Rifkind retreats on regimental cuts

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday reversed some defence cuts, saving four historic regiments and leaving the Army with 5,000 more front-line troops.

The planned merger in September of the Staffordshire and Cheshire regiments, the latter now serving in Bosnia, has been cancelled, as has next year's amalgamation of the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish

Borderers.

The decision - taken according to Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, in the face of 'significant' extra commitments in Bosnia and elsewhere - marked the first retreat from the 1990 Options for Change review.

It came as Whitehall prepares for a reassessment, ordered by John Major, of Britain's overseas military, diplomatic, aid and espionage commitments. That follows Ministry of Defence warnings that deeper cuts in spending would need to be matched by reduced overseas commitments.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said last week that Britain's diplomatic service was undermanned.

Yesterday's announcement was welcomed by Labour, who however saw it as no substitute for a full defence review, and was cheered on the Tory benches.

Army strength will be 3,000 higher than planned in the mid-1990s - 119,000 troops rather than the reduction of 40,000 to 116,000 envisaged. A further 2,000 troops will be redeployed from support functions to front-line roles.

The announcement drew some of the sting from next week's deeply critical report from the Commons Defence Committee, which warns that the Army is seriously overstretched and calls for all amalgamations and suspensions to be halted.

The committee was told last week that implementation of the Vance-Owen plan for Bosnia, which might mean increasing the Army's presence to 6,500 troops, would stretch it to breaking point.

Mr Rifkind said the 'small but sensible adjustment' was needed to cover the extra battalions in Northern Ireland and a near-trebling of contributions to UN peace-keeping forces in Bosnia, Cambodia, Cyprus and elsewhere. The UN had taken on as many commitments in the past two years as in the previous 40, he said.

Army spending will rise by pounds 80m, producing 'difficult decisions' elsewhere, Mr Rifkind said, triggering speculation that navy and RAF procurement will be affected.

Scots MPs also feared that reprieve for two Lowland regiments might be intended to offset closure of the Rosyth naval base.

Although the Defence Committee report does not deal in numbers, recommendations point to the need for at least 125,000 troops. Tom King, a former Defence and Northern Ireland Secretary, said the decision was sensible, but the real extra pressure was from the Ulster commitment.

Regimental defenders, page 2

Andrew Marr, page 23

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