THE British government is coming under heavy fire from serving and retired military officers, senior Conservative Party politicians, and members of the royal family over a plan to extract a "peace dividend" from the end of the cold war.Gen. Sir John Chapple, chief of the general staff, has told Tom King, the defense secretary, that if the Army is reduced by 40,000 men (a cut of 25 percent) as planned, it will not be able to carry out even its peacetime tasks. "The Army thinks the cuts go too far and ministers don't understand," General Chapple told Mr. King in a letter leaked to a Sunday newspaper. In another leak, Prince Charles, who is colonel-in-chief of several centuries-old regiments due to be axed or merged, was quoted as being "astonished, angry, and amazed" at the cuts. Conservative Party sources confirmed the Prince had written to Prime Minister John Major urging him to intervene. But King told the House of Commons earlier this week the cuts would go ahead. His stand prompted the defection of 20 Conservative backbenchers in a parliamentary vote on the defense estimates. It also drew criticism from the chairman of the influential Commons defense committee. Michael Mates, a retired colonel, attacked the decision to reduce the number of army regiments from 55 to 38. He told King: "The important question is whether 38 infantry battalions are enough to do the job. I beg you to look again at the numbers." Colonel Mates responded to King's refusal by calling a meeting of his defense committee, which began a detailed analysis of the cuts contained in a policy document, Options for Change, published last July. The parliamentary debate in which King defended his policy was preceded by a march to 10 Downing Street by retired officers and men of the threatened regiments. They delivered petitions containing nearly a million signatures urging the government to think again. Highly influential retired generals and defense experts joined in the chorus of disapproval as King stood his ground. Gen. Sir John Akehurst, deputy commander of NATO forces until last year, said the infantry was being cut "beyond the level at which they can do their job properly. To order these cuts without reducing commitments in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is folly." He was supported by Gen. Julian Thompson, a brigade commander in the Falklands War and now a specialist in logistics and armed conflict at King's College, London. "There has been no proper defense review," General Thompson said. "What we have had is a bean-counting exercise which threatens to leave us without enough fat to be able to respond to the unexpected." Also weighing in was the Duke of Wellington who said: "All soldiers recognize that since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact there must be reductions. However, the government has acted too quickly, and with insufficient thought." Fears that Britain would not be able to mount another Falklands-style campaign, or to contribute as successfully as it did to the allied campaign in the Gulf earlier this year, are at the heart of the criticisms piling up against King. Many doubt whether the looked-for peace dividend will mean net savings in the defense budget. The rationale of the cuts, officials said, was to hold defense spending to reasonable levels. But extensive savings were unlikely because while manpower reductions went ahead the military would have to spend heavily on sophisticated hardware. The Treasury is pressuring the government to ensure that defense spending levels off. Mr. Major has made it clear he supports the Treasury, but has denied that the planned cuts are "Treasury-led." King told the Commons last Monday the aim of the changes was to produce "smaller but better" armed forces in the '90s. The infantry were being reduced, he said, but the forces would receive better equipment and more helicopters. Franco-German proposals announced on Wednesday to create a common European defense force were greeted with unconcealed suspicion by British ministers. Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, said the Franco-German plan threatened to reduce United States involvement in European security. "We don't believe there is any point - and indeed there is some danger - in duplicating what NATO already does."