MPs give warning on 'vulnerability' from defence cuts

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BRITAIN needs new anti-aircraft and anti-ballistic missile defences by the end of the century, and defence cuts are limiting the country's ability to participate in international operations, according to the all-party House of Commons Select Committee on Defence.

The committee also warned that further cuts in the RAF's Strike/Attack force would be unacceptable. At present, RAF aircraft are outclassed by some aircraft in 'potentially unstable areas' and the new Eurofighter 2000, unveiled earlier this month, is needed in service soon.

In a report issued yesterday, the committee said studies into a medium surface-to-air missile and anti-ballistic missile needed 'greater urgency'. RAF aircraft deployed in southern Italy were already 'within notional range of missile attack from potentially hostile countries' like Libya. The committee said that it 'would be dismayed were there to be no prospect of such defences being available by the turn of the century, leaving key installations potentially vulnerable'.

Last week, a report from Lancaster University's Centre for International Security Studies highlighted the threat to Britain, or British forces abroad, from missiles like the Scud, launched from Third World countries.

Government sources stressed yesterday that the committee was more concerned about the threat to aircraft deployed abroad than about a missile threat to Britain. Any new surface-to-air missile, it said, should have 'as advanced as possible an anti-ballistic missile capability'.

The select committee visited RAF units enforcing air-exclusion zones over Bosnia and Iraq, based in Italy and Turkey. Senior officers and politicians had insisted that rather than being overstretched, the RAF merely had 'good management of its resources'.

The committee concluded: 'We are disturbed at the extent to which decisions on UK participation in military operations are henceforth to be distorted by the availability of scarce resources, rather than taken primarily in the light of dictates of national interest and international obligations.'

In a second report, the committee said there was still a need for the new Eurofighter 2000 multi- role aircraft. 'The potential threat to the UK's interests is considerable and perhaps growing,' it said. 'Nations in these potentially unstable areas have very capable aircraft supplied by the former Soviet Union and the West. The RAF have nothing in their inventory that would be a suitable match for these aircraft. The case for a new air superiority fighter is still strong.'

Defence Committee: Fourth report RAF Commitments and Resources; HMSO; pounds 11. Third Report Progress on the Eurofighter 2000 Programme; HMSO; pounds 13.25.