Cameron tries to reassure over UK defence cuts

David Cameron has pledged that Britain will remain a "front rank" military power and sought to reassure service personnel over cuts to the defence budget.

The Prime Minister admitted that some "difficult" decisions had been made in preparation for the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) as he addressed staff at the operations headquarters for the armed forces.

"Yes, some difficult decisions have been made but at the end of the day we will be an absolutely front rank military power with full capability in all the services and we will be able, I think, to point to some really important pieces of equipment and capability that we will have," he told staff at the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in north-west London.

Mr Cameron faced some tough questions from staff gathered to hear him at the headquarters, where staff provide a round-the-clock support service to thousands of troops stationed around the world.

The Prime Minister is set to announce that the Royal Navy's flagship HMS Ark Royal and her fleet of Harrier jets are to be scrapped immediately when he unveils the SDSR.

The SDSR has concluded that two new carriers will still be built - mainly because it was discovered the cost to the taxpayer of scrapping the £5.2 billion project would be higher.

But the first will not enter service until 2016 and neither will be able to handle UK jets until 2020 - although aircraft from allies such as France and the US may be able to fly from them.

A former commanding officer of HMS Ark Royal described the Government's decision to leave the future aircraft carriers without aircraft as "incoherent" and "unstrategic".

Rear Admiral Terry Loughran, who was at the helm of Ark Royal from 1993 to 1994 during the Bosnian conflict, said he understood the funding pressures and rationale for scrapping the fleet flagship early. But he said the decision to have no flight capability on aircraft carriers for up to 10 years would lead to a massive loss of skills and knowledge.

Mr Loughran, who helped design the flight capability of the next generation of carriers, said the decision to adapt the ships to host conventional aircraft rather than those with hover capabilities would lead to greater long-term costs.

He said: "One has to be realistic in the stringent financial situation we find ourselves at the moment. However, it is the scrapping of the Harriers that gives me the greatest concern and highlights that the review is far from strategic.

He added: "If we get rid of the Harriers, where in fact will the next batch of fixed wing pilots go for the next 10 years? One will lose a huge wealth of skill as they drift off elsewhere."

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