Defence White Paper: Armed forces lauded as 'match for any in world': Christopher Bellamy finds proposals in the White Paper reiterate plans that have already been announced

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A TRIBUTE to the professionalism of Britain's armed forces is paid in the introduction to the defence White Paper. It says that 'in terms of training, leadership and experience (they) are a match for any in the world. Our armed forces are widely regarded . . . as a valuable and prestigious national asset. The possession of such an asset is not a luxury; and it is not something that we should surrender without grave injury to the security and reputation of this country'.

This gave official support to the view expressed by some that in global security affairs Britain should 'punch above its weight'.

The White Paper reiterated the view of earlier years that 'we have seen a review of major commitments flowing from the end of the Cold War. But the potential calls on our armed forces remain significant and our planning has to take account of the possibility that they may increase if our hopes for greater stability are not fulfilled'.

The document also largely reiterated plans already announced. But it noted minor changes to cash plans for 1994-95, 1995-96 and 1996- 97, to take account of the transfer to a new Cabinet Office Vote from 1 April of provision for the security and intelligence services. These have each been revised downwards by about pounds 600m to pounds 2.289bn, pounds 2.213bn and pounds 2.223bn respectively.

The White Paper maintains the uncertainty over the cuts needed to bring 1996-97 spending into line with available cash. It repeats the formula that 'the budget set for 1996-97 is pounds 420m less than the previous plan for 1995-96'. This takes no account of inflation, leading experts to surmise that the savings needed amount to some pounds 750m.

The defence costs study ('Front Line First') was launched last 1 December and its findings are due to be announced in July. The White Paper lists the 33 areas where the Ministry of Defence judged there was a chance that costs could be reduced significantly without damaging front-line combat power.

A team was set up to examine each of these areas. The 20 major studies include security; defence intelligence; RAF structure and manning - whether the RAF should be brought back from Germany, for example; and medical - whether the three services each needed a medical organisation.

Minor studies include music, animals and vets, the meteorological office, chaplains, lawyers and uniforms.

Another study, also not due to report until midsummer, addresses the future of the reserve forces. More widespread use of reserves could greatly reduce the burden on regular troops but poses social and political problems.

A consultative document setting out proposals for future use of reserves was published last October. In the light of Gulf war experience, the aim was to introduce new legislation to enable reserves to be called out more quickly and flexibly. The consultation period ended on 23 November, with 500 replies received from regular and reserve service people and employers. Employers were concerned that more flexible call-out would take key staff from them and wanted compensation if they were called away.

The proposals also included a 'high-readiness reserve' available for call-out very quickly. However, some felt this would be elitist and divisive.

The paper stresses that reserves will continue to support regular forces and that 'we should plan to make fuller use of reserves in operational roles in peacetime'.

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