With Deficit Looming, Britain Aims for Leaner Armed Forces

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BRITAIN'S defenses are threatened with deep spending cuts as Prime Minister John Major strives to curb a ballooning public debt.

A British pounds3 billion ($4.5 billion) tactical nuclear missile system for the Royal Air Force is to be scrapped, and there have been strong indications from official sources that entire fighter-bomber squadrons and tank regiments will disappear in a bid to save money.

Leaks from the Treasury making it clear that the nation's current defense budget is too high - at British pounds24 billion ($36 billion) - have brought sharp criticism from members of the House of Commons defense committee.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor, the committee chairman, has warned Mr. Major that Britain's defense will be severely undermined if the Treasury gets its way in seeking cuts in troops and materiel.

"Any further Treasury-imposed cuts upon our defense capabilities would result in an unacceptable level of stress upon our hard-pressed defense forces," he wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to the prime minister. "I believe that, were that to happen, there would be a catastrophic loss of morale among our servicemen and damage, which would be almost irretrievable, would be done to our long-term defense capability."

The warning was supported by Lord Bramall, chief of the defense staff, who said on Oct. 15 that the threatened cuts would have a "staggering" effect on the armed services' ability to meet existing commitments.

Sir Nicholas wrote to Major as the Commons prepared to debate Britain's defense needs now that the communist threat in Europe has receded.

Pressure from the Treasury to reduce the British pounds50 billion overall budget deficit appears to be the driving force behind a range of cuts that Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind was recently said to be fighting against.

The opposition Labour Party, in the past happy to see defense spending held under tight control, has also attacked Major.

"The scale of cuts being pressed on the government by Treasury officials will leave our armed forces overstretched, and without the ability to provide the country with an effective defense," said David Clark, Labour's defense policy spokesman.

Coming to Major's defense was Col. Michael Dewar, deputy director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He said the Army could afford to lose two tank regiments and the Royal Air Force (RAF) could lose two squadrons of aircraft without "doing grave damage to our ability to defend ourselves."

Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor of the exchequer, has stressed repeatedly the effect of the deficit as a drag on the economy. The deficit, he says, can be curbed only by raising taxes or slashing public expenditure. …