The defence cuts announced yesterday effectively mean that in future Britain will be unable to undertake missions on the scale of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and will need aid from her allies in mounting a major operation to defend the Falkland Islands.
The numbers of troops which can be used for a deployment overseas would be restricted to 30,000 – one-third less than the size of the Iraq invasion force – and then only for a limited time, during which there would be nothing spare for other military operations. A smaller scale deployment, like that in Afghanistan, would be limited to 6,500 – Britain currently has a force of 9,500.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review signals a fundamental change in defence and foreign policy and the end of "wars of liberal intervention" that marked the Tony Blair era. The likes of the Falklands War in 1982, where victory saved Margaret Thatcher's premiership and established her long tenure in Downing Street, also appear to be in the past. Referring to that conflict, the review acknowledged: "Should we need to conduct major operations overseas, it is most likely that we will do so with others."
David Cameron and his ministers have been forced to repeatedly assure the Obama administration that Britain will continue to play her part as a military partner, on the last occasion after US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, expressed deep reservations about the scale of the impending cuts.
Announcing the conclusions of the review yesterday, the Prime Minister insisted the UK would remain a first-rank military power, saying: "Britain has traditionally punched above its weight in the world and we should have no less ambition for our country in the years to come."
He faced an immediate Tory for postponing a decision on the nuclear deterrent, with senior MPs accusing him of bowing to pressure from Liberal Democrat ministers who oppose the replacement of Trident missiles.
Mr Cameron claimed the economies would make vital savings in the defence budget of 8 per cent. However, the sum involved, about £3bn, is less than what has been written off on a single project – the £3.6bn already spent on Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft which were due to come into service next year.
The Afghan operation, where the British commitment is the second largest after that of the Americans, would be "ring-fenced", Mr Cameron said. Speaking in the Commons, he again blamed the need for cutbacks on previous Labour governments having left a "£38bn black hole" in the defence budget. But Julian Lewis, a former Tory defence spokesman, urged him to rethink and hold the key vote on Trident before the election due in 2015. "Will he explain what reason he has for delaying this vital vote into the next parliament, other than to make our nuclear deterrent a political gambling chip to satisfy the Liberal Democrats?" Dr Lewis asked.
Sir Peter Tapsell, the Tory member for Louth and Horncastle, who is the longest-serving MP, said many in the Commons would view the decision to postpone the Trident vote "with great concern", adding: "[It] looks like the subordination of the national interest to political expediency."
James Arbuthnot, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said the plans appeared to "take a real gamble with the short term in order to provide security and stability in the long term".
Richard Ottaway, the Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, asked for reassurances that a planned cut in the Royal Navy's frigate fleet would not lead to a scaling-back of its commitments around the world.
Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP for Harwich, said the cuts marked a "milestone" in Britain's military decline. He added: "We are the sixth largest economy yet we are reduced to the status of being Belgium with nukes. We are catastrophically inept at getting value for money from our defence budget."
Rear-Admiral Terry Loughran, a former commander of HMS Ark Royal, said the decision to scrap the Navy's flagship aircraft carrier and fleet of 80 Harrier jump-jets was "incoherent". The first of two new carriers will enter service in 2016, but will only be configured to carry helicopters – not jets – before being mothballed indefinitely, or sold once the second carrier enters service.
Admiral Loughran said: "It is not the Navy which will be viewed as a laughing stock, it is the nation that will seen as a laughing stock to have provided such a capability [carriers] and then not the aircraft to go on them."
Union leaders reacted angrily to the cutbacks. Bernie Hamilton, of Unite, said last night: "These decisions will cost thousands of skilled jobs and have long-term consequences for the UK's manufacturing base."
How the axe will fall
Announcement Within the next five years the Army is to lose 7,000 troops, The Navy will see its personnel cut by 5,000, some of them Royal Marines, and the RAF by the same number.
Verdict The Navy, which has a total strength of 35,000, and the RAF, 38,000, have proportionately lost more personnel than the Army with 102,000. However after 2015 another 13,000 Army places may go. Some senior Army officers believe the second tranche may not be as severe as now envisaged.
Announcement The Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft will be scrapped.
Verdict The spending review will save just under eight per cent of the defence budget, or around £3bn. This is less than the £3.6bn which is being written off by scrapping the Nimrod MRA4, which was due to come into service next year. The project exemplifies the absurdities of defence procurement. Nineteen were ordered originally, ultimately reduced to nine with the cost of each aircraft going up by 200 per cent. The National Security Council has not said how the maritime capabilities lost will be replaced.
Announcement The Army is to lose 40 per cent of its armour and heavy artillery.
Verdict General Sir David Richards, who is about to take over as the head of the military, had indicated that he was prepared to lose some of his armour. This will amount to around 100 tanks and 200 armoured vehicles. The rationale is that the UK no longer faces the massed armour of the Soviet Union and future land wars will be counter-insurgencies. However, the Canadians and Danes use their mainline battle tank in Afghanistan and find them effective against IEDs.
Announcement Both proposed aircraft carriers are given the go ahead.
Verdict The project has been a bone of contention with the Army and Navy due to the massive costs – estimated to be about £15bn with aircraft and support ships – entailed. Both will now be built, with delays because of modifications, but only one will have aircraft, but not until 2020. The second one will be put on a "state of extended readiness", or, in simple terms, put in mothballs while attempts are made to find a buyer. Meantime, Britain will not have any carrier cover.
Announcement The life of the Vanguard class submarines will be extended and no decision will be taken on replacement until "about 2016".
Verdict This was one of the most controversial of the projects to be addressed by the spending review with the Liberal Democrats long opposed to renewing Trident. What has emerged is a political fudge which has led to deep discontent in the Tory right with MPs accusing David Cameron of caving in to Nick Clegg's party. The unsatisfactory and temporary compromise means added costs in the long run.
Announcement One of the two helicopter carriers currently in service will be scrapped.
Verdict The choice is between HMS Ocean and HMS Illustrious and the strategic advantage of decommissioning either vessel remains unclear, especially as aircraft carrier cover will be lost for a decade.
The helicopter carriers, a relatively low-cost alternative, would be useful in countering the risks detailed in the National Security Strategy, ranging from projecting British influence to dealing with natural calamities.