Massive hole in defence budget spurs axe warning

BRITAIN'S fleet of military helicopters could be cut by a fifth and the number of senior defence officials slashed as the Ministry of Defence grapples with a £37bn hole in its budget.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox said yesterday the MoD's backroom operations would have to be cut back into a "leaner" operation to ensure front-line troops still got the equipment and support they needed over the coming years.

The full scale of the savings that defence officials need to make was highlighted, however, by a secret report suggesting there could be a 20 per cent cut to the budget for helicopters alone. A secret internal memo sets out demands for 3.96bn of savings across the fleets of rotary wing aircraft operated by the Royal Navy, Army and RAF.

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The news came as the British death toll in Afghanistan reached 330 yesterday with the deaths of two more soldiers in separate incidents and a third who died in hospital after being injured in an explosion last month.

Dr Fox said his visit to Afghanistan earlier this week had reminded him that supporting British troops on operations had to take priority over spending on staff in Whitehall.

"It brought home to me once again that the prime purpose of what we are doing is to make sure that our armed forces on the front line have everything they need, and all the support they require, to carry out their mission successfully and safely. That means that the backroom sometimes has to do without to make sure that the front line gets what it wants."

Dr Fox attacked Labour's record on defence spending, saying its financial mismanagement had left his department with an "unfunded liability" of 37bn over the next 10 years.

He pledged a stop to the "endless salami slicing" of military budgets.