Britain to scrap flagship carrier as defence cuts bite

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 also set to be delayed.

In total, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is facing cuts of around eight percent in the defence review.

It comes ahead of a sweeping programme of wider reductions in most government departments being 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 (170 billion euros, 235 billion dollars) to 20 billion pounds by 2015-16 and many departments are facing 25 percent cuts.

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 being introduced 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.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox acknowledged there was "a gap in between" of roughly 10 years but defended the situation in a BBC television interview.

"I feel it is very important to be able to take a long-term view of how Britain projects its influence," he said.

"The thing about the carriers is they will give you sovereign British territory from which to project British air power if we require it.

"In the longer term, we want to get those new carriers which will give us that better capability."

The Trident decision is also 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 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.

Britain is the second-biggest contributor of foreign troops in Afghanistan after the United States and 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 added, according to a Downing Street statement.

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.

Experts have said there are inconsistencies and weaknesses in the plans.

Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley, of military think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told BBC radio it was a "very curious" decision to scrap the Ark Royal given the possible need to intervene overseas as acknowledged Monday.

Paul Cornish of Chatham House added in a report this week: "Reviews of UK security and defence strategy usually fail, either because the mismatch between strategy and budget becomes too great, or because of a failure to identify and anticipate security and defence challenges as they evolve.

"It is unlikely that the 2010 strategy review will be so successful as to entirely disprove this prediction."

© 2010 AFP

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