Defence cuts are an enormous gamble, says Lord Boyce

Lord Hutton warned that getting rid of Harriers was a "profound mistake"

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The government has taken an "enormous gamble" with the UK's defences with its spending cuts, a former chief of the defence staff has said.

Admiral Lord Boyce said the loss of an aircraft carrier strike force for 10 years was "a desperate expression of hope over experience".

A string of ex-defence chiefs and ministers lined up to attack the defence review in the House of Lords.

Anger focused on the decision to scrap HMS Ark Royal and Harrier jump jets.

The decision will leave Britain without planes to fly from an aircraft carrier for a decade - but the government insists the review has been guided by military priorities rather than just cost savings, and is "tough but fair".

'Unacceptable risk'

Marshall of the RAF Lord Craig of Radley, who was chief of the defence staff from 1988 to 1991, attacked the "savage savings" in the defence review. He said cutting the number of frigates and destroyers to 19 and the scrapping of Nimrod spy planes had "collectively blown an enormous hole in national maritime capability".

Lord Boyce and Lord Craig were joined in their criticism by General Lord Walker of Aldringham, chief of the defence staff from 2003 to 2006, who branded the review "merely a salami-slicing exercise".

Harrier coming into land on HMS Ark Royal Current armed forces chiefs say scrapping Harrier was the right thing to do

The former defence chiefs were followed by a string of Labour former defence ministers who attacked the review, which will cut about 17,000 personnel and 25,000 civilian jobs from the MoD.

In his maiden Lords speech, former Labour defence secretary, Lord Hutton, said getting rid of Harriers was a "profound mistake" and the decision to axe Nimrod spy planes an "unacceptable risk".

Lord Robertson, a former Labour defence secretary and secretary general of Nato, called the defence review a "wasted opportunity".

'Tough but fair'

He added that it would lead to a "hollowing out" of the forces and the "same old salami slicing".

Lib Dem peer Lord Lee of Trafford said the defence review was "too rushed and too Treasury-dominated".

And he criticised the "bizarre decision" to axe the entire Harrier fleet, which he said would only save £100m a year, arguing that a reserve Harrier force should have been maintained, with cuts to the Tornado fleet.

But he backed the government's decision to delay the final decision on replacing Trident nuclear weapons and the recent Anglo-French deal on defence co-operation.

Lord Astor, for the government, said the decision to scrap Harrier had been a "military judgement" and not just about costs.

He added: "Deleting the entire Tornado fleet would save three times more money."

He said the defence review had been "tough but fair".

The current heads of Britain's armed forces have also backed the review.

Falkland Islands

In a letter to The Times, the defence chiefs wrote: "Harrier's contribution has been huge but the decision to withdraw it was the right thing to do in the circumstances," adding that the Falkland Islands could still be defended without Harrier.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy has accused Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey of getting his facts wrong when he said the government would save more by scrapping Harriers than Tornados.

Mr Murphy called on the government to publish all the advice it received on the issue to end "confusion".

He said: "Serious people have raised serious concerns about the government's decision to scrap Harriers and all ministers have succeeded in doing is add to the confusion.

"It's now time to publish the MoD advice and full costs of terminating the Harrier fleet and suspend the decision until we have had a proper debate."

But in an interview earlier this week, Lib Dem minister Nick Harvey appeared to suggest that the government would save more by scrapping Tornados.

Jim Murphy has written to Mr Harvey, asking the minister: "Given the importance of this issue, will you publish all of the costings that led to this decision being taken?"

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