Navy and RAF pay the price to fund Afghan war

Civil servants also in the firing line as Defence Secretary outlines swingeing cuts
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The Independent Online

The RAF and Royal Navy will bear the brunt of swingeing cuts in defence spending to pay for the rapidly rising cost of the war in Afghanistan.

The Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, also announced that 7,500 civil servants will lose their jobs and that the size of the armed forces would be slimmed down.

He set out plans for an extra £900m to support the fight against the Taliban in Helmand and disclosed that the bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan now exceeds £14bn.

The extent of the cuts – which will see one RAF base closed and a second mothballed – was spelt out by Mr Ainsworth in a Commons statement. It brought accusations that Britain's defences were being undermined because of "catastrophic economic mismanagement" by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The cost of fighting foreign wars has traditionally been met from central government coffers to ensure that defence budgets were not affected by emergency deployments of troops.

But as Britain's involvement in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, Mr Ainsworth said economies would have to be found in his ministerial budget.

Up to three squadrons of Harrier and Tornado jet fighters will be axed, resulting in the closure of the RAF base in Cottesmore, Leicestershire.

A fleet of Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft will be taken out of service within months – 12 months earlier than expected – and not replaced for several years. The move leaves a question mark over the future of the RAF base at Kinloss, Moray, and the 1,800 service personnel who work there.

The Royal Navy will have a minesweeper and survey ship scrapped early, as well as losing Lynx and Merlin Mk1 helicopters.

The MoD will lose about 7,500 of its 100,000-strong civilian workforce.

Mr Ainsworth also warned that the number of servicemen and women would be cut by "slowing recruitment" and not rehiring some who are on short-term contracts: "The emphasis will be on prioritising our manpower for our operations in Afghanistan."

The Defence Secretary said some army training would be cut and spending reduced on the maintenance of defence sites.

Mr Ainsworth said the moves would ensure that "those who put themselves in harm's way on our behalf remain properly supported and resourced".

The cash saved will help fund the new £900m increase in spending on military equipment in Afghanistan, which will be spread over three years.

It will pay for 22 Chinook helicopters, 10 of which will arrive in 2012-13, and another C-17 heavy-lift aircraft. More troops will be issued with "state- of-the-art body armour" and night-vision goggles.

Mr Ainsworth also promised that communications within Helmand would be enhanced with more tactical radio and patrol systems, while the number of Reaper drones used to collect intelligence about the Taliban would be increased.

Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, said: "Making cuts to our wider defence capability when we're fighting a war only strengthens the perception that we have a Government that does not give a high priority to the Armed Forces."

He said the Nimrod announcement would leave submarines unprotected and hamper reconnaissance and long-range search and rescue capabilities.

The union Prospect, which represents 9,000 MoD specialist staff, said the cuts threatened the capability of the armed forces.

Steve Jary, its national secretary, said: "Our members report that the department is close to melt-down."

* Two British soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, were killed by a suicide bomber yesterday while on patrol with the Afghan National Army in Helmand Province, the Ministry of Defence said. Next of kin have been informed.

Casualties of war: Where cuts will fall

* RAF Cottesmore, Leicestershire, with 3,500 staff, to shut.

* RAF Kinloss, Moray, with 1,800 staff, to be scaled back.

* Some 7,500 civilian staff to lose jobs, cuts in numbers of service personnel.

* Size of RAF Harrier and Tornado fast-jet forces to be reduced by two or three squadrons.

* Nimrod surveillance aircraft coming out of service a year early.

* Minesweeper, survey ship and naval helicopters axed.