Britain struggles to maintain defense despite recession

The Royal Navy loses some of its early- warning radar "eyes." The Royal Air Force gives up a new air-to-air missile.Some old ships are retired. A marine commando unit is merged with others.

"Navy and Air Force Hardest Hit" shout the headlines as Britain battles anew to solve its defense dilemma: how to keep its shield high while cutting back because of industrial recession.

Privately, British government officials insist that the Thatcher government remains committed to a strong defense role within NATO against the growing conventional and nuclear strength of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

British troops still man the Rhine, they say. The Royal Navy sails the North Atlantic. The British decision to buy the Trident submarine intercontinental missile from the US still stands. So do decisions on the new Challenger tank, the Tornado multirole combat aircraft, the antisubmarine cruiser Illustrious and aircraft carrier Ark Royal.

When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher flies to Washington in lafe February to talk to President Reagan, she will be able to tell him that British defense spending has actually risen by 8 percent in real terms in the last two years. The latest budget cuts to be announced here total only L200 million ($480 million) out of a total annual defense budget of L12.25 billion, including L4.33 billion on equipment.

That said, however, the prospect of still more cuts hangs over the British armed forces. The long industrial decline has led to steady attrition in recent decades. Mrs. Thatcher's cutback on public spending has been less severe on defense that the right wing of her own Tory Party has feared. But Britain is still having trouble affording even its smaller defense shield.

As Defense Secretary John Nott puts it, "We face, as do other countries, a major task in matching our resources to our clear defense needs -- a task made more difficult for us than for other countries because of our low growth."

Mr. Nott, installed only a short time ago in place of Mr. Francis Pym, must now cut a few more million pounds to slide in under the Cabinet's limits on his new department. It is also said here that defense is still overspending by about L400 million, and as the recession drags on, he will be under continuing pressure to cut and cut again.

Asked if Americans should be worried about all this, British officials are clearly sensitive. They stress the positive: what has not been cut. They also emphasize Mrs. thatcher's personal commitment to as strong a defense as possible with Britain's shrinking industrial base.

There was a sigh of relief here when President Reagan said recently that his administration did not believe in holding European allies to rigid amounts of defense spending growth every year. Former President Carter had urged 3 percent in real terms.

Officials are quick to underscore one particular section of the testimony given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently by newly installed Secretary of State Alexander Haig. He said, "I think it is important for Americans to know that in relative terms, the allies have been doing better since 1970 than have we Americans in meeting NATO military needs."

What bothers right-wing Tories such as Winston Churchill, grandson of Sir Winston, is that Mr. Nott is an avowed believer in monetary orthodoxy. They fear he will not hesitate to cut more from defense if required. To this, British officials reply that the L200 million worth of cuts just announced by Mr. Nott would have also been made by Mr. Pym.

The official view here is to play down any suggestion that defense is about to be deeply slashed again -- and doubtless part of the reason for such policy is concern at possible reactions in Washington on the eve of Mrs. thatcher's visit in February.

Meanwhile, the L200 million of cuts add up to sending some old ships to the scrapheap (cruiser HMS Blake, some frigates, the commando carrier HMS Bulwark), cutting back some Vulcan bombers and Shackleton airborne radar planes, giving up the idea of an extra Lightning air defense squadron, and abandoning an improved Sky Flash II medium-range air-to-air missile.

Defending the moves, officials says the Air Force will suffer gaps only until new Nimrod and Tornado planes are introduced, and that canceling the Sky Flash II was in accord with a British, West German, and American agreement last August.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Thatcher is said to want better weapons -- and better value for every defense pound spent. Still to be seen: the extent to which further recession might force further cutbacks.

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