Politics: Treasury sinks plans for new aircraft carriers

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TREASURY ministers havesunk George Robertson's plans to make two new aircraft carriers costing pounds 8bn, a key part of his strategic defence review.

The Defence Secretary is being forced by the Treasury to concede that no date should be set for ordering the new warships and no budget allocation will be made for them.

"We didn't have aircraft carriers on our pledge card at the election," said a Treasury source. The Chancellor is targeting the pounds 22bn defence budget for cuts to pay for big increases in health and education spend to answer claims that the Government risks failing to keep its election pledges.

Mr Robertson is still battling to protect his pounds 22bn defence budget from deeper Treasury cuts and he has Tony Blair's backing for keeping all Britain's main commitments, including the nuclear capability with the Trident submarines.

But the Defence Secretary was given a hard grilling by Alistair Darling, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in a bilateral meeting this week, and faces a renewed onslaught from the Treasury team within the Cabinet Committee on Defence and Overseas Policy, which is considering his strategic defence review plans.

"We believe the carriers are part of a coherent plan for making our forces more responsive. But we have a battle on our hands," said a defence source.

Mr Robertson has offered cuts totalling pounds 500m, including controversial savings on front-line units in the Territorial Army reserves, but the Treasury wants more than a pounds 1bn in cuts. It is demanding more value for money, with more effort to sell off valuable MoD land and property, such as surplus grace and favour houses for the "brass hats".

The Defence Secretary has included the big new generation of carriers in his plans to give Britain greater firepower in areas such as the Gulf. They would be similar in size to the American carriers, which can allow conventional jet fighters to operate from their decks.

Britain's fleet of smaller carriers are limited to using the Harrier jump-jets, which had difficulty operating in intense heat in the Gulf zone.

Defence sources said all of the services have been forced to make cuts to afford the improvements.

"There's something in it for everyone," said a source. The RAF could see its combat aircraft reduced, but it will have the bonus of securing the order for the European Fighter Aircraft (EFA), which the Treasury wanted to abandon.

The Army's tank force on the Rhine - formerly the front line against the Soviet forces - will be reduced, but a presence will be maintained to underline Britain's Nato commitment in Europe. Army recruitment is to be stepped up with an extra 3,500 troops, and a sixth rapid deployment brigade is to be established to eliminate "overstretch" among troops forced to do too many overseas tours of duties.

The sources said the army would be a fifth option in New Labour's "new deal" for jobs, but service would be voluntary, and there would be no return to national service.