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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 18:27 GMT
State of the defences

The UK's armed forces are undergoing a fundamental reshaping. What will they look like in the future - and could further cuts be on the way?


In May 2000 the Ministry of Defence confirmed that Royal Navy trainee gunners were being instructed to shout "bang" rather than fire live shells on exercises.

Conservatives said it was no laughing matter that recruits who could soon be firing real weapons would never have heard the sound of a shell - never mind pulled the trigger.

While the Ministry insisted that the exercise was standard, with no need for live ammunition, the Conservatives said it was the latest example of the Labour government's cuts and botched handling of a reshaping of British armed forces.

But is that really the case?


The UK's total armed forces have fallen by almost a third since 1990.

According to official figures, the defence budget has fallen from 5.3% of gross domestic product in 1984/85 to just 2.5% in 1999/00.

The Ministry projects that it will fall to 2.3% by 2003/04 - though it received an actual funding boost in 2000 (see below).

As a comparison, 1984/85 defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP among all Nato members was 4.6%. Today it stands at about 2.5%.

This fall reflects the "peace dividend" resulting from the end of the Cold War.

As the international security situation improved, both the former Conservative and the current Labour governments have cut defence expenditure.

This means that within a few years the UK will have its lowest level of defence spending (as a percentage of GDP) since before Hitler came to power in Germany.


The Labour government published a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) in 1998 which concluded that the UK had to remodel its forces to face "tomorrow's threats rather than yesterday's enemies".

The general thrust of the SDR was that the UK's military no longer needed to be ready to fight in a European continental war with huge armoured divisions trundling across the plains of Germany.

However, if the UK wanted a world role, it would need a "world reach", able to react quickly and decisively to intervene in an increasing number of regional conflicts.

The SDR proposed a series of cuts over three years starting with 500m in the first year, rising to almost 700m in the final year (on 1999-98 figures).

At the same time, the forces would be re-shaped for future conflicts. The main decisions included:

  • Joint rapid reaction forces for frontline operations
  • An increase in the size of the army by 3,300 personnel

  • Replacing three aircraft carriers with two larger and more capable ships
  • Reducing tank regiments in favour of "combined air cavalry"

    The then Defence Secretary George Robertson - now Nato secretary general - said that mobility and closer co-operation between the forces would help them to fulfil a role in "defence diplomacy".

    In the three years since the review, the government says that view has been proved correct.

    For instance, the UK's decision to take a leading role in the Kosovo conflict, and to send troops to Sierra Leone, relied on its ability to mobilise quickly.

    Many defence analysts praised this thrust of the SDR in seeking a shift towards a rapid reaction capability, designed to deal with regional flash conflicts.

    But they voiced concerns about how it would be handled.


    Chief among the critics has been the Conservative Party.

    It says the SDR left British forces stretched to the limit - struggling with cuts while trying to meet extra international commitments.

    If the wheels have not yet come off the SDR, they are certainly beginning to wobble alarmingly

    Defence committee, 2000
    Rebutting the attack in November 2000, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said: "It is the very success of our armed forces that has led them to being so busy."

    However, in a report last year on the impact of the SDR, the cross-party Commons defence committee concluded that the imbalance between commitments and resources meant the military risked "stumbling from one crisis to the next".

    The committee said that while the armed forces had a combined manpower of just short of 190,000, they needed almost 8,000 more personnel.

    "The cumulative evidence of cancelled exercises, delayed equipment programmes and of resources apparently insufficient to reverse the problems of overstretch and under-manning suggest that if the wheels have not yet come off the SDR, they are certainly beginning to wobble alarmingly," the defence committee said.

    Key commitments
    Northern Ireland: 13,500
    Germany: 25,000
    The Falklands: 1,300
    The Balkans: 5,250
    Middle East (Iraq no-fly zones): 1,300
    Sierra Leone: 800
    Cyrprus: 3,400
    These have not been the only woes.

    Among other damaging stories to emerge in 2000 were questions over the effectiveness of equipment.

    A leaked Ministry report suggested that British troops in Kosovo were so poorly equipped that a ground offensive against a determined enemy would have been "unworkable".

    The most serious complaint was that the standard-issue SA80 assault rifle failed in severe conditions - 300,000 were later withdrawn to be re-engineered.

    Meanwhile in the air, it was revealed that Royal Air Force bombs had hit only 40% of their targets in the Kosovo conflict, prompting criticism from MPs on all sides.

    The Royal Navy ordered ships into port, or to slow down, because it was running out of fuel.

    The Ministry said this meant that servicemen and women could have more time with their families.

    To top it all, a 2000 National Audit Office report concluded that delays and price rises in the 25 most important defence contracts of 1999 had cost the taxpayer 2.7bn.

    Labour says the Ministry is now using so-called "smart procurement" to speed up equipment-buying, a policy that needs time to work.


    The major challenge facing the armed forces remains recruitment.

    The army needs 15,000 new men and women a year to maintain its effectiveness.

    As of the end of 2000 it was about 5,000 short.

    One of the problems appears to be that many people don't regard the military as a good career in a buoyant job market.

    The defence review accepted this problem and the three services have been ordered to develop "learning forces" initiatives tied into government "lifelong learning" programmes.

    The Ministry hopes this will this attract young people and keep them in the forces - and that it will also provide them with genuinely transferable skills for a later civilian career.

    But Labour says its most important move has been to back up the SDR in 2000 with the first real-terms increase in funding since the Cold War, announced in last year's Comprehensive Spending Review.

    The government announced that defence spending would rise from 23bn to 25bn by 2003-04.

    Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said it was in recognition of the armed forces' role around the world and the effect of initial cuts brought in under the SDR.

    "The government is serious about relieving those strains, and correcting those deficiencies," he said.

    "The new money will help to do that."

    While this may ease some of the funding fears, analysts say that many remain - such as: Where will the UK get the troops needed to honour international commitments, especially with the advent of a European rapid reaction force?

    The second fear is that further cuts are in the wings.

    The Daily Telegraph earlier this year said that it had received leaked documents detailing a further 1.2bn cut in forces to help meet the costs of the new aircraft carriers.

    The new Chief of Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, is the first non-army man to hold the post in more than a decade.

    The newspaper predicted that these cuts would be sold following the election as an inevitable consequence of the improving situation in Northern Ireland. The Ministry of Defence has refused to comment on the allegations.


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