Hoon will order review of defence cuts

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Indy Politics

GEOFFREY HOON'S first task as the new Secretary of State for Defence will be to demand an assessment of whether the Treasury's cuts have gone too deep into Britain's defences.

GEOFFREY HOON'S first task as the new Secretary of State for Defence will be to demand an assessment of whether the Treasury's cuts have gone too deep into Britain's defences.

Mr Hoon has been put in the Ministry of Defence to carry out the strategy laid down by Downing Street and Lord Robertson. Regarded as a loyal, modernising Blairite, Mr Hoon was clearly preferred over John Reid, the former defence minister.

Defence is never easy for Labour politicians. Lord Robertson may have been the exception, but Mr Hoon will be expected to keep defence from rising in importance in the eyes of focus groups in the run-up to the next election.

Lord Robertson rejected claims that his Strategic Defence Review had weakened the armed forces, insisting that it had made the three services more able to face the challenges of the post-Cold War era.

The ending of the Soviet threat meant that Britain needed a smaller land army, but the Kosovo conflict proved the importance of the threat afforded by Nato's massive ground forces.

The revelation that members of Britain's volunteer force, the Territorial Army, have been put on alert for call-up to carry out a peace-keeping role in Kosovo has now raised suspicions that the army is suffering from "overstretch" and cannot cope with its commitments.

Mr Hoon is certain to resist the Tory claims that a larger standing army is now required. But if peace collapses in Northern Ireland, the Army's commitments will increase, and the pressure for more spending on defence will grow.

There are other big long-term commitments on the horizon - possible orders for new aircraft carriers; improvements to Britain's "heavy lift" capability, to put the armed forces into battle more quickly; the new Eurofighter to replace the RAF's Tornados; and perhaps the replacement or modernisation of Britain's force of Trident nuclear submarines for the next century.

Britain's role in Europe will also be awkward to manage - developing the European defence pillar within Nato while retaining the special relationship with the United States.

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