LONDON: Britain will build both of its planned aircraft carriers and keep a “wide range” of capabilities, ministers said on Sunday, as they sought to calm fears that this week’s military review would severely degrade the armed forces.
Many analysts say the strategic military review due on Tuesday, the first since 1998, has been rushed and is aimed more at saving money than preparing the military for future threats.
The government is trying to reduce a record budget deficit of more than 10 per cent of national output, and at the same time retain its place as a strong military power in Europe and a capable ally to the United States, which it has backed in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Negotiations between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury over the Strategic Defence and Security Review evolved into a bitter public spat, which ended only late on Friday with the intervention of Prime Minister David Cameron.
A decision on whether to keep a 5.2 billion pound ($8billion) order for two aircraft carriers built by Britain’s BAE Systems, Babcock and France’s Thales, was one of the mains tumbling blocks to finalising the review.
“It would literally cost us more to cancel the things than to go ahead and build them,” finance minister George Osborne told the BBC. Osborne had been seeking a cut of 10 per cent over four years to the Defence Ministry’s budget of 36.9 billion pounds, but on Friday it was confirmed Cameron had sided with the ministry and agreed to a smaller reduction. Analysts point to 7 or 8 per cent.
The review has been completed in less than six months, a fraction of the time of the previous review in 1998. On Sunday, London’s Chatham House think tank added its voice to concerns the review had been rushed and ill-thought out.
“The likelihood must be that the cycle of failed strategy reviews will continue,” wrote Paul Cornish, head of the think tank’s International Security Programme.
“With operational and budgetary requirements pulling indifferent directions, and with such a compressed timetable, it is hard to see how the 2010 strategy review could succeed in the medium to long term,” he said in a report.
Foreign Secretary William Hague sought to counter such criticism, echoed this week by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who voiced concerns that defence cuts by Nato members may go too far.
“We will continue to have a wide range of strategic capabilities and be adapting to the threats of the future, I really do want to stress this,” he told Sky television on Sunday.
He pointed to the threat of cyberattacks — attacks on sensitive computer networks — and terrorism, and said Britain must prepare for the “information age” and not just focus on large “prestige projects”.
His comments confirm analyst reports that a National Security Strategy, expected on Monday, would highlight terrorism and cyberthreats, perhaps to justify the modification or scaling back of major military hardware orders.
It is likely that at least one of the aircraft carriers will be modified to save money and also make them compatible with allies’ aircraft, allowing Britain to share the burden of operating and equipping the vessels.
Analysts say that if both carriers are built, little money will be left for aircraft for them or vessels to accompany them. “They will be aircraft carriers, let us say. They will live up to their name.