Leading Article: Much snipping, little debating

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'A SHARP sword in a steady hand' is the Ministry of Defence's stirring heading above the first chapter of yesterday's White Paper. 'The United Kingdom,' it goes on to say, 'remains one of the world's most formidable military powers' - and there is much more in this vein. The morale-boosting is necessary. Proud though the British are of their armed forces' performance in Bosnia, overall confidence within the services has been sapped by the cuts required by the 1990 White Paper Options for Change. It is being further eroded by the prospect of yet more pruning following a new study of defence costs.

Options for Change was presented as a programme for reshaping the three services in the light of the new post-Cold War realities. In essence, the West no longer faced a massive threat from the Soviet Union, but the world had become a more unstable place. The new Russia looked friendlier then than it does now. Regrettably the Options changes, of which the army and Royal Navy bore the brunt, were not preceded by a full and public debate about this country's future defence needs and their relationship to foreign policy. The suspicion lingered that they were Treasury-led.

If Options for Change concentrated on the 'teeth' of the three services, the new review causing such apprehension, called Front Line First, is concerned with the 'tail'. Its aim is, to quote the White Paper, 'to find further ways of reducing the costs of supporting our front line forces, from 1996-97 onwards, without reducing their military capability'. Ministers will shortly be discussing the findings of 33 separate studies into different sectors. Decisions are expected in July. About 20,000 military and civilian jobs are thought to be at risk.

The thinking behind the new review is sound. Military tails tend to grow. MoD headquarters is notoriously overstaffed. There is a superfluity of generals, admirals and other senior ranks. One staff college rather than three could reduce petty inter-service rivalry and promote co-operation. Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, promised yesterday that the 'teeth' would not be affected by the new cuts. He will be held to that: not just by anxious Tory MPs, but by the Labour leader, John Smith, who shows signs of cheekily wanting to emerge as the services' friend.

Mr Smith has a point when he says there have been too many piecemeal cuts, adding his voice to those calling for a full defence review. The real difficulty, as the White Paper acknowledges, is in foreseeing whether Russia, with its still massive conventional and nuclear forces, will remain more or less friendly, or revert to hostility and expansionism. A possible response to that uncertainty would be to create a more flexible military structure, with greater emphasis on reserves. Yet if reserves are not even called upon to serve in Bosnia, do they have any real raison d'etre? Such fundamental questions need to be aired. Four years on from the fall of Communism, that debate has not yet taken place.