Inside Parliament: Lords attack 'salami-slicing' of defence budget

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Former chiefs of the Defence Staff yesterday warned against the takeover of the Ministry of Defence by accountants, claiming Britain's armed forces had been reduced to a point where a lengthy campaign such as the Falklands or in Bosnia could not be sustained.

Field Marshal Lord Bramall told peers that had it not been for the chiefs and professional service heads, morale within the forces would not have survived the 'constant salami-slicing' of defence spending.

It had been they, 'not a posse of managers and accountants who have kept up this confidence and maintained morale and made successes like San Carlos Bay, Goose Green, Tumbledown and the Gulf, but it has often been a close-run thing'.

Lord Bramall's attack on the over-centralisation of forces management and the increasing domination of accountants came as peers debated the 1993 Defence Estimates - containing further cuts - before breaking for the summer. Three former chiefs of the Defence Staff took part, using the chance to air military grievances that the inevitable peerage affords.

Picking up a remark by junior defence minister Viscount Cranborne that the MoD was not planning for 'two Falklands campaigns at the same time', Lord Bramall questioned the capacity to mount even one. There had been 'cheeseparing' on ammunition, training, spares and other logistical back-up. 'One is worried about any operation for any length of time anywhere . . . It is one reason, amongst many others, for our very hesitant attitude to any extension of operations in Bosnia.'

Lord Bramall, chief from 1982 to 1985, warned: 'Civil servants working primarily in the interests of expediency and balancing the Treasury books must not be allowed to take over completely from the doers, otherwise we are storing up dire trouble for ourselves.'

Marshal of the RAF Lord Craig of Radley clearly found it hard to reconcile his own negotiations as a service head and Chief of the Defence Staff, 1988- 91, with an earlier ministerial statement that it was the chiefs' view that the right choices had been made to 'face up to the challenges which confront us. Are we really to believe that the First Sea Lord believes there is no further use for a conventional submarine? Or that the Chief of Air Staff is content that there should be only 100 fighters?' Lord Craig said the 'major erosion' of air defences coupled with any air crew losses in conflict would leave 'not just The Few who won the Battle of Britain, but too few'.

Former minister Lord Chalfont said cuts in formation training were such that he knew of divisional commanders who had never commanded a division and brigadiers who had never commanded a brigade.

Lord Cranborne acknowledged that the match between resources and commitments was 'a tight one'. The MoD's answer, in its own jargon, is 'multiple earmarking'.

No one seriously argued that the direct threat to the UK had done anything but recede, yet paradoxically the world was more unstable, Lord Cranborne said. He dismissed Labour's call for a full-scale defence review at a time when flexibility and continuous adaptability were at a premium as 'evidence of a Maginot train of thought'.

Both Houses of Parliament are now in recess until the autumn.