Lawmakers: Overhaul of UK defense policy has been rushed, will likely include mistakes

LONDON (AP) — Crucial decisions on the future of British defense policy and its nuclear weapons capability are being rushed, kept behind closed doors and could be riddled with mistakes, lawmakers said Wednesday.

Ministers and military officials are finalizing a major overhaul of the country's armed forces, aimed at making deep cuts to the defense budget as the government seeks to slash the national debt.

The review, to be published before the end of the year, will consider whether projects including a 20-billion-pound ($32-billion) upgrade to Britain's nuclear submarine fleet, can go ahead as planned.

Experts believe that about 30,000 of Britain's 175,000 armed forces personnel are likely to be cut under the review, and that one of two new aircraft carriers, being built at a cost of 5 billion pounds ($8 billion), could be mothballed.

Britain's new government announced in May it would conclude a defense review before the end of the year and handed responsibility for decision making to a newly formed national security council.

Parliament's defense select committee said in a report the process was being rushed because of the need for urgent spending cuts, and that the public and defense industry had not been adequately consulted.

"The rapidity with which the strategic defense and security review process is being undertaken is quite startling...," legislators said in their report. "We conclude that mistakes will be made and some of them may be serious."

The review is the first to overhaul military strategy since 1998 and was initially announced by the previous government in February. The process is intended to provide an analysis of the looming threats to Britain, and to consider the country's role in the wider world.

But James Arbuthnot, chairman of the defense committee, said members of his cross-party panel were worried the current review was little more than a cost-cutting program, rather than a thorough examination of policy.

"We are not yet convinced that the combination of a budgetary straitjacket, the short time-scale, and the apparent unwillingness by the ministry to think outside existing structures ... will deliver that end," he said.

Arbuthnot said the last similar study took 13 months to reach conclusions, but the current review looked likely to be finished within four months.

His committee warned a lack of consultation with the public could fuel doubts and misunderstanding about the purpose of the Afghanistan conflict. The process had been "a missed opportunity to reconnect the people of the country with defense issues," the report said.

Almost all government departments have been asked to find potential savings, as Treasury chief George Osborne seeks to cut Britain's national debt, which in May rose above 900 billion pounds ($1.33 trillion). Its deficit stands at over 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Defense Secretary Liam Fox — responsible for an annual budget of about 36 billion pounds ($56 billion) — has been asked to identify potential savings of up to 9 billion pounds ($14 billion). A recent National Audit Office study also found the ministry already was 500 million pounds ($784 million) over budget this year.

Former defense secretary Bob Ainsworth, an opposition Labour lawmaker, said the review would likely fail to examine long-term strategy. "It is being undertaken at reckless speed with George Osborne in the driving seat," he said.

Gerald Howarth, a junior defense minister, said reckless spending by the previous government meant defense budget cuts are likely to be severe. "We have inherited no money in the kitty with which to defend the country," he told lawmakers on Monday.

Osborne will announce the extent of cuts in each department when he sets out spending plans up to 2015 next month.