Row looms over extra Navy cuts: Defence announcement greeted with gloom

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THE GOVERNMENT was facing a new defence row yesterday after the Ministry of Defence announced that the Navy was to be cut by 5,000 men by the end of the decade.

Downing Street admitted it was caught off guard by the proposed cuts disclosed by MoD officials and there were rumblings of discontent among Tory backbenchers. Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Tory chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Defence, which has been highly critical of past defence cuts, said he had not been expecting further cuts in the Navy at this time.

Alan Clark, the former Minister of State for Defence Procurement, said: 'It fills me with gloom. It is highly undesirable to reduce the strength of the Royal Navy any further. There comes a point where it won't be able to fulfil its function. The Navy is the service to which one has to turn at times of serious crisis.

'If you want to take money from their allocation and give it to infantry - who seem to be used as some kind of gendarmerie wearing blue berets to act as moving targets in any destination that the UN chooses to send them - the money has to come from somewhere and our national defence is less capable.'

Lord Hill-Norton, a former Admiral of the Fleet, attacked the plan as 'the height of folly', on BBC Radio. He said: 'The Navy was going to be reduced under the disgraceful document Options for Change, to a number that was far too small in ships and people. This compounds the felony by reducing 5,000 men from a number that was already much too small. This bears no relation to any strategic requirement by the Chiefs of Staff, much less by the Navy Board and the First Sea Lord. It is entirely dictated by the Treasury.'

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman and a member of the select committee, accused the MoD of 'marching to the beat of the Treasury drum'.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, accused the Government of trying to slip the announcement out at dead of night. The MoD announced in a Commons written answer, on the eve of the Easter recess, that there would be 2,300 redundancies in the Navy as part of the post-Cold War cuts in the White Paper, Options for Change.

But callers to the MoD were also told that the Royal Navy manpower would be reduced to 50,000 by the end of the decade, 5,000 below the total envisaged in the defence White Paper. With MPs away from Westminster for their holidays, the MoD avoided any immediate row, but there is likely to be strong reaction when MPs return.