Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

UK armed forces 'need coalitions' for future conflicts

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth: "We need to be more adaptable in how we structure, equip and train our armed forces"

UK forces are likely to operate as part of international coalitions in future conflicts, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has told the Commons.

Outlining a Green Paper on military reform, he said "further integration" with key allies may be needed.

It reveals no spending figures but prepares for a post-election spending review amid "real pressure" on budgets.

The Tories say ministers have put security at risk because spending must be cut to reduce the nation's debt.

"The future defence budget will have to be conducted against the backdrop of government debt of £799bn," shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said.

None of the three main parties has said they will protect the defence budget from anticipated spending cuts and all back a root and branch review of defence policy after the election - widely expected to be held in May.

Scrapping Trident replacement would be one very positive and popular cutback
Kate Hudson

Mr Ainsworth said the conflict in Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of 253 UK forces personnel, remained the immediate priority.

Funding from the Treasury reserve would increase from £3.5bn to £5bn next year, he said.

However, the defence secretary told the Commons: "We certainly cannot assume that the conflicts of tomorrow, however, will replicate those of today."

The country must anticipate various threats including cyber attacks, the danger posed by failing states and conflict over dwindling stocks of natural resources, he said.

But he added: "No nation can hope to protect all aspects of national security acting alone.

"Our armed forces must be prepared if called upon to protect our interests, often in distant places, and most likely as part of a coalition of international forces."

Mr Ainsworth said the UK's most important alliance remained with the US but that it must also press EU and Nato allies to contribute more to collective defence efforts.

Graph showing budget spending

Among the issues the paper would examine was whether the UK should "further integrate" its forces with those of key allies, he said.

Mr Ainsworth said the "likelihood" was that the Royal Navy would still get its two planned new aircraft carriers but refused to be drawn on American-built Joint Strike Fighters intended to fly from them.

The paper also raises the prospect of an end to three separate forces, with the Army and Air Force the most likely candidates for merger, according to BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt.

Mr Ainsworth told the BBC he did not envisage "major structural change" but added: "Not allowing single service interests to stand in the way of efficient delivery of security to the nation is something we have to look at."

Jock Stirrup: "It's about organising one endeavour, not about having separate ones"

The head of the Armed Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, insisted the retention of three services was "plausible".

He said he recognised the nation was "in very difficult economic and financial circumstances".

"Equally, though, the first duty of any government is to provide for the security of its citizens," he said.

"Come what may... the nation has to make an adequate investment in this. What adequate means is something that we do have to consider."

Gen Sir Mike Jackson, former head of the British army, told the BBC that Britain must decide its future role on the global stage before spending decisions were taken.

"I very much hope we will not rush to quick decision about this or that ship, this or that capability on land or air, but actually go through a rigorous intellectual process from which we can make decisions. Only then can we say 'can we afford [them]?'," he said.

Professor Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, saw an advanced copy of the Green Paper.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The analysis behind this is not explicitly talking about the money because that is something a future government will have to determine, but the implicit idea is that we have got to do more with less."

The last strategic defence review was completed in 1998, a year after Labour came to power.

Defence spending is due to increase this year and next, but military experts say the Ministry of Defence's budget could fall by between 10% and 15% in real terms over the next six years if its current and capital expenditure is reduced in line with forecasts for the rest of government.

Given that we are no longer a world power, our defence policy should be exactly that - "defence" - plus a capability for responding to disasters
Eleanor, Glasgow

The Tories say the timing of the Green Paper is politically motivated and the government has consistently under-funded the armed forces since 1997.

Mr Fox questioned how much Britain could afford to rely on European allies such as France.

"For us there are two tests: Do they invest in defence? And do they fight? Sadly, too few European allies pass both these tests," he said.

The Lib Dems say the defence review must include the future of Trident, whose renewal was backed by MPs in 2007.

The party says the UK can no longer afford the estimated £20bn replacement cost and believes more cost-effective alternatives must be considered.

Defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: "Surely the manner, the scale and the timing of any replacement of the Trident deterrent has profound opportunity cost implications for the entirety of the rest of the defence budget," he said.

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