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Britain announces major military cutbacks

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 6:00 PM

LONDON - Washington's closest ally unveiled its deepest military cuts since the end of the Cold War, with a cash-strapped Britain announcing Tuesday that it will withdraw thousands of troops from continental Europe, decommission warships, mothball an entire class of fighter jets and delay upgrading its nuclear arsenal.

The cutbacks would not affect the war in Afghanistan, where British troops make up the second-largest contingent after the United States. Britain said it would invest in more helicopters and armored vehicles to aid military operations there. By also committing to boost combat-ready special forces, officials here are seeking to reassure the Pentagon that Britain will still retain its global role as deputy to Washington's sheriff.

Nevertheless, Britain's most sweeping military review in more than a decade is set to further diminish this nation's military might, particularly as a maritime power. For Washington, the moves amount to a tactical scaling down of military ambition by the one European ally consistently willing to back the United States with firepower in international conflicts, and comes at a time when other NATO members including Germany are also making substantial military cuts.

Senior Pentagon officials were largely supportive of Britain's decisions and expressed confidence that British forces would continue to play a leading role in dealing with problems such as terrorism, the Afghan war, cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation. "We are confident that the U.K. will continue to have the capacity to provide top-tier fighting forces in Afghanistan and other future missions in defense of our shared interests and security," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon's top spokesman.

As part of the plan, 20,000 British forces will withdraw from their post-World War II-era bases in Germany by 2020, and overall, British troops and civilian defense personnel will be slashed by 42,000. The equipment cuts, including the early decommissioning of the Royal Navy's flagship aircraft carrier, will force Britain to forfeit its ability to launch fighter jets from sea until at least 2019. The fleets of Harrier fighter jets - a stalwart of the skies for Britain for 40 years - are being eliminated. The planned Nimrod MRA4 Reconnaissance aircraft, previously billed by the Royal Air Force as a "significant contribution" to the fight against terrorism, is also being scrapped.

Prime Minister David Cameron described the cuts as overdue, given that Britain now faces greater threats from cyber warfare and terrorism than from conventional warfare. But he acknowledged the decision was as much financial as strategic.

Facing a crushing debt load and massive budget deficit, Britain is set to announce Wednesday historic cuts in everything from welfare to child-care benefits. Though the defense budget will suffer less than other areas - with an 8 percent reduction in the $60 billion defense budget over the next four years - Cameron called an ax of some sort unavoidable.

Cameron insisted - and experts agreed - that Britain is not surrendering its status as a global military power and would still have the world's fourth-largest military budget. He said the country would still be able, and willing, to make fast, one-time deployments of up to 30,000 combat troops.

But large and sustained operations such as Afghanistan might prove more difficult, with Britain after 2015 able to shoulder perhaps only about 75 percent of the nearly 10,000 troops it currently has deployed there.

"Britain has traditionally punched above its weight in the world, and we should have no less ambition in the years to come," Cameron told Parliament on Tuesday.

The review, analysts said, was in fact fashioned to avoid jeopardizing Britain's "special relationship" with the United States.

Yet, without question, the cuts will mean a reduction in broader British military might, which observers said could be a source of concern if the United States ever requires aid, say, in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Tanks and heavy artillery are being reduced by 40 percent. Over the next five years, the British army will lose one out of every six deployable brigades.

But of particular concern, critics said, is a decision to move up retirement of Britain's flagship aircraft carrier, the Ark Royal, to as early as this year.

The government will move ahead with the purchase of two new carriers, a decision made partly because canceling the contracts now would be vastly expensive.

Britain also has committed to holding steady on its purchases of the F-35 fighter jet and ballistic missile submarines, both of which are being developed in close conjunction with the U.S. military. "If there are more cuts, that could be a problem because there are a number of places where our defense programs are entwined," said Thomas Mahnken, a Pentagon official in the Bush administration.

In addition, the government said it is delaying a multibillion-dollar investment in its submarine-based nuclear deterrent but remains committed to eventually upgrading the system.

"The short of it is that we will have a smaller military," said Amyas Godfrey, associate fellow that the London-based Royal United Services Institute and a former British intelligence officer. "But it is still our intention to be a small island with global impact able to project our force around the world. And unlike many, like Germany and France, we actually do it."

faiolaa@washpost.com Staff writer Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.

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