The British government's Strategic Defense Review published Tuesday has been a gift to headline writers -- "HMS Inglorious: 5 billion carrier Fiasco" thundered the Times, while the Telegraph's take was "New Navy Lark: new carrier will be sold after 3 years."
These headlines, based as they were on partly accurate leaks, hit the newspaper stands before Prime Minister David Cameron even announced the full details of his new military plans -- foisted upon him by the need to cut the general budget deficit of more than £150 billion and a £38 billion overspend at the Ministry of Defense -- to the House of Commons.
Perhaps the hostile reception was inevitable given that the review involves substantial cuts of 8 percent in the defense budget by 2015. On the other hand, it could have been worse: Far more dramatic cuts of up to 25 percent were being discussed in the summer.
But if the government was hoping for understanding or even support from the media, there has been little on offer, even from Cameron's supporters in the right-wing press.
The reaction from defense experts has been a bit warmer. Paul Cornish of the leading think tank Chatham House had feared the review would be a traditional bit of British "muddling through," but he told the BBC he's pleasantly surprised. "They're saying: Let's have a risk-based approach to national security and defense. They're delivering it, and I think they ought to be, in a sense, complimented for it." And Jane's Strategic Advisory Services argues the government has retained its core military capability in spite of the cuts.
Despite these warm words, three main criticisms have been leveled at Tuesday's announcements.
The government has been accused of not being strategic because the changes are not matched to the country's security requirements (announced earlier this week in the National Security Assessment). The critics also charge the review has been driven by the Treasury's need to cut the deficit, not the Ministry of Defense's requirements for personnel and equipment (which were announced only a day before the government revealed its program of spending cuts). The other main complaint is that the review is a rush job -- it has taken only five months compared with the 18 months taken by the previous government when it came to power in 1997.
So when Cameron stood up in the House of Commons to tell MPs about the plans, he sought to rebut these criticisms directly. He said his government had looked at all elements of security, not just defense, and that other departments -- the Foreign Office, the Home Office (responsible for counterterrorism, for instance), and the Department for International Development -- had been involved in the process. He argued that the review would create modern, flexible armed forces equipped for future threats. He also said that, from now on, Britain will follow the U.S. example and hold a strategic defense review at regular intervals.
Cameron said there would be no impact on the funding for forces fighting in Afghanistan, but he did go on to announce significant cuts in military capability. There will be manpower cuts in the Army, Navy, and Air Force totaling 17,000 personnel. The 20,000 British troops still based in Germany 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union will be brought home and the Army will have fewer heavy tanks and artillery. The Navy will retire its remaining aircraft carrier and naval strike aircraft early, leaving Britain without a carrier until the ones now under construction enter service at the end of the decade. The Air Force has lost its replacement for the Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.