Troops left in limbo over role on Rhine

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Britain's new Secretary of state for Defence inspected his troops on the Rhine yesterday, but left them guessing about their future in Germany.

After a flying visit to the Rheindahlen base, which also serves as the headquarters of Nato's Rapid Reaction Corps, George Robertson indicated that pulling British troops out of Germany was one of the options being considered by the current defence review. "No decision has been taken," he said.

The British presence has already been halved since its peak of 59,000 at the end of the Cold War and is set to stabilise at a force 23,000 soldiers by 2002.

By then the RAF will have flown back to Britain. The last Chinook helicopters left RAF Laarbuch yesterday.

Mr Robertson said that all aspects of defence would be examined, including the bases abroad. "I am determined to build a consensus across the political divide in Britain, in order to ensure that defence ceases to be a political football," he said.

Commanders in Germany had hoped that after the cuts which they have suffered in recent years, their units would be spared further upheavals - sentiments with which Mr Robertson appeared to concur. "We have political and military reasons for staying here," Mr Robertson told a German newspaper before his visit.

But yesterday he also suggested that there might also be perfectly good reasons for withdrawal. "There would be long-term savings," he told The Independent.

The economic arguments are complex. According to military planners, Britain simply does not have the facilities at home to cope with an army of its current size. "For anything above a force of 75,000, we need Germany," said Lt-Gen Michael Jackson, the British commander of Nato's Rapid Reaction Corps.

The problem is that there are not enough barracks and training grounds at home, whereas "facilities already exist in Germany on an extremely good deal from the [German] government," Lt-Gen Jackson adds.

Much of the land is provided by Germany free of charge, and the infrastructure is already in place. Without the German bases, the British government would have to spend enormous sums on new barracks at home and cut back the forces savagely at the same time.

There are also strong logistical arguments for keeping troops in Germany. Even if Russia is no longer as big a threat as it once was, British forces are more likely to be required in the future on this side of the English Channel.

And, as the crisis in Bosnia has demonstrated, the German bridgehead continues to play a useful role. Or, as Lt-Gen Jackson puts it, "this is still a very good place to deploy from".

The political justification is slightly more difficult to articulate, because Western politicians are obliged to turn a blind eye in public to the continued Russian threat.

Thus, the political reasons are coded. The British presence in Germany is meant to "signal our solidarity with the Central European nations," Mr Robertson said. Solidarity against who? - Don't ask.

Finally, Britain feels obliged to keep troops on the Continent so as to project her power and preserve her role as Nato's top dog in Europe.

The British presence is therefore portrayed as an "expression of our commitment to Nato", even though that commitment has never been raised in the history of the Alliance.