Britain slashes defence budget by 8%, shrink troops number

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday unveiled plans to slash the defence budget by eight per cent and drastically cut numbers in the armed forces under which 25,000 Ministry of Defence staff and 17,000 from military would be reduced.

Last Updated: Oct 20, 2010, 00:21 AM IST

London: British Prime Minister David
Cameron on Tuesday unveiled plans to slash the defence budget by
eight per cent and drastically cut numbers in the armed forces under which 25,000 Ministry of Defence staff and 17,000 from military would be reduced.

The Prime Minister told the Commons "the Army will be
reduced by 7,000, the Navy by 5,000 and the RAF by another
5,000. Civilian jobs at the Ministry of Defence will drop by
25,000."

Cameron published Tuesday the first defense review since 1998, intended to redefine strategy and help clear the country`s crippling debts.

He said at least 2.6 billion pounds ($4 billion) per year will be cut from the 37 billion pound ($59 billion) defense budget, meaning Britain will immediately scrap an aging aircraft carrier and some fast jets.

Cameron told lawmakers a total of 7,000 army troop positions would be sacrificed, and others cuts made to navy and air force personnel.

He says a 20 billion pound ($30 billion) nuclear submarine upgrade will be delayed until after a 2015 national election.

Britain will lose thousands of troops, build new aircraft carriers — without new fighter jets — and delay a multibillion pound (dollar) upgrade to its nuclear deterrent under sweeping defense cuts being announced Tuesday following the first major military review in more than a decade.

Ahead of a speech to Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron told troops in London that Britain will remain a major global power, despite fears among allies that the austerity plans could diminish the country`s military might.

Cameron is scheduled to outline the details of cuts likely to total as much as 3 billion pounds ($4.8 billion) from the defense ministry`s annual budget of about 37 billion pounds ($59 billion).

In the most eye-catching move, Britain is expected to press ahead with a 5 billion pound (US$8 billion) program to build two flagship new aircraft carriers — but won`t equip them with British fighter jets for about a decade.

It means the vast vessels will either sail without aircraft, or carry French and US jets — a decision the main opposition Labour Party described as out of the ordinary.

"We will be an absolutely front rank military power," Cameron promised, speaking at the Permanent Joint Headquarters, in London. "We will make sure that Britain is well defended and we have a set of armed forces that actually are fit for the modern world."

Military cutbacks come a day before Treasury chief George Osborne`s long-anticipated announcement of a government-wide program to drastically cut department budgets and welfare bills.

The largest cuts to public spending since World War II are aimed at virtually eliminating Britain`s deficit, which stands at over 10 percent of gross domestic product.

While Cameron pledges to safeguard funding for British forces in Afghanistan, the US has already raised worries that cuts could leave its ally unable to take on a major role in military missions in the future.

"This is not a time where you can slacken in the need to keep strong and to invest in your military," said Jim Townsend, the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO.

In a phone call with President Barack Obama late on Monday, Cameron promised that Britain would continue to be "a robust ally of the United States," despite the budget constraints.

Obama told his British counterpart he hoped the changes would allow the UK to "retain the full spectrum of military capabilities that permits our forces to partner effectively together around the world."

Ian Kearns, an analyst at London`s Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank, said Britain may find itself unable to fight alongside US forces in the future if it can`t invest in the same sophisticated technology. "If one ally uses better technology than its allies, interoperability becomes quite different," Kearns said.

Cameron was expected to confirm that more than 7,000 army troops, and personnel from the air force and navy will be cut from Britain`s ranks of about 175,000. He is likely to confirm the aging aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and a fleet of Harrier jets will be immediately taken out of service.

An order for 138 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, which are mainly being built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, is also likely to be slashed.

Relics of the Cold War — including tanks and heavy artillery — will be sacrificed as Britain looks to focus on threats from al Qaeda-related terrorism and bolster its cyber defenses. Britain is likely to offer increased funding to its special forces, and will announce a 500 million pound ($795 million) package for efforts against cyber terrorism.

Defense Secretary Liam Fox said the UK needed a military which was "flexible enough to adapt to the new threats, rather than locked into the post-Cold War projects that we had in the past."

Cameron has vowed to replace Britain`s fleet of four Trident nuclear-missile-carrying submarines, but is expected to confirm that the 20 billion pound ($30 billion) program will be delayed. It would mean the submarines would only come into service from 2027, and that the costs would be paid after Britain`s debts are cleared.

Menzies Campbell, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats — the junior partner in Cameron`s Conservative-led coalition — said the delay should lead to a wider nuclear rethink.

"It will allow the opportunity to keep nuclear policy under review, to explore the possibilities of cooperation with the French, and even to consider other alternatives to like for like replacement of Trident," he said.

Decisions on the cuts were taken by Britain`s national security council, a committee of ministers, military commanders and intelligence chiefs set up by Cameron after he took office in May.

Cameron`s office said the country`s next defense review will take place in 2015, after the country`s next national election.

Bureau Report