Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 7 News List

UK plans major changes to military

FIGHTING FIT About 15,000 soldiers will be cut from the navy, army and air force, while modern technology will be used to combat terrorism and enhance flexibility

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LONDON

The UK announced major changes in its armed forces on Wednesday, saying it would cut troops in the navy, army and air force but introduce more advanced technology to fight modern wars against terrorism and to deal with fast-moving crises.

The cuts, trimming about 15,000 soldiers, would not, however, affect the UK's commitment to maintaining its current level of 9,000 soldiers in southern Iraq, deployed in support of US troops farther north, the government said.

In parliament, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the cuts were intended in part to save money and make the UK's armed forces more flexible and efficient.

"The threats to Britain's interests in the 21st century are far more complex than was foreseen following the disintegration of the Soviet empire," Hoon said.

In future, he said, the UK will spend more on weapons like pilotless drones and computer systems to link battlefield units. The Royal Navy is also planning to acquire two aircraft carriers and more modern warships.

Hoon indicated that the cuts would mean shrinking the Royal Air Force to 41,000 from 48,500, the navy to 36,000 from 37,500 and the army to 102,000 from an estimated 108,000. About 10,000 civilian jobs linked to the military are also to be cut.

At the same time, 12 older-model naval vessels and three squadrons of Jaguar warplanes will be retired, Hoon said. One Royal Air Force base at Coltishall in eastern England is to be closed by the end of 2006.

The announcement drew complaints that the measures, intended to save about US$5.2 billion by 2008, would leave UK forces overstretched. Besides Iraq, British troops are deployed in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Northern Ireland.

One Conservative lawmaker, Patrick Mercer, said the troops cuts were "an act of madness created by financial strictures rather than any sort of tactical analysis."

Additionally, Hoon's plans to dismantle four battalions technically numbering around 650 soldiers each could draw criticism from supporters of such renowned regiments as the Black Watch, which is now deployed in Basra in southern Iraq and is rumored to be among those set to be disbanded in their present form or amalgamated with other units.

Angus Robertson, a Scottish nationalist legislator, told a television interviewer, "Why anyone would want to be destroying our historic regiments is just beyond me."

Nicholas Soames, the opposition Conservative defense spokesman, said in Parliament that the military would feel "betrayed politically and morally" by the changes.

The changes have been described by government officials as the most significant in a generation, finally reshaping the UK's armed forces from Cold War thinking that prized numerical strength and large arsenals of tanks, warplanes and ships over flexibility.

"That might have been appropriate for the attritional warfare of the past, but in today's environment, success will be achieved through an ability to act quickly, accurately and decisively, so as to deliver military effect at the right time," Hoon said.

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