THE Government has launched a staunch defence of Britain’s Armed Forces amid accusations from a senior US military figure that swingeing cuts to defence budgets have thrown the nation’s place on the world stage in to jeopardy.
Prime Minister David Cameron maintained that Britain remains a “first-class player” in defence terms as he dismissed claims by a former US Defence Secretary that spending cuts have dramatically undermined the UK’s reputation around the globe as “wrong”.
Robert Gates launched the controversial attack yesterday on Britain’s defence capabilities as he maintained that spending cuts had reduced its ability to be a “full partner” to the United States of America across the whole range of military operations.
But the Prime Minister insisted the UK’s defence budget remained the fourth largest globally and more investment was being made to enhance its future capabilities.
Mr Cameron said: “I don’t agree with him. I think he has got it wrong. We have the fourth largest defence budget anywhere in the world. We are investing in future capabilities.
“We are a first-class player in terms of defence and as long as I am Prime Minster that is the way it will stay.”
It comes after General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the Chief of the Defence Staff who is from Otley in West Yorkshire, warned last month that manpower was increasingly seen as an “overhead”, and that Britain was in danger of being left with hollowed-out armed forces, with “exquisite” equipment but without the soldiers, sailors and airmen needed to man it.
Mr Gates, who served under presidents Barack Obama and George Bush, said he lamented cuts in defence spending on both sides of the Atlantic.
He said: “What we have always been able to count on, on this side of the Atlantic, were British forces that had full-spectrum capabilities very much along the lines of our own forces, that they could perform a variety of different missions.
“With the fairly substantial reductions in defence spending in Great Britain, what we are finding is they won’t have full-spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past.
“Because I lament our own defence cuts, I would say I also lament that reality in terms of Great Britain.”
The decisions in 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review left the UK without an operational aircraft carrier until the new Queen Elizabeth enters service in 2020.
Mr Gates said this was the kind of decision that had reduced the UK’s ability to support the US, and added: “They can be a full partner, and probably will because we have a long history of doing this. What I’m saying is the capabilities to do the full spectrum of military operations will be limited with these plans... for the first time since World War One, Great Britain will not have an operational aircraft carrier.
“Those kinds of things, I think, at the end of the day matter.”
Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker was adamant Mr Cameron should be concerned that “Britain’s strongest ally has concerns about his Government’s mishandling of defence”.
He added: “Philip Hammond’s botched procurement reforms, the mess he’s made of armed forces reform and the latest fiasco over the MoD IT system are damaging confidence in Britain’s commitment to defence and our ability to continue to play a significant role in the world.”
But Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox leant his backing to Mr Cameron and stressed the United States is itself making substantial cuts of around $500bn (£305bn) to the Pentagon budget over this decade.
He said: “America is the world’s biggest economy, the world’s biggest defence budget. We are the world’s eighth biggest economy, with the fourth biggest defence budget, so certainly we are pulling our weight on that.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman admitted both the United States and the UK have had to take “tough decisions on defence spending”, but was adamant Britain has the “best-trained and best-equipped armed forces outside the US”.
The Yorkshire Post reported last month that Sir Nicholas had said that while the future budget for the equipment programme of the Armed Forces was guaranteed by Ministers, military manpower was increasingly seen as an “overhead”.
Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute military think tank, Sir Nicholas claimed the result was that activity and training levels were being “squeezed” while the Royal Navy was “perilously close” to its “critical mass” in terms of manpower.
However, the Government pledged to ensure that Britain’s Armed Forces remain adequately funded and equipped in the wake of the concerns which were expressed by Sir Nicholas.