New UK defence minister Hammond has tough task

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Philip Hammond was named Britain's new defence minister on Friday following the resignation of Liam Fox, officials said, taking on the challenge of two overseas conflicts and major budget cuts.

The 55-year-old Conservative lawmaker was appointed transport minister when the coalition government took office in May 2010, but has now been catapulted into one of the toughest cabinet jobs.

Downing Street confirmed his appointment at the Ministry of Defence, saying his position at the department of transport would be filled by Justine Greening, a junior finance minister.

Hammond comes from a business background and has not covered defence before, despite serving in numerous departments during the Conservative party's 13 years of opposition, which began as he entered the House of Commons in 1997.

The Oxford-educated father-of-three becomes Britain's seventh defence secretary in ten years following Fox's resignation over his relationship with close friend Adam Werritty.

He takes over at an extremely sensitive time.

Britain has about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led operation against the Taliban, although they are due to be withdrawn by 2015.

A further 2,000 British personnel are involved in the international mission in Libya designed to protect civilians from Moamer Kadhafi's forces.

"There are few more important jobs than secretary of state for defence, particularly when we've got our troops engaged on active service in two difficult campaigns," junior defence minister Peter Luff told the BBC earlier.

"Libya looks like it's winding down, thank heavens, after the actions there. But Afghanistan is still a very lively important theatre where our very brave servicemen and women are risking everything still for queen and country."

Hammond now also has the job of implementing cuts to the defence budget of about eight percent in real terms over the next four years, as part of the government's programme of deficit reduction.

Fox fought hard to ensure the cuts were less than many other government departments, but he also displayed a determination to confront military top brass about years of mismanagement and overspending.

He had also begun a major reform of how defence is structured and managed that needs now to be pushed through, including shrinking the defence board that takes major decisions and creating a new joint forces command.

"Fundamentally you want a very good solid person in there, who is prepared to roll his sleeves up and get on with the detail," said Conservative lawmaker Bob Stewart, a former colonel in the British army.

Hammond was brought up in Essex, outside London, and attended a local school before studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University.

He worked in a variety of business environments, including manufacturing, property and construction and oil and gas, before becoming an MP in 1997.

© 2011 AFP

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