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Former army chief condemns defence cuts

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 September 2010

The former head of the army, General Sir Mike Jackson, tells Channel 4 News the government needs to analyse Britain's place in the world before making big defence cuts.

The former head of the British army, General Sir Mike Jackson, condemns defence cuts, as soldiers return from Afghanistan. The 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment, who returned from a combat tour in Afghanistan, march with bayonets fixed through the London suburb of Barking (Reuters)

As part of the government's comprehensive spending review (CSR), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is facing cuts of 10-20 per cent.

But Sir Mike said the Defence Secretary Liam Fox needed an analysis was needed before cuts were made.

He said: "I seem to recall Dr Fox in his first speech saying there will be cuts - an interesting opening gambit and not one I care for. It seems to treat it as inevitable, rather than saying after sober, proper reflection 'we don't need to do as much as we do at the moment'.

"We have an army of about 100,000. For a country of our size and place in the world, it seems to me that it is as small as I would want it to be thought of.

"I don't see as often as I want a broader reflection on defence's place in the fabric of the nation. Even in these straitened times, the government is spending £700bn of taxpayers' money, £36bn of that on defence. When put in that context, I'm not sure I am willing to concede that cuts are inevitable.

"I hope the defence review isn't simply a budget-cutting exercise, but stems from an objective and careful look at where Britain wants to be on the world stage."

Dr Fox will make an announcement about cuts in late October to coincide with the Chancellor's CSR. Among the issues he is considering are army numbers, the £20bn renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent and the £5bn programme for two new aircraft carriers.

Is the government preparing to dump Trident?
In the cuts jungle there's much interest in a crunch Whitehall meeting due very soon on Trident, writes political editor Gary Gibbon

The prime minister's official spokesman was reluctant to commit for or against the policy of "continuous at sea defence" for Britain's nuclear deterrent when he was asked about the issue this morning, following on the FT story.

So is the government actually ready to dump the principle of "continuous at sea defence?" Well some in the government might be, but what we are talking about here, I am told, is not a full-blown blasting through the principle but more of an accidental relaxation of it.

The government wants to shunt some of the Trident replacement costs further off a year or two to make the MoD budget add up. Delaying the replacement subs means running the risk that the current subs, through wear and tear, end up in dock for maintenance more often and that gaps in "continuous at sea defence" could crop up.

Read more

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, who advised the former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, told Channel 4 News he believed there were likely to be cuts in at least one of these areas.

"I don't think the sums add up if you want to maintain army manpower at current levels, go ahead with the Trident renewal programme on the current schedule and go ahead with two aircraft carriers."

Dr Paul Cornish, head of the international security programme at the Chatham House think tank, said that to reconfigure the four-submarine Trident programme, "you would need a complete redevelopment programme and that's why I think we'll end up with four boats".

But he told Channel 4 News the aircraft carriers were more vulnerable. "I think there is a much more serious debate about whether to go ahead because at high levels people are looking and this and thinking that what this means is we have a powerful-looking navy, but can we afford the jets?

"You'd have to have a carrier group to go with it. Can you afford to deploy a package of this sort? I think of all the candidates for cuts, the aircraft carriers are the most likely."

Dr Cornish agreed with Sir Mike that it was vital an analysis of Britain's defence role was carried out before a decision on cuts was made, but he said he had reached the conclusion the MoD's strategic defence and security review was "Treasury driven".

"If you want to have three armed services then we have the minimum at the moment. I'm sceptical there are big savings out there."

Soldiers discharged
The MoD confirmed today that some soldiers serving in Afghanistan could be chosen for discharge because the army, after years of successful recruitment, was now over strength, with 102,500 personnel.

Those serving on the frontline will not be affected, but some of their colleagues could be given a year's notice when they return to Britain once their tour is over.

Under a process known as manning control points (MCP), people discharged will be entitled to a pay-off of £9,500 and an immediate pension if they have served for more than 16 years.

An MoD spokeswoman said MCP was meant to ensure the right balance of skills in trades and experience and could not be used to reduce the overall size of the army.

She added: "The army is close to being fully manned for the first time in some years. To ensure that there is the right balance of soldiers for current operations, a small number could be required to leave the army under the manning control points. Those who are selected to leave will receive support to help them with the transition back to civilian life."

An initial assessment has been made that 300 to 500 soldiers will leave in the 2011/12 financial year as a result of MCP, according to the MoD website.

Heavy armour "no use"
Prof Chalmers, from the Royal United Services Institute, said that whatever the size of the eventual cuts at the MoD, it would "feel like 15-20 per cent" because of previous over-commitments. "The equipment programme is only affordable if the defence budget is increased every year in real terms."

He said there were two areas where it was clear there would be "significant reductions": Britain's tank fleet in Germany and fast jets. "Heavy armour is no use in places like Afghanistan. Tanks are very hard to use when there are concerns about collateral damage, which is an issue in Helmand."

Prof Chalmers added that the issues surrounding Trident and aircraft carriers were industrial as well as military, with Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria expecting to be building Trident's replacement.

The two parties in the coalition government fought the election with different approaches to Trident. The Conservatives argued for a replacement, while the Liberal Democrats were opposed. Dr Fox wants to retain Britain's nuclear deterrent, but could opt for three, rather than four, submarines.

The two aircraft carriers are being built in four places: Clydeside, Rosyth in Fife, Portsmouth and Appledore in Devon. One of the companies involved in the project, BAE Systems, has been asked to consider a number of options, including the possibility there could be just one carrier or even none.

An MoD spokeswoman said: "Everything is on the table. In the middle of the strategic defence review everything is being looked at and carriers are no exception."

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