Britain's role in the world: Biggest defence review for decades

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The Independent Online
The Government yesterday set out its plans for what could be the most fundamental review of defence and foreign policy since Denis Healey withdrew British forces from east of Suez in 1966. The review, Britain's Defence. Securing our Future Together is to be completed in six months - by the "turn of the year", according to George Robertson, the new Secretary of State for Defence.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, was not on the podium at the MoD yesterday, having attended the historic Paris summit on Tuesday, when Nato buried its hatchet with Russia after more than half a century.

The review, Mr Robertson said yesterday, "will be foreign policy-led. We will work jointly with the Foreign Office to establish a policy baseline that will build on our strengths and the best features of existing policies."

The opposition attacked the decision to launch a review so soon after the election. "Tony Blair said we need a period of stability and serious reflection," Nicholas Soames, the former Armed Forces Minister, told The Independent. "Instead, they are rushing headlong into a strategic defence review. The only possible conclusion you can draw is a smaller budget and all that goes with it. A diminution of Britain's role in the world."

In response to questions, Mr Robertson admitted that an increase in the defence budget was unlikely and that some of the most radical ideas, including fusing the three armed services into one, were non- starters. But otherwise he refused to predict the conclusions that the six-month review might reach. He stressed the review would be as open as possible, including widespread participation by people outside the inner sanctum of the MoD.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and Mr Robertson would hold two major seminars "with a wide range of outside experts in the coming weeks to address the policy baseline for the review," he said. "In parallel, I will set up a panel of experts. I will also make arrangements to involve the opposition parties and the Parliamentary Defence committees. I should like all those with ideas - the press and the public as well - with ideas on policy and the best use of resources to put them forward."

If Mr Robertson means what he says, the new Government intends to reappraise Britain's role in the world. But it cannot escape the fact that this is the third major defence review in 10 years. Following Options for Change and Front Line First, conducted under the Tories, the new Government either has to make more fundamental choices - abolishing Britain's commitment to large-scale, "high-intensity" first-division war, relegating the British Army to a second-division gendarm-erie, and possibly scrapping hugely expensive defence programmes like the four-nation Eurofighter project which is expected to cost Britain pounds 15.4 bn.

The last government committed Britain to building 230 Eurofighters, and the new Government remains committed - so far. Alternatively, the Government might give this up but still try to retain Britain's ability to punch above its weight in he world arena - which Mr Robertson praised yesterday.

"There are very few international conflicts where people don't want British troops there," he said. And, without giving away the conclusions of the review, "it is acknowledged that some aspects of high intensity warfare are crucial to peacekeeping. When I was in Bosnia last week, I saw some of the mightiest armour ever deployed deployed there." Those who sought a simplistic choice between retaining the ability to win a high-intensity, pig-iron war, and a peacekeeping gendarmerie were disappointed.

The Government was at pains to stress what it called the "developing consensus on defence and to establish the widest possible shared vision about Brit-ain's future security needs and the tasks of the armed forces."

"I don't want this to be a Labour strategic review. I want it to be Britain's defence review," Mr Robertson said. He said he wanted the nation to come to a common view on defence and Britain's role in the world, and that it should not become, as he put it, "a political football".

The new Government has committed itself to maintaining MoD spending plans for the next two years. Thereafter, anything goes.