Defence strategy casts doubt on tactical missiles: Christopher Bellamy examines a White Paper that redefines the priorities of the UK's defence plans

The strength of RAF squadrons, home ports of Royal Navy ships and even the budget of the Chief of Defence Intelligence - pounds 98.5m - are no longer secret. The Defence White Paper, published yesterday, gives them all. But there is no mention of a commitment to the 'sub-strategic nuclear deterrent' to replace the RAF's free-fall nuclear bombs at the turn of the century, merely of 'studying possible replacements'.

Many defence experts saw the lack of any reference to the Tactical Air-to-Surface Missile (TASM) in the text or the index as a sign that the Government was quietly 'airbrushing' it out of the picture. With pressure on the defence budget and continued commitment to Trident which, many believe, could have a 'sub-strategic' role, the need for a separate air-launched nuclear missile is looking questionable.

Launching the White Paper yesterday, Mr Rifkind commended the essay on UK defence strategy. Asked if Britain was 'out of step' with its European allies - a clear reference to Germany's withdrawal from the EFA fighter project - he said Britain's position was, historically and strategically, closest to that of France. Both countries were nuclear powers, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and had residual colonial responsibilities. In this, their requirements diverged from their European allies'.

Mr Rifkind said the French had stronger nuclear forces than Britain and were pursuing the development of the Rafale aircraft alone, unlike Britain's commitment to the joint European Fighter Aircraft. This showed that 'the UK is far from gung-ho in these matters . . . and does not seek to aspire to contribute above realistic capabilities'.

Mr Rifkind rebutted suggestions that Germany's decision to withdraw from the European Fighter Aircraft project resulted from a recent divergence of globally-oriented British requirements from those of its European partners: Germany, Italy and Spain.

'That is not a new phenomenon,' he said.

The White Paper redefines the main priorities of UK defence strategy. The strategic nuclear deterrent; the defence of the UK; a contribution to Nato forces in Europe; maritime defence of the eastern Atlantic and the Channel; and limited responsibilities outside the Nato area, have been officially replaced.

The new priorities are to ensure protection and security of the UK and dependent territories, even where there is no major external threat; insuring against any major external threat to the UK and allies, and contributing to promoting Britain's wider security interests through the maintenance of international peace and stability. Each of the three new, overlapping areas embraces all types of forces, Mr Rifkind said yesterday. Every one could imply operations outside the former Nato area.

There are few references to the controversial European Fighter Aircraft. It is mentioned in a chapter on 'Operation Granby: Lessons for the Future', the first official British analysis of the Gulf war, which says 'coalition operations demonstrated the importance of achieving air superiority and confirmed the value of an agile aircraft such as EFA'.

The Gulf war analysis says discrepancies in the speed of the armoured vehicles was one problem, with the older FV432 armoured personnel carriers and armoured reconnaissance vehicles unable to keep up with the more modern Challenger tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles.

The unmanned 'drones' used to spot targets proved unreliable, although they will be replaced by a new one, Phoenix, next year. Although the Army's Lynx helicopters carried out missile attacks on enemy armour, they were not tough enough to act as true attack helicopters, and this will be borne in mind when buying new helicopters. But the Navy's helicopters, armed with Sea Skua missiles, did exceptionally well.

The report also says that the RAF attacked some targets a second time, unnecessarily, because of shortcomings in battle damage assessment.

EFA hopes, page 8

(Table omitted)

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