Defence White Paper: Cuts 'will not affect front-line strength': Rifkind says fighting capability of armed forces will be protected in latest round of savings targeted on support costs

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CUTS IN defence spending and personnel will not affect the front-line fighting strength of British forces, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, said yesterday.

He added that Britain remained 'one of the world's most formidable military powers', one of only four, along with the United States, France and Russia, able to deploy a full range of land, sea and air forces.

Mr Rifkind was launching the 1994 Defence White Paper, which has been overshadowed by reports of impending cuts under the defence costs study, known as 'Front Line First'.

There was a muted response by Conservative MPs, preoccupied by the looming defeats for the Government in next month's local elections and the European elections in June. Many were grateful that the fresh cuts would be delayed until after the voting took place. 'We're more interested in whether Major is going to survive a leadership challenge,' one leading right- wing Tory MP said.

David Clark, the Labour defence spokesman, who flies to Bosnia today, attacked the White Paper as 'a charade which conceals the planned defence cuts to be announced in July'. The opening paragraphs of the White Paper were clearly intended to reassure service personnel whose morale was at risk from reports of further big cuts to overall defence manpower.

The White Paper itself, which is issued annually, contained 'no major new announcements', Mr Rifkind admitted. This was because decisions on the future front-line strength of the forces had already been announced and were being implemented, and the defence costs study (DCS) was due to report when ready.

Mr Rifkind said that, in addition to the 33 studies mentioned in the White Paper, there had been 3,000 recommendations from 'ordinary soldiers, sailors, airmen and civil servants in the MoD'. Defence sources said that the 33 official studies had produced 55,000 proposals and with the others this would take 'an awful lot of time to wade through'.

The proposals are to be submitted to ministers in the next two weeks, and the DCS is not expected to report before the end of June or July.

Mr Rifkind stressed three main elements in the White Paper: the increase in defence contracts, bilateral and multilateral, with countries in eastern Europe; progress in implementing the Options for Change proposals, which dated from 1990; and the emphasis on Britain's position as 'one of the most formidable military powers in the world at present'. Only the US, France and Russia could deploy 'as wide a range' of forces.

'It is the Government's intention that that should remain the case, not only for this year but for many years to come,' Mr Rifkind continued.

Mr Rifkind said 'Front Line First' was designed to find savings 'to enhance, to improve yet further, the fighting capability of our armed forces' - an approach endorsed by the Cabinet last year.

Asked why he had not used the term 'review' to describe the studies which went beyond Options for Change, he said: 'I'm not afraid of the word at all. It is a review of defence support costs. Most people who talk of a 'review' - have been talking of a review of defence and foreign policy. We are not proposing to alter the kind of commitments. The task we are involved in at the moment is to look at defence costs.'

Mr Rifkind said the 3,000 proposals from the armed forces and civil servants for more efficient support of the front line were 'unprecedented'. He reacted angrily to suggestions that the study had been undertaken behind closed doors.

'We could hardly have been having a review behind closed doors if we've already had some 3,000 recommendations from ordinary soldiers, sailors, airmen and civil servants in the MoD,' he said.

Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994, Cmnd. 2550, April 1994; HMSO; pounds 9.50.

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