Britain defends its NATO role

New efforts are being made in the long corridors of Whitehall - home of Britain's public servants - to remove the question mark that hangs over Britain's defense spending and its role in NATO.

The Conservative government has run into a storm of criticism in the last two years for cutting back on Navy ships and fighter planes, spending billions of pounds on new engines and warheads for the Polaris missiles, and deciding to buy Trident D-5 submarine missiles from the United States.

Now, concerned at the impression being given to other NATO allies, Whitehall sources have laid out why they believe Britain has actually been doing rather well on defense since 1979, and why, in their view, the Trident program is good value for the money.

Their arguments do not impress the Labour Party opposition in the House of Commons, which has vowed to cancel the Trident and divest Britain of all nuclear weapons; or the Social Democrats, who would give up an independent nuclear deterrent when Polaris becomes obsolete and integrate British nuclear weapons within NATO.

All critics argue that Britain's long economic recession means the country simply cannot afford the luxury of expensive nuclear weapons like the supersophisticated Trident missiles. The Labour Party believes nuclear weapons to be morally wrong.

The Trident program, including four giant submarines to be built in Britain, is estimated to cost about (STR)7.5 billion (more than $13 billion) by the late 1990s, even with unprecedentedly favorable terms given by the Reagan administration.

Critics scoff that the real cost is likely to be well above (STR)10 billion ( on the number of Navy ships and Air Force planes and even Army troops.

Not so, Whitehall sources reply. They put their case this way:

The British press, accustomed to the adversary nature of British politics, has not provided detailed analysis of British defense spending in the last two years, and the public debate has emitted more heat than light.

In fact, British defense spending has risen steadily (in real terms) since 1979, keeping pace with the NATO target of a 3 percent rise each year. By 1985- 86, British spending will be more than 20 percent higher (again in real terms) than in 1978-79.

In the financial year starting April 1, Britain's nuclear strategic force will take only 2.2 percent of the total defense budget. Despite the large costs of buying Trident missiles and building the four new submarines, total costs of Trident and the continuing Polaris fleet will not rise above 8 percent of the defense budget at any time.

Although Britain has reduced the number of its frigates and fighter planes by half since 1960, the sources say, it has done no more than other NATO countries. All face escalating costs for new weapons and the need to cut back on some defense areas in order to strengthen others.

To invest in new equipment, Britain deliberately reduced civilian defense workers (by 50,000 in the last seven years alone) and cut back on what it felt were uneconomical kinds of ships and planes. Some 46 percent of the British defense budget now went on new equipment.

Sources produced provisional figures to show that Britain spent more per head on defense in 1981 ($451) than any other country except the United States ($730 ).

Britain was third among NATO nations in the percentage of gross domestic product (at market prices) devoted to defense in 1981. Its figure was 5 percent. Greece was first, with 5.9 percent and the US second with 5.8.

In addition, Britain was casting around for ways to spend more productively on defense. Smaller ships were preferred to heavier ones, which are more vulnerable to enemy attack. More use of helicopters from ships and for antisubmarine warfare was being considered.

The entire role of the Navy was under review.

Britain had 58,000 men on the Rhine (more than in the recent past). Its new Tornado jet fighter was on the way.

The Trident was expensive but manageable - designed to deter the Soviet Union from the temptation to seize pieces of Norway or Denmark (or anywhere else), should the US decide to withdraw troops from Europe.

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