Hoon to scrap 19,500 armed forces jobs

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Indy Politics

The British military faces one of the most radical overhauls in its history following sweeping cuts announced by the Government yesterday.

In what he claimed were moves to finally bury the mentality of the Cold War and face up to the conflicts of the 21st century, the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, unveiled drastic reductions in the numbers of aircraft, warships, tanks and the infantry. Around 19,500 jobs will go ­ 1,500 each from the Army and Navy, 7,500 from the RAF, and 10,000 MoD civil servants.

The number of the Army's infantry battalions will be cut from 40 to 36 and regiments will be merged, with some famous "cap badges", such as Black Watch and the Royal Scots disappearing. The number of the Army's main battle tanks, the Challenger 2, will be reduced by 84, and the AS90 artillery pieces by between 40 and 48.

Mr Hoon said the comparatively placid security situation in Northern Ireland had freed up troops for other duties.

The RAF, bearing the brunt of the cuts, will see its base at Coltishall in Norfolk closed, and 62 out of 309 operational strike aircraft ­ 46 Jaguars and 16 F3 Tornados ­ phased out. Adding warplanes no longer in service, but on emergency standby, raises the total to 134. A quarter of the fast jet crews, 69 out of 290, will also be axed.

The Royal Navy will lose 12 ships, including three Type 42 destroyers ­ HMS Cardiff , Newcastle and Glasgow ­ and three Type 23 frigates ­ HMS Norfolk , Marlborough and Grafton . The number of nuclear attack submarines will drop from 11 to eight.

At the same time, Mr Hoon said, there will be investment in new technology including unmanned planes and surveillance equipment, as well as Special Forces ­ the SAS and SBS ­ needed to combat the new enemy, international terrorism and so-called rogue states.

However, the Government remains locked into purchasing a second tranche of 89 more Eurofighters at a cost of £4.5bn. Many defence experts believe there is no need for the aircraft, especially with British investment in the American Joint Strike Fighter. However, penalty clauses for cancellation means the order will go through.

The news of the cuts came under immediate attack from opposition parties and some Labour backbenchers, with the Commons Defence Committee declaring it will summon Mr Hoon to explain his decision.

Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the committee, challenged Mr Hoon: "Please explain who was the idiot who thinks you can cut the infantry at a time when the pressure on them is enormous. Have you consulted Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams or maybe the Fire Brigades Union whether they are going to behave themselves in the next few years?"

Nicholas Soames, the shadow Defence Secretary, accused the Government of being "reckless". He said the servicemen and women whose battalions were being disbanded, planes grounded and ships scrapped, would feel "betrayed politically and morally" and the nation would be dismayed at their "underhand" treatment. The cuts, he maintained, would seriously damage Britain's military capability for several years while awaiting the arrival of "largely unproven" technology.

But Mr Hoon made a robust defence of the review, stating "the threats to Britain's interests in the 21st century are far more complex than was foreseen following the disintegration of the Soviet forces. We measured numbers of people and platforms in the Cold War because we were preparing for an essentially attritional campaign, holding back Soviet forces. That kind of campaign has fortunately passed into history as technology has moved on."

Mr Hoon presented the defence review at the Ministry of Defence accompanied by General Sir Michael Walker, the chief of defence staff, and General Sir Mike Jackson, the chief of general staff, and the head of the Army. The aim was to show that the restructuring had the backing of the service chiefs, who insisted the measures were necessary. There was similar support from the head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Alan West, and the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup.

General Walker said: "The numbers are stark ­ some 20,000 in total. This is partly as a result of forces' structure changes but more importantly, because we have identified systems that will enable us to [function]... with substantially fewer people."

General Jackson acknowledged the reforms would mean the loss of some famous cap badges when the details are announced in the autumn, but he suggested historic names could be preserved "in brackets" after the new name. "We will strive to maintain famous names and cherished traditions wherever possible," he said.

'It will have a drastic influence locally'

One of the last remaining Battle of Britain airfields to fly fighters, RAF Coltishall, which opened in 1940, has a distinguished history. Home to such legendary names as Sir Douglas Bader, Group Captains "Sailor" Malan and John "Cat's Eyes" Cunnigham, one of its Spitfires was the first to shoot down a German bomber over home shores in 1940.

On 26 April 1941, 22 people, including three of its pilots, were killed, when the Ferry Inn at Horning was bombed.

Yesterday Donna Beall, the pub's owner, said people were "absolutely gutted" at the news it was to close by the end of 2006. The first of the four Jaguar squadrons now at Coltishall arrived in 1974. Its pilots were in Operation Desert Storm and the fight to eject Iraq from Kuwait. Despite their age, the Jaguar fighter-bombers worked as low-level tank-busters.

But to the Norfolk community which has been its home for more than six decades, the closure will have a much more personal effect. They have, in the words of local Conservative councillor for Broadland District Alan Mallett, been good neighbours, quick to help in times of crisis, and villagers were "very sad if not surprised" at the news. "The only surprise is that it's a year or so earlier than we were led to believe," he said.

Mr Mallett added: "It is very difficult. It will cost the economy at least £20m a year. When you think there are 1,250 personnel and they have husbands or wives and children. That community exceeds the population of Coltishall village. Then you have 250 civilian workers. It is going to have a drastic influence on the local economy."

One shopkeeper, he said, had estimated it would cost him 20 per cent of his turnover.

Terri Judd