look at further reductions in its nuclear warheads -- but only if the United States and Russia make deeper cuts in their arsenals than those already announced. [ID:nLG145053]

Britain wants to send a signal to countries like Iran that it is sincere about wanting nuclear disarmament as it seeks to encourage Tehran to accept an international offer to halt uranium enrichment in return for trade and other incentives.

The West suspects Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran says it only wants peaceful nuclear power. (Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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