New York Times
July 9, 1998

Britain's New Military Look: Leaner and More Flexible


ONDON -- Britain said Wednesday that it was reshaping its armed forces to cut costs and meet the increasing need for speedy and flexible deployment to trouble spots abroad.

The plans, which will trim $1.1 billion from the current $36 billion defense budget over the next three years, are designed for a world in which U.N. and NATO peacekeeping challenges are replacing cold-war confrontations as the model military engagement.

Britain will reduce its number of reserve troops and cut materiel like tanks, warplanes and open-ocean submarines. It will strengthen its rapid reaction forces with two new super-carriers, attack helicopters, amphibious machinery and Harrier jump jets. The military will buy four long-range transport planes and four roll-on, roll-off container ships to move personnel and equipment.

The moves take into account the disappearance of the threat of Soviet invasion as Europe's principal concern and the emergence of crises like the Persian Gulf war and the unrest in Bosnia, where Britain has been the United States' closest and most militarily dependable ally.

Gerald Segal, director of studies at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said that Wednesday's announcement "will insure, at least for a generation, that Britain will rank second only to the United States in deployable modern military power."

Announcing the reforms to the House of Commons Wednesday afternoon, Defense Secretary George Robertson said the army, navy and air force would be developing ways to join together hastily to act as peacekeepers and front-line troops. "In the post-Cold War world we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us," he said.

Paul Beaver of Jane's Defense Weekly said the strategic review was the most important in Britain in 30 years and answered demands that had become more insistent. "It means if there is a problem in Kosovo which brews up next week," he said, "it won't take a month to organize the dispatch of forces there, and the armed forces will have the capability to put people in the field."

The plan also maintains Britain's nuclear deterrent, a commitment that held no surprise but served as a reminder of how far the Labor Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair has moved from its traditions. During its years out of power in the 1970s and 1980s, leaders of its left wing campaigned for nuclear disarmament by Britain and called for the country's Trident submarines to be brought ashore. Wednesday, Robertson said the Tridents with their ballistic missiles would remain on patrol, though the overall number of operationally available nuclear warheads would be reduced from 300 to 200.

Robertson was portrayed as having effectively resisted demands for greater cuts by Treasury Minister Gordon Brown, who is eager to direct more spending at the Labor government's priorities of health and education. But the opposition Conservatives complained that the cuts were too severe. "These cuts are a huge blow to our forces, which have an increasingly demanding job to do in an increasingly dangerous world," said John Maples, the Tory spokesman on defense.

The army is to be restructured to improve its ability to train for, mount and sustain distant operations, with two deployable divisions -- one in Britain and the other in Germany, where Britain has 22,000 troops stationed. Robertson also reaffirmed Britain's commitment to buy 232 Eurofighters, the standardized European-built combat plane.


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