The Conservatives in Brighton: Cuts may hit defence commitments

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S defence commitments may have to be reduced because of the deep cuts in public expenditure, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, said yesterday.

He faced warnings from hostile delegates that the cuts already planned in Options for Change to take account of the 'peace dividend' would leave the armed forces overstretched.

Mr Rifkind has been told by the Treasury to make further cuts in the pounds 24.5bn defence budget for 1993-4. Asked how it could be achieved, Mr Rifkind said: 'Any level of expenditure determines what you do . . . If you reduced commitments, you could reduce the resources. The problem is trying to do too much.'

The commitments which could be cut include Royal Navy ships in the eastern Atlantic, the deployment of Tactical Air-to-Surface Missiles (TASMS) to replace free- fall nuclear bombs, or British forces in Belize, Cyprus and Hong Kong. Britain has given a commitment to the Nepalese government that it will maintain the Gurkhas, reduced to two battalions, after the withdrawal from Hong Kong in 1997.

After the defence debate, Mr Rifkind made it clear that the European Fighter Aircraft project would not be affected by the cuts in the three-year spending review. Britain had already spent more than pounds 1bn on the prototype, due to fly in November, and the cost of building the aircraft would fall near the turn of the century. The German threat to withdraw from the four-nation project has put it in doubt. Yesterday, Mr Rifkind refused to make any public commitment before a review is complete in November. But he has made it clear to colleagues that he would prefer Britain to proceed with EFA, even if Italy and Spain also withdrew.

He told the conference the project was 'crucially important' to the RAF, which would need a replacement for its Phantoms and Jaguars. Although the Soviet threat had reduced, advanced combat aircraft from the former Soviet Union were being sold to Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq.

The Treasury has its sights on the project, but Mr Rifkind made it clear he would be fighting hard for the jet, on which thousands of jobs in the aerospace industry depend. The review by the four nations will look at cheaper options.

Volker Ruhe, the German defence minister, had questioned the need for an aircraft as sophisticated as the EFA. Mr Rifkind said: 'In the case of the UK, we have to take into account the likelihood that sometime in the next 30 years, EFA will be needed, not just as an insurance policy. The likelihood is that we will have to use it.'

Mr Rifkind denied reports that Rosyth dockyard had lost to Devonport the bid to refit the Trident submarines. He said no decision had been reached, and the Navy Board was due to report by Christmas.

During the debate, there were repeated warnings from ex-servicemen that the armed forces were bitter over the cuts they were suffering.

Mark Tennant (Moray West and Banff), a former member of the Parachute Regiment, called on the Secretary of State to resist pressure to abolish the regimental system.

May Beaumont-Schofield (Barnsley East), the mother of a soldier, urged Mr Rifkind not to send British troops to the Yugoslav republics to play 'pig in the middle' between the Serbs and Bosnians.

She said Archie Hamilton, the defence minister, had said they would be able to take 'appropriate action' if fired upon. 'I hope every soldier has a good solicitor,' she said.