World events 'signal defence cuts warning'

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THE GOVERNMENT'S programme of sweeping defence cuts should be reviewed in the light of new commitments, the all-party Commons Select Committee on Defence urged in a critical report yesterday.

The committee said there had been significant strategic changes that were unforeseen when the cuts were first proposed in 1990, such as the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, the potentially violent break-up of the Soviet Union, growing instability in the near and Middle East and the growing military commitment of the UN.

The report criticises as 'barely credible' a statement to the committee by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, that none of the developments changed the original assumptions 'in any fundamental sense'.

The committee said: 'This implies that the 'key choices' made in 1990 have, by hook or by crook, proved to have been the right ones, and have produced solutions robust and flexible enough to cope with unforeseen changes.

'We are not convinced that all the plans originally announced in 1990 - the halving of the submarine fleet, halving of the Tornado bomber force, halving of the Royal Armoured Corps and so on - would look as plausible now as they did then, even to the Ministry,' the report said.

'The time has now indeed come to stand back and take stock of the totality of the proposals for British Armed Forces for the next decade, in the light of recent changes in the strategic environment, and of pressures on the defence budget.'

Dr David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, said: 'This report has highlighted the fundamental flaw in the Government's defence policy: the lack of a proper strategy and its inflexibility in responding to changes in the world.'

The report is a foretaste of more harsh criticisms. Ministry of Defence officials were subjected to tough questioning during a hearing last week on whether troop battalions were being overstretched.

One committee member said that officials were unable to provide satisfactory answers when questioned over whether Britain would be able to respond to a United Nations request for a peace-keeping force in, for example, Macedonia.

Defence Committee: First Report - Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992; HMSO; pounds 23.50.