The government is believed to be about to abandon a commitment to one of its most important nuclear weapons after publication of the defence White Paper yesterday.
The future of tactical air-to-surface missiles to replace the ageing arsenal of free-fall bombs at the end of the century was thrown into doubt by the omission of any commitment to deploy them. The White Paper merely mentions studies into the possible replacement of the WE-177 bombs.
Labour and Liberal Democrat spokesmen predicted that the Government would abandon the deployment of TASMs because the need for mid-range nuclear weapons had disappeared with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
But the Government announced that the long-awaited order for a fourth Trident ballistic missile submarine with Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering at Barrow-in Furness would go ahead although ministers are considering using the missiles as a tactical weapon. That could lead to a substantial cut in the warheads each missile carries.
Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, confirmed that the Government was prepared to consider reducing the number of warheads below the 128 on each boat which it believes is a minimum deterrent.
He is fighting a rearguard action against the Treasury, which is seeking deeper cuts in spending for next year. Mr Rifkind estimated that defence would produce a 'peace dividend' of 3bn in cuts from planned spending over the coming years.
But Tory right-wingers want bigger savings. John Townend, chairman of the backbench defence committee, said: 'There is an opportunity in the defence sector following the collapse of the Communist empire in Eastern Europe to see what peace dividend is available.'
The White Paper redefines defence strategy, with a new emphasis on 'promoting the UK's wider security interests'. In his introduction, Mr Rifkind says the Ministry of Defence has carried out a 'fundamental reassessment of the potential for conflict within and outside Europe and how this should be reflected in defence strategy, policy and the structure of the armed forces.' But the findings of that study are not given.
The White Paper contains details of the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), Nato's elite, quick-reaction force, which Britain will lead, and stresses the need to respond to unexpected worldwide crises.
It redefines the main 'pillars' of defence strategy and has essays on key issues, including the role of women. The Armed Forces Minister, Archie Hamilton, said yesterday that in addition to plans for women to fly fast jets, the ministry was considering employing women as front-line combat troops in the infantry, Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Marines, and on board submarines, although he was 'uncertain' about the likely result.
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