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20,000 FACE FORCES AXE: YOU, HOON; There's only one defence cut Britain wants..

Byline: OONAGH BLACKMAN Political Editor

DEFENCE Secretary Geoff Hoon yesterday unveiled the biggest cuts in the armed forces for generations - and ran into a barrage of criticism.

Twenty thousand military and backroom jobs will go, along with aircraft, warships and tanks, as the Government attempts to replace "boots on the ground" strength with cyber-age science.

Mr Hoon - who has clung to office through the David Kelly affair and the continuing Iraq war controversy - immediately saw his shake-up greeted with scepticism and anger. Cuts to troops on the ground come a time when forces face overstretch in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and Iraq.

The Government was accused of the "moral and political betrayal" of soldiers who have fought to overthrow Saddam Hussein and rebuild Iraq.

Labour MP Bruce George, chairman of the Commons defence committee, called Mr Hoon to a grilling in September.

He said: "Please explain who the idiot was who thinks you can cut the infantry at a time when the pressure on them is enormous?"

Defence analyst Paul Beaver said: "This is very much 'jam tomorrow'. It is a big gamble."

The 190,360-strong forces - more than 103,000 of whom are in the Army - will see numbers fall by 10,500 by 2008. Ministry of Defence staff will take a 10,000 reduction.

The RAF will bear the brunt as it loses 7,500 personnel, including 65 of its 290 fast jet crews.

Four infantry battalions and 84 of its main Challenger 2 battle tanks will be chopped from the Army, with the stress in future on light and medium forces.

The Navy is to lose 12 service vessels, including a fifth of its destroyer/frigate fleet.

Mr Hoon - about to escape the axe himself in an imminent Cabinet reshuffle - told MPs: "The threats to Britain's interests in the 21st century are far more complex than was foreseen following the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

"We were preparing for an essentially attritional campaign, holding back Soviet forces... that kind of campaign has fortunately passed into history as technology has moved on."

The Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Michael Walker told the services that the numbers were "stark" and some redundancies would be required.

But the shake-up was "vital" to the modernisation agenda.

Investment in high-tech digital systems is planned to boost co-operation with the US.

Special forces will be expanded and re-equipped, following the spending review announcement last week of a 1.4 per cent real-terms increase in the MoD's budget over the next three years.

Tory spokesman Nicholas Soames, alleging a betrayal, said: "The servicemen and women whose battalions are to be disbanded are the same who bailed out this government in Iraq."

Former military chiefs warned of major "strategic risks".

BRITISH ARMY

FOUR infantry battalions - three from England and one from Scotland - will be slashed as the army is reshaped.

The number of infantry battalions will fall from 40 to 36 and the size of the army will be cut by 1,500 to 102,000.

The Black Watch regiment, dating from 1739, will be merged with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Highlanders.

The Scottish Division will lose one of its six existing battalions. In England three battalions from the existing 13 battalions of the King's and Prince of Wales' Divisions will go.

The current Army trained establishment of 103,500 would be whittled down to a target of around 102,000.

Seven Challenger 2 armoured squadrons and six AS 90 heavy artillery batteries will go by early 2007.

ROYAL AIR FORCE

THE RAF will shed 7,500 personnel by 2008 and civilian posts will also be lost. Four squadrons will be axed.

One RAF Tornado F-3 air defence squadron will be disbanded and two Jaguar squadrons will be phased out by 2006 with a final Jaguar ground attack squadron following in 2007.

RAF Coltishall in Norfolk, one of Britain's most famous bases, will shut down by the end of 2006 with the closure of other RAF bases to follow.

North Norfolk council says the "withdrawal of a community" of 1,500 at Coltishall will be a pounds 20million blow to businesses and services in the area.

Second World War fighter aces including including Douglas Bader and Bob Stanford-Tuck flew from the base.

The current fleet of four C-17 aircraft for airlift operations would be extended to five.

ROYAL NAVY

THE Navy will shed 1,500 jobs with more losses from the shedding of civilian posts to cut bureaucracy.

A total of 12 ships and vessels will be axed. Three oldest type-42 destroyers will go by the end of 2005.

HMS Newcastle, nicknamed the Geordie Gunboat, is the longest serving type-42 destroyer and has seen action in the Gulf and Kosovo as well as anti-drug operations.

HMS Glasgow was dubbed the luckiest ship afloat after a miraculous escape during the Falklands conflict.

HMS Cardiff is also a veteran of the Falklands and the Gulf. Three anti-submarine type-23 frigates, HMS Norfolk, HMS Marlborough and HMS Grafton will be pensioned off by March 2006.

Northern Ireland patrol vessels HMS Brecon, HMS Dulverton and HMS Cottesmore will go by 2007. The Navy will gain two new large aircraft carriers.

But the minehunters HMS Inverness, HMS Bridport and HMS Sandown also face the chop.

CAPTION(S):

BATTLE PLAN: Mr Hoon explaining the shake-up in the Commons yesterday; TARGET: Challenger tanks; AXE: Black Watch regiment; PHASED OUT: Jaguar F-3s; CLOSURE: RAF Coltishall; CHOP: HMS Newcastle
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 22, 2004
Words:908
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