LONDON — BRITAIN'S defenses are threatened with deep spending cuts as Prime Minister John Major strives to curb a ballooning public debt.
A British pounds3 billion ($4.5 billion) tactical nuclear missile system for the Royal Air Force is to be scrapped, and there have been strong indications from official sources that entire fighter-bomber squadrons and tank regiments will disappear in a bid to save money.
Leaks from the Treasury making it clear that the nation's current defense budget is too high - at British pounds24 billion ($36 billion) - have brought sharp criticism from members of the House of Commons defense committee.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor, the committee chairman, has warned Mr. Major that Britain's defense will be severely undermined if the Treasury gets its way in seeking cuts in troops and materiel.
``Any further Treasury-imposed cuts upon our defense capabilities would result in an unacceptable level of stress upon our hard-pressed defense forces,'' he wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to the prime minister. ``I believe that, were that to happen, there would be a catastrophic loss of morale among our servicemen and damage, which would be almost irretrievable, would be done to our long-term defense capability.''
The warning was supported by Lord Bramall, chief of the defense staff, who said on Oct. 15 that the threatened cuts would have a ``staggering'' effect on the armed services' ability to meet existing commitments.
Sir Nicholas wrote to Major as the Commons prepared to debate Britain's defense needs now that the communist threat in Europe has receded.
Pressure from the Treasury to reduce the British pounds50 billion overall budget deficit appears to be the driving force behind a range of cuts that Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind was recently said to be fighting against.
The opposition Labour Party, in the past happy to see defense spending held under tight control, has also attacked Major.
``The scale of cuts being pressed on the government by Treasury officials will leave our armed forces overstretched, and without the ability to provide the country with an effective defense,'' said David Clark, Labour's defense policy spokesman.
Coming to Major's defense was Col. Michael Dewar, deputy director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He said the Army could afford to lose two tank regiments and the Royal Air Force (RAF) could lose two squadrons of aircraft without ``doing grave damage to our ability to defend ourselves.''
Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor of the exchequer, has stressed repeatedly the effect of the deficit as a drag on the economy. The deficit, he says, can be curbed only by raising taxes or slashing public expenditure. At this month's Conservative Party conference, dozens of delegates warned him against increasing taxes and urged him to wield the public-spending knife instead. End of cold war
Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 Britain has made many defense cuts. The Royal Navy's fleet of frigates is down to 36, compared with 60 in 1979. Two huge naval dockyards at Devonport and Rosyth have been sold off to the private sector. Many historic Army regiments have been either abolished or merged with others.
Unmistakable signs that the RAF will be denied a new tactical nuclear missile to replace its existing free-fall bombs means that in two or three years Britain's nuclear deterrent will consist solely of a fleet of Trident submarines now under construction.
Defense officials say some Trident missiles that were to have been deployed in a strategic role will have to be converted for possible tactical use.
Cancellation of the air-launched tactical missile will have an effect among Britain's allies. The system was being developed in cooperation with the state-owned French company Aerospatiale. An Aerospatiale spokesman said on Oct. 16: ``It is unlikely that the French government will continue with the project alone.''
A cost-saving measure that government sources say is under Treasury study would be the deployment of part-time volunteer, or reserve, soldiers to trouble spots alongside regular troops.
At present Britain has a 63,000-strong volunteer Army in addition to its regular forces.
The sources say Defense Secretary Rifkind would like to reduce the volunteer force by up to 50 percent and establish two elite reserve units, each of 3,000 men. Volunteer peacekeepers
There were press reports on Oct. 17 that nonregular troops would be sent to Cyprus for a six-month stint in the British element of the United Nations peacekeeping force on the island. If the idea is successful, volunteers could also be sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina and other trouble spots.
Under existing law, volunteer troops can be deployed with regulars only at times of national crisis. The availability of 6,000 highly trained volunteers would ease pressure on the regular Army, a large part of which is deployed in Northern Ireland.
Elimination of many part-time volunteer units would save the armed forces money, but it would also provoke an outcry. So-called ``territorial'' units are a focus of intense local pride in many parts of Britain, and moves to abolish them would be translated into complaints from parliamentarians defending local interests.