Top officers face axe in 'leaner' MoD

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The number of senior officers in Britain’s armed forces is likely to be cut as part of sweeping measures to tackle a £37 billion black hole in the defence budget.

The thinning-out of the military hierachy was one of the main proposals presented by Liam Fox in a keynote speech today in which he called for the Ministry of Defence to be leaner, less centralised and more transparent.

Discussions have also been held within the MoD on whether the current six-month tour in Afghanistan should be extended to fit in with the longer (nine-month) tour of the American forces, and whether certain units need to be out in the frontline more frequently than they are. However, the latter would mean breaking the current recommended interval between deployments.

The Defence Secretary ruled out a merger between the Army, RAF and Royal Navy, one of the more drastic measures on offer to slash costs. But he said: “We will consider whether the current senior rank structure across the services is appropriate for the post-SDSR [ongoing strategic defence and security review] world. We cannot demand efficiency from the lower ranks while exempting those at the top."

The MoD would be reorganised into three branches – policy and strategy, the armed forces, and procurement and estates. At the same time a Defence Reform Unit will be set up under Lord Levene to guide the “hard thinking” needed to complement the defence and security review which must "put the Cold War to bed" and concentrate on future dangers to the UK rather than the threats of the past.

The necessay reforms will have to take place at a time of “difficult and painful” cuts made necessary, at least partly, claimed Dr Fox, because of the "ghastly fact" of a “dangerous deficit” left by the Labour Government with a £37 billion “unfunded liability”.

The MoD faces having its £36.9 billion annual budget cut by between 10 per cent and 20 per cent as part of economies across Whitehall. In what is seen as a move to placate worried commanders, Dr Fox stated that the new unit will work with the Chief of Defence Staff, and the heads of the three services to give them more responsibility in the management of the services.

Speaking at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in London Dr Fox stated that a “radical agenda for change” was needed to take advantage of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to create a department fit for the UK’s needs.

“Fundamental assumptions” about tour lengths and intervals between deployment had to be challenged, “taking into account the varying pressures on our personnel resulting from widely varying missions”, said Dr Fox.

Dr Fox said he was reminded while visiting Afghanistan this week that supporting British forces on operations had to take priority over spending on staff in Whitehall.

"It brought home to me once again that the prime purpose of what we are doing is to make sure that our Armed Forces on the frontline have everything they need, and all the support they require, to carry out their mission successfully and safely. That means that the backroom sometimes has to do without to make sure that the frontline gets what it wants.”

While in opposition Dr Fox had advocated cutting the MoD’s running costs by 25 per cent and been critical of their being 85,000 civil servants while the Army was just over 100,000 strong. However, asked yesterday how many civil service jobs he expected to go, the Defence Secretary said he could not put a figure on it. It would, he insisted, be “root and branch reform” and it was “much more complex” than merely shedding civilian posts.

The Shadow Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said Dr Fox had said nothing of substance: "What he's effectively doing is softening us up for cuts that he opposed in opposition. He can't even tell us whether the MoD budget is going to have to pay for the full costs of the Trident nuclear deterrent." Previously the Trident renewal costs – estimated at £20bn – were funded directly by the Treasury.

Mr Ainsworth said he was worried that not enough time had been put aside for a proper defence review – and that it appeared to be "Treasury-led". He agreed that tour lengths should be looked at but he warned against cutting civilian staff too quickly as it could mean their jobs would have to be "backfilled" by uniformed personnel.

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