Britain takes axe to armed forces in savings push
Britain is to shrink its armed forces and scrap key assets like its flagship aircraft carrier, it said Tuesday, in a defence review which comes as part of stinging overall public sector cuts.
Prime Minister David Cameron said 17,000 service personnel would go from the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy by 2015 -- but vowed there would be "no cut whatsoever" to the level of support for forces in Afghanistan.
As part of eight percent cuts to the 37 billion pound (42 billion euro, 58 billion dollar) Ministry of Defence (MoD) budget, the Royal Navy's flagship HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier is also being scrapped immediately along with Britain's fleet of Harrier jets.
The government has delayed a decision on renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent until 2016, although Cameron stressed that he wanted to "retain and renew" it.
Cameron said his government had inherited a 38 billion pound "black hole" in the defence budget when it took power in May.
"We cannot go on like this," he told a packed House of Commons.
"Britain has traditionally punched above its weight in the world and we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come.
"But we need to be more thoughtful, more strategic, and more coordinated in the way we advance our interests and protect our national security and that is what this review sets out to achieve."
The announcements came ahead of a sweeping programme of reductions of up to 25 percent in most government departments which will be unveiled in a comprehensive spending review Wednesday.
Cameron's coalition government is battling to reduce public sector borrowing from 149 billion pounds to 20 billion pounds by 2015-16.
Army numbers will be cut by 7,000 to 95,500; the navy will fall 5,000 to 30,000 and the Royal Air Force will decrease by 5,000 to 33,000.
Other major cuts include reducing the numbers of tanks and heavy artillery by about 40 percent, plus cutting the number of civil servants in the MoD by 25,000.
The government is also bringing all Britain's 20,000 troops back from bases in Germany by 2020. They have been there since the end of World War II throughout the Cold War in case trouble erupts on the European mainland.
The leader of the main opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, described the review as "hastily prepared" and "simply not credible".
But the professional head of Britain's armed forces, Sir Jock Stirrup, told the BBC that while the cuts were far from ideal, they were necessary given the country's economic situation.
"Of course we would rather have sustained (previous) capability all the way through," he said.
"But you have to make difficult choices when you're in these sorts of financial circumstances and our focus has to be on Afghanistan."
Cameron insisted that, despite the deep cuts, Britain's defence budget would remain the fourth-largest in the world and would meet NATO's target for members to spend more than two percent of GDP on defence for the next four years.
There were also announcements of fresh spending in the review, the first of its kind for 12 years.
Cameron notably promised 650 million pounds over the next four years for a national cyber security programme, highlighted in Monday's new national security strategy as a "tier one" threat.
The decision to axe Ark Royal earlier than the 2014 date originally planned will leave Britain without an aircraft carrier capable of launching jets for around a decade.
It will be 2020 before two new aircraft carriers -- ordered in part because it would be more expensive to scrap pre-agreed contracts -- can be used for this purpose.
Britain has 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, making it the second-biggest contributor of foreign forces after the United States.
News of the cuts have caused concern in Washington, prompting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to question their possible impact on NATO.
Cameron called President Barack Obama on Monday to reassure him that Britain would remain a "first-rate military power and a robust ally of the United States", his Downing Street office said.
© 2010 AFP