Tories say defence cuts can go no deeper: Navy loses four submarines and five frigates and RAF a Tornado squadron as Rifkind trims spending by pounds 1bn

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The Independent Online
ANGRY CONSERVATIVE MPs last night warned Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, that further reductions in the pounds 23.5bn defence budget will be resisted, after yesterday's announcement of deep cuts in submarines, frigates, destroyers and Tornado fighters.

Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, faced Tory wrath after disclosing the cuts in the defence White Paper, Defending the Future.

Nine senior Tory MPs - enough to put the Government's majority at risk - made it clear the Government could face a serious rebellion if the Treasury sought further cuts in the annual spending review.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Tory chairman of the Commons defence select committee, said many Tory MPs believed no further cuts could be made. Winston Churchill, a Tory member of the committee, told Mr Rifkind he could not conceal it was part of a 'relentless rundown' in defence.

The Royal Navy bore the brunt of the pounds 1bn cuts, with the axe falling most heavily on weapons judged to be no longer needed because of the reduced threat from the former Soviet Union. Four submarines, built at a cost of pounds 900m, are to be sold, leased, or 'mothballed'; the surface fleet is to be cut by five vessels to 35 frigates and destroyers; 13 Tornado F3 fighters are to be cut; 23 Squadron is to disbanded with the F3 fighter force cut from seven to six squadrons; and the surface-to-air missile (SAM) replacing the Bloodhound is to be abandoned.

The potential waste of taxpayers' money by withdrawing the four diesel-powered submarines before they have been fully commissioned is likely to be investigated by the cross- party Commons Public Accounts Committee. But it was defended by Mr Rifkind on the grounds that the collapse of the Warsaw Pact countries and of the threat in the North Atlantic could not have been foreseen.

The Army had borne the brunt of earlier cuts following the Options for Change review.

Mr Rifkind rejected Labour demands for a fundamental defence review, but the White Paper included a warning that more redundancies across all three services were likely.

The Defence Secretary emphasised that the Chiefs of Staff, who have threatened rebellion over defence cuts in the past, supported the revised package. However, there could be further cuts if ministers decide to protect some social security spending.

The Tory MPs who will lobby against renewed defence cuts are concerned that Britain's seat on the UN Security Council could be put at risk if Britain fails to meet its defence commitments.

Their pressure will strengthen Mr Rifkind's hand in fighting the Treasury, but other Cabinet ministers will look to defence to avoid cuts in their own budgets.

The White Paper said the reduced risk from the former Soviet Union had been replaced by uncertainties in former Soviet republics, additional expensive demands by the UN for peace-keeping in areas such as the former Yugoslavia, and the continuing threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

The document sought to redefine Britain's defence strategy to deal with threats outside the Nato theatre in Europe, which could require a more mobile force.

It left open some key decisions: the updating of 400 Challenger 1 tanks is expected to be abandoned in favour of ordering an extra 200 Challenger 2 tanks; and the replacement of the ageing free-fall nuclear bomb by tactical air-to-surface missiles (TASMs) remained in doubt. The Ministry of Defence is known to favour deploying a sub-strategic nuclear weapon on the Trident fleet of four nuclear submarines. Officials denied this would involve buying a new missile system, but there were unconfirmed reports that Britain is seeking to buy Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US, the type fired at Iraq last week.

Archie Hamilton, the former Minister for the Armed Forces, renewed his call for the troops deployed in Northern Ireland to be reduced. But Mr Rifkind firmly ruled that out following protests by Ulster Unionist leaders.

Cuts in the 19,000 troops in Ulster to meet commitments elsewhere in the world 'will not happen', Mr Rifkind said on Channel 4.

'Northern Ireland is part of the UK. It must be the first call upon British forces,' he said.

In spite of the cuts, the ministry next year will employ 145,000 civilians - and only 109,000 soldiers.

Details, page 8

Leading article, page 21

Andrew Marr, page 23

BAe-GEC talks called off, page 25

View from City Road, page 26

(Photograph omitted)