BRITAIN is no longer capable of launching a major military action against another nation state without the help of the United States, the government conceded yesterday.
The admission, in the long-awaited defence white paper, coincided with the publication of a damning report on the handling of the war in Iraq and an accusation from the chairman of an influential Commons committee that British troops in Iraq had been "shamefully let down" by the government.
The report, published by the National Audit Office (NAO), described the campaign in Iraq as a significant military success but lambasted the government for sending troops into combat without adequate equipment, including weapons, ammunition, body armour and medical supplies.
The findings were described by Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, as an "outrage".
"We expect the men and women of the armed forces to fight and maybe die for us. So it is an outrage that they could not expect all of the proper equipment, protection and even clothing to do the job we ask of them. They were shamefully let down," he said.
The report was published less than an hour before Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, stood up in the Commons to introduce the defence white paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World.
The document, the result of a lengthy review of defence policy, heralded a change in British military thinking, away from the doctrines of the Cold War and a reliance on heavily armoured forces towards lighter, more mobile forces which could be deployed quickly to trouble spots around the world.
Mr Hoon revealed a number of cuts in British forces, including an immediate reduction of the number of Challenger 2 main battle tanks in favour of a new light brigade, and future cuts in naval and air forces.
Speculation that the white paper would also include plans to axe historic regiments, including some of the most famous Scottish forces, proved unfounded. Mr Hoon, who had already pledged not to do away with regiments such as the Black Watch and the Royal Scots, deferred any decision on the restructuring of the army until next year.
But the white paper did indicate a drastic reappraisal of the country’s military capabilities. Britain, it said, could never again mount an independent campaign against another nation state.
"The most demanding expeditionary operations, involving intervention against state adversaries, can only plausibly be conducted if US forces are engaged, either leading a coalition or in NATO," it said.
"The significant military contribution the UK is able to make to such operations means that we secure an effective place in the political and military decision-making processes.
"To exploit this effectively, our armed forces will need to be inter-operable with US command and control structures, match the US operational tempo and provide those capabilities that deliver the greatest impact when operating alongside the US."
The first changes will see the army’s three heavy brigades cut to two, and the creation of a new light brigade.
Addressing the Commons, Mr Hoon said that in future, the emphasis would be on using technology to deliver the maximum military effect. He warned that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the threat posed by international terrorists, coupled with the consequences of failed or failing states, presented Britain with very real and immediate challenges.
Mr Hoon also played down the criticism of the government in the NAO report.
But last night, the widow of a British soldier killed in Iraq accused the Defence Secretary of failing to make sure that frontline troops were given vital protective kit.
Samantha Roberts said her husband, Steve, died because he was wearing a flak jacket without the normal protective ceramic plates fitted.
The NAO report was highly critical of the supply of body armour, noting that 200,000 sets of body armour issued since the Kosovo campaign has simply disappeared.
"Steve is dead, they can’t bring him back, but what they can do is stop this thing happening again. I am speechless," Mrs Roberts said.
The NAO report painted a chaotic picture with commanders simply unable to locate where their supplies were.
Many of the problems were exacerbated because, under pressure from the Treasury, the Ministry of Defence held only limited stocks of some equipment in order to cut costs.