Budget Aftermath: Extra front-line soldiers and tanks promised

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BRITAIN is to get 3,000 more front-line soldiers, 259 extra Challenger 2 tanks and seven Navy minehunters - in spite of defence budget cuts announced on Tuesday which some analysts calculate at pounds 1.8bn over the three years from 1994-97.

Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, announced that the Army would get the extra tanks, in addition to 127 already ordered. The announcement guarantees about 800 jobs at the Vickers factories at Newcastle and Leeds.

And a review, known as the 'Defence Cost Study', called 'Front- line First', is under way to examine radical solutions as to how the Ministry of Defence can meet its commitments more economically.

The study will involve outsiders from industry and other experts in teams to look for ways of working in a completely new way. They will report to a committee chaired by Jonathan Aitken, Minister of State for Defence Procurement.

Previous initiatives have sought better performance in a given area. This one will look at solutions across the whole ministry. Why should each service have its own doctors and lawyers, for example?

Mr Rifkind also said the RAF would get a mixed fleet of Westland EH-101 and Boeing Chinook helicopters. The new helicopters are years late but after a review the MoD hopes to place a contract for 'dozens' of them next year.

And seven more Navy minehunters - costing around pounds 35m each - would be ordered from a British shipbuilder. So far, the Hunt and Sandown class minehunters have been built by Vospers, of Southampton.

In a crucial speech explaining how the MoD would meet the financial targets set out in Tuesday's Budget, Mr Rifkind told the House of Commons Defence Committee that the 3,000 extra front-line specialists would first be sought from existing support units. If they could not be found there, then he could increase the overall strength of the Army by the necessary amount.

The Army's overall planned strength in the mid-1990s was increased from 116,000 to 119,000 in February, and could now be increased to 122,000 although this is unlikely.

Experience in Bosnia has helped persuade the MoD that operational support units - particularly the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Royal Medical Corps and the Royal Logistic Corps, - needed to be reinforced to do key front-line support jobs.

Mr Rifkind said ' I have been concerned for some time about the strain which (the Armed Forces' heavy engagement on operations) is imposing on all three services and , in particular, on some elements of the Field Army.

'There is a strong case for increasing the planned peacetime establishments of certain Field Army combat and operational and logistic support units to nearer their wartime establishments.'

But the figures issued on Tuesday show remarkable gaps. Defence spending is shown as reducing by pounds 260m in 1994/95 and pounds 520m in 1995/96. No reduction is shown for 1996/97.

However, yesterday Mr Rifkind told the committee that the 1996/97 figure was '4.2 per cent in real terms below the previous 1995/96 figure'.

This formula intrigued defence analysts and the Commons' committee. With a Treasury assumption of 2.5 per cent inflation, the 1995/96 figure of pounds 23.22m should be inflated to pounds 23.8m for 1996/97 to keep up the same military effort. The 'New Plans' figure for the latter year given on Tuesday was pounds 22.79m, suggesting a pounds 1bn cut in that year.

Added to cash cuts of pounds 260m in 1994/95 and pounds 520m in 1995/96, that gives a total defence cut over the three years of pounds 1.8bn.

(Photograph omitted)