MPs seek a full defence review

Click to follow
IF ARMY cuts continue Britain will not be able to justify its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, MPs said yesterday, write Christopher Bellamy and Colin Brown.

The U-turn on cuts in the armed forces announced last week has still left British forces overstretched, warned the cross-party Commons Defence Committee. Its report intensified the pressure on the Government to carry out a fundamental review of defence commitments.

'The Government is carrying out a review, but it dare not admit it,' said one senior member. 'What will go next - Belize? Our bases in Cyprus? We just don't have a policy.'

Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, who inherited the cuts strategy in Options for Change, appeared determined last night to hold the line against further change, in spite of the reprieve for four regiments.

And in what looked like an attempt to distract attention from the committee report, Mr Rifkind announced a decision to keep open for the time being the Devonport and Rosyth dockyards, after heavy lobbying against the threatened closure of one of them.

The committee understands that implementation of the Vance-Owen peace plan in Bosnia would require up to 25,000 troops to police 10 provinces. Britain's share would probably be a brigade of 5,000, leading to 'chronic overstretch' becoming the 'normal state of affairs'.

The committee attacked accounting rules under which only the Defence Ministry's costs are considered in planning. The whole cost to the Treasury, including welfare payments, should be taken into account. If it was, 'there is no doubt that retaining the regiments would save the country money', said Sir Nicholas Bonsor, its chairman.

However, the report's main conclusion, leaked two weeks ago, was that 'in the light of the chronic overstretch being experienced by the Army, which shows no sign of abating, we recommend that the Government cancel all amalgamations or disbandments of UK infantry battalions currently planned.'

Sir Nicholas said: 'There is absolutely no leeway even after the reprieves.' The report says that in Northern Ireland, the Scots Guards have been working a 113-hour week. The 2nd Battalion, the Light Infantry had been to Ulster four times in two years.

But the report also warned that the effectiveness of armoured and artillery units is threatened because of their increased use as infantry. Recently, 30 per cent of the troops acting as infantry in Ulster were from the Royal Artillery.

And it attacked the cut in the cavalry's armoured reconnaissance regiments from five to two. Armoured reconnaissance, with light tanks such as the Scimitars in use in Bosnia, is crucial to peace-keeping operations.

Defence Committee. Second Report - Britain's Army for the 90s: Commitments and Resources. HMSO, pounds 14.70

(Graph omitted)