Britain to announce military cuts as austerity measures loom

19th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain is to scrap major defence assets like its flagship aircraft carrier and fleet of Harrier jets in a defence review being announced Tuesday as part of stinging, across-the-board government cuts.

Prime Minister David Cameron will tell the House of Commons from 1430 GMT the HMS Ark Royal is to be decommissioned almost immediately, while a decision on a replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent is set to be delayed.

In total, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is facing cuts of around eight percent from its 37 billion pound (42 billion euro, 58 billion dollar) budget in the defence review.

It comes ahead of a sweeping programme of wider reductions of up to 25 percent in most government departments which will be unveiled in a comprehensive spending review Wednesday.

Cameron's coalition government, which took power in May, is battling to reduce public sector borrowing from 149 billion pounds to 20 billion pounds by 2015-16.

The decision to axe Ark Royal earlier than the 2014 date originally planned -- confirmed by government sources -- will leave Britain without an aircraft carrier capable of launching jets for around a decade.

It will be 2020 before two new aircraft carriers -- which are going ahead in part because it would be more expensive to scrap pre-agreed contracts than to go ahead with them -- can be used for this purpose.

But Cameron defended himself against any suggestion that military strength was being sacrificed for economic reasons.

"You're not a strong and well-defended country unless you have strong and well-defended finances as well as armed forces," he said on a visit to a military base outside London ahead of the announcement to parliament.

"We will make sure that our troops in Afghanistan get every single piece of equipment and support that they need because the work they are doing is vital for our national security.

"We will be making a modest contribution to dealing with the appalling state of our national finances by making sure that what we spend on defence reduces, but reduces by a small amount."

Britain is the second-biggest contributor of foreign troops in Afghanistan 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 late Monday to discuss the defence review, telling him Britain would remain a "first-rate military power and a robust ally of the United States."

Britain "remained committed to meeting our responsibilities in NATO and would continue to work closely with the US on the full range of current security priorities," Cameron told Obama, according to a Downing Street statement.

The Trident decision is expected to be delayed for up to five years until after the next general election.

This is reportedly to avoid a split between Cameron's Conservatives and their junior coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, who oppose it.

The army, air force and navy all face cuts -- reports suggest the army could lose several thousand troops plus tanks, the air force will see bases closed and the navy will see manpower cuts.

The defence review, the first of its kind for 12 years, comes the day after the government launched a new national security strategy.

This highlighted international terrorism and cyber attacks among the biggest threats to Britain along with natural hazards like flu pandemics and foreign military crises which may involve the country.

© 2010 AFP

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