Britain will lose thousands of troops, reduce its ability to fight complex missions like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and delay a program to upgrade its nuclear defenses, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Tuesday.
Outlining the first defense review since 1998 — intended both to sweep away strategies crafted before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. and to help clear the country's crippling national debt — Cameron said 17,000 troops, a fleet of jets and an aging aircraft carrier would all be sacrificed.
Cameron's government has hinted for months that the cuts would be severe — and sweeping. Communities around the country watched the announcement nervously, worried about jobs and the impact on local communities in a time of economic hardship.
The numbers were stark. Naval warships, 25,000 civilian staff and a host of bases will also be lost, while the country's stockpile of nuclear warheads will be trimmed from 160 to 120.
Two new aircraft carriers will be built at a cost of 5 billion pounds ($8 billion) — but one will effectively by mothballed and another won't have any British fighter jets to transport until 2019.
Investing in special forces
Instead, Britain will invest in its much admired special forces and develop expertise on cyber threats to secure the country's status as a major global power, Cameron said.
"Britain has punched above its weight in the world, and we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come," Cameron told the House of Commons.
He said funding for the mission in Afghanistan, which does not come from the regular military budget, would not be trimmed, promising extra resources for troops there.
Military cutbacks come a day before Treasury chief George Osborne's long-anticipated announcement of a government-wide program to drastically cut department budgets and welfare bills. The largest cuts to public spending since World War II are aimed at virtually eliminating Britain's deficit, which stands at over 10 percent of gross domestic product.
Osborne's announcement will provide details of Britain's spending plans for its intelligence agencies, though Cameron confirmed there will be an extra 500 million pounds ($785 million) in funding to counter cyber threats.
Cameron said the overhaul wasn't just aimed at cutting the military budget — saying he was breaking decisively with the strategy of predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
"Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the immense financial and human costs of large-scale military interventions," Cameron told lawmakers. "While we must retain the ability to undertake such operations, we must also get better at treating the causes of instability — not just dealing with the consequences."
He criticized the previous government's decision to sign contracts for two new aircraft carriers — explaining that canceling the program would have cost more than building the vessels. "That is the legacy we inherited, an appalling legacy the British people have every right to be angry about," he said.
He said there would be an 8 percent cut to the annual 37 billion pound ($59 billion) defense budget over four years — but insisted Britain's spending on defense would remain above a NATO-demanded benchmark of 2 percent of gross domestic product.
Bases to close
Cameron said some military bases would be closed — though he didn't specify which, leaving communities anxious. In Morayshire, in the northeast of Scotland, residents warned that the closure of a Royal Air Force base there would savage the local economy.
About one in six jobs in the region, north of Aberdeenshire, including hotels, hospitals and retail are related to two threatened military bases.
"The closures will destroy the economy as we have nothing else here but the bases," said Winnie Ross, owner of the Sunninghill Hotel in Elgin, the main town near the bases. "Our hotel has been used by MoD suppliers like BAE Systems, families of RAF personnel, NATO personnel and visitors to the bases. That will all go now."
Late Monday, the British leader shared details with President Barack Obama in a phone call, hoping to assure the White House that Britain will still be equipped to fight alongside the U.S. on missions overseas. The British Ambassador to Washington, Nigel Sheinwald, insisted to reporters there on Tuesday that Britain remains "the United States' most effective and dependable military ally."
However, Britain will be limited in the future to a force of about 30,000 personnel on major operations — smaller than the 45,000-strong force initially sent into Iraq in 2003.
A total of 7,000 army troops will be axed, alongside 5,000 personnel each from the air force and navy. Britain's Army will number about 95,000 troops by 2015, Cameron said.
Cameron hopes a greater use of reservists and special forces will help retain British military might.
Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, a former adviser to U.S Gen. Stanley McChrystal and formerly director of Britain's special forces, said the cuts would not leave the military weakened.
'A bit like poker'
"It's a bit like poker — you never get the hand you want, you get the hand you're given. The art form is to play it well," said Lamb, whom Cameron has asked to review the use of reserve forces.
Cameron also announced that a planned 20 billion pound ($30 billion) program to replace Britain's four Trident nuclear missile-armed submarines would be delayed until 2016. He said the number of warheads on each boat would also be cut, helping to save about 750 million pounds ($1.18 billion).
The delay means decisions on the nuclear submarine program — and the hefty bill — will come after a scheduled 2015 national election, and be handled by the next defense review, due in five years time.
Some analysts accused Cameron of ducking his trickiest decision by putting off the nuclear program.
"This may be seen as passing the buck politically in the hope that an improved economic situation makes a decision easier," said Michael Formosa, of Jane's strategic advisory services.