UK defense sec'y warns spending cuts too brutal

Britain's defense secretary on Wednesday made a surprising attack his own government's plans for sweeping spending cuts, telling Prime Minister David Cameron in a leaked letter that slashing the military budget could have dire consequences.

In his note, Liam Fox warned Cameron that his department had ruled that finding savings of around 4 billion pounds ($6.3 billion) from its budget — demanded under the government's austerity program — was "financially and intellectually virtually impossible."

The private letter — intended to be seen by Cameron only — was quoted at length by Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, which reported that Fox also told Cameron an option to scrap an order for new reconnaissance planes would leave the London 2012 Olympics more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Britain's defense ministry is in the midst of the first major review of its capabilities and priorities since 1998, and has been asked by the Treasury to use the process to identify cuts amid a major spending squeeze aimed at clearing the nation's record debts.

"Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognize the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war," Fox was quoted as writing.

Cameron has vowed to protect spending on the conflict in Afghanistan, but demanded that Fox makes savings from his annual 36 billion pounds ($56 billion) budget.

Fox, who is considering whether to cut tens of thousands of troops, ditch orders for new flagship aircraft carriers and revise plans to buy about 150 Joint Strike Fighter jets, said he was furious his private correspondence had been leaked, and called in military police to investigate.

In his letter, Fox told Cameron that a reduction in the Navy's fleet would require Britain to give up one of its regular patrols in the Middle East, Caribbean or Indian Ocean, while cuts to a program to replace spy planes risk harming efforts to protect sensitive the country's nuclear submarines.

A 20-billion-pound ($32-billion) upgrade to Britain's nuclear submarine fleet is not being considered under the review, but Fox has said he may opt to delay the program to assist the government's quest to make savings.

Critics have accused the government of rushing the defense review to meet the timetable of a wider overhaul of government spending, to be outlined next month by Treasury chief George Osborne, who is seeking savings of at least 30 billion pounds per year ($44 billion) to wipe Britain's deficit by 2015.

"Rushed decisions that are not based on our strategic needs pose a real risk for our future security," said Bob Ainsworth, an opposition Labour Party legislator and Fox's predecessor as defense secretary.