David Cameron dismisses Robert Gates' defence cuts warning


David Cameron said Robert Gates ''had got it wrong''

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David Cameron has dismissed a warning from ex-US defence secretary Robert Gates that armed forces cuts would diminish the UK's military standing.

The prime minister said Britain has the world's fourth largest defence budget and was a "first class-player in terms of defence".

The UK plans to cut 30,000 armed forces personnel by 2020, leaving 147,000.

Mr Gates said the erosion in Britain's capabilities had reduced its ability to be a "full partner" to the US.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the "fairly substantial reductions" in UK defence spending meant it "won't have full spectrum capabilities" - meaning the ability to fight on air, land and sea - that it had previously.

Mr Cameron, however, said Mr Gates was "wrong", adding that Britain was investing in its "future capabilities".

"We've got a massive investment programme of £160bn in our defence industries, in our equipment," he said.

"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."

The Ministry of Defence said the UK - like the US - had had to take "tough decisions" on defence spending but had "the best trained and best equipped armed forces outside the US".

Mr Gates, who served under presidents Obama and Bush, singled out cuts to the Royal Navy as particularly damaging and he noted that - for the first time since World War One - Britain did not have an operational aircraft carrier.


There have been many voices warning of the scale of this government's defence cuts. But it will be harder to ignore that of Robert Gates, a man who served two US presidents of very different political persuasions, and oversaw the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not a man given to hyperbole, Mr Gates doesn't say the special relationship is dead. But he does believe that it's been fundamentally altered by the scale of Britain's defence cuts. He says without the "full spectrum" of military capabilities, Britain will not be able to be a "full partner". Given the unpopularity of the wars during his tenure, some may now be breathing a sigh of relief. But that's not true for senior politicians and military brass inside the MoD. They value being so close to the most powerful military nation on earth.

Mr Gates's intervention is unlikely to reverse the cuts. But his comments will still hurt, and wound pride. It will also fuel the debate as to Britain's place in the world.

Mr Gates warned against nuclear disarmament by the UK, but acknowledged that there was scope for changes to the way the deterrent was deployed.

Under the government's proposals, by 2020 the Army will lose 20,000 soldiers, the Royal Navy 6,000 personnel and the RAF 5,000 - although there are also plans to increase the number of reservists in each service.

Mr Gates's comments echo the concerns of senior military figures in the UK.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, warned last month Britain could be left with the "spectre" of a hollowed-out force.

Admiral Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, told the BBC the government had underestimated how important the government's relationship with the US was and had not factored that in when deciding on the cuts.

He also said the gap with no aircraft carrier, between scrapping the Ark Royal and the introduction of a new aircraft carrier in 2020, represented a "huge risk".

Lord Dannatt says US claims about UK military have 'ring of truth'

The former head of the British army, General Sir Richard Dannatt told BBC Two's Daily Politics programme: "Has the UK thought sufficiently at what its strategic interests are in the future? What is the quality of the relationship we want to have with the United States in the future and, dare I say it, with Europe?

"These are big issues and these are issues that have got to be confronted in the next defence review after the next election. What is Britain's ambition in the world?"

Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox defended Britain's defence policy, saying it was "one of only four or five countries inside Nato" to meet the target of spending 2% of GDP on defence.

However, Labour's shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker said the prime minister should be worried about the concerns of "Britain's strongest ally".

"No-one is disputing the financial constraints within which the UK military must operate. But the government must ensure that Britain's defence capability is maintained."

The Chairman of the Defence Select Committee James Arbuthnott said Britain needed "to look again at how much we can spend on defence", and cited Gen Houghton's previous comments about how the UK could be left with a "hollowed-out force" as something that should worry the prime minister.

Meanwhile, Stop the War Coalition convenor Lindsey German said "many people in the country don't particularly like the special relationship with the US" and would not be concerned by Mr Gates's comments.

She said in times of austerity defence spending was the "wrong priority".

Changes in numbers of British military ships, submarines and aircraft between 1990 and present
Graphic showing cuts to Armed Forces: Army from 102,260 to 82,000 in 2020, Navy from 35,500 to 30,000 and the RAF from 40,130 to 35,000

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  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    The American ethos is 'Go big or go home'. Comparing the UK armed forces against the Americans is foolish, the US Marines alone have more land sea and air assets than the entire UK forces. Even with a diminished capacity, we are still capable of punching well above our weight. If the global situation changes, we are well able to upscale to cope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Unfortunately, looking at the cost overruns in defence procurement, there appears to be a mentality of "order it now at a stated cost acceptable to Government" then "during the project make all the changes required to bring it up to the specification of what was really wanted in the first place" resulting in large variation orders and associated cost and schedule impact. Carriers, anyone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    I think the issue is here is not our budget but it is more on how it is spent and where the money goes to which branch of the service at the minute the Army has a lot of focus when in reality its the navy that needs more of a boost in terms of ship numbers were an island that trades and our navy and airforce need to protect that interest more, like for like replacements not cuts

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Spending on very expensive equipment to the benefit of our defence industries does not equate to effectiveness. It doesn't matter how good the equipment if no one can use it. Hence hollowed out forces. We're spending too much on equipment and not enough on the mainstay of our forces. So we're fourth in spending and tenth(?) in effectiveness. This at a time of budget cuts!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    As the country continues to live beyond its means to the tune of £100 billion a year, the pinch has got to be felt somewhere, we have brought this on ourselves for not facing up to the spending of successive governments, you cant have your cake and eat it.


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