1974 - Mason Review
The cuts proposed in the Healey Review were slowed only slightly by the Conservative government between 1970 and 1974, although the Prime Minister's undertaking to rebuild the Territorial Army was put in to effect-it took some six to eight years to return its establishment to the new effective levels. In March 1974, the Secretary of State for Defence of the newly-elected Labour government, Roy Mason, ordered a defence review on his first day in office. Like the 1998 SDR, it was declared to begin first with a reconsideration of the UK's defence commitments, but pre-empting this was a government decision that defence spending should drop from around 5% of GDP to around 4.5% over ten years, a decision founded on the presumption that the UK's spending should move towards the NATO average. The Expenditure Committee commented in its preliminary report on the review that : "... the Ministry's analysis quickly established that our commitments outside the NATO area were of lowest priority in strictly military terms ... NATO would remain the first charge on resources available for defence ... We endorse this approach."
Three major commitments were deemed essential: the UK's contribution to NATO's front-line forces in Germany; the anti-submarine forces in the eastern Atlantic; and home defence. The three other major commitments examined were the nuclear deterrent, reinforcements earmarked for defence of NATO's northern flank and naval forces in the Mediterranean. It was decided to withdraw all British forces from the Mediterranean theater with the exception of Cyprus. The overall defence budget was projected to fall by 12% over ten years, with manpower falling by 11% over the same period. The Army's strategic reserve division was broken up, the RAF's transport fleet cut by half and amphibious forces reduced. The commitment to airdrop two parachute battalions and supporting services was scrapped, and the 'airportable' capability was to be reduced from three brigades to one.
The Expenditure Committee commented : " The period following the 1967-68 defence review and the adoption of the strategy of flexible response by the Alliance has seen considerably more emphasis on mobile forces and reinforcement capabilities in NATO. In this field, the United Kingdom has hitherto given a lead amongst the European partners. The review proposals will tend to reverse this trend and therefore reduce the options open to NATO Ministers at the lower levels of strategic escalation. While the commitment to the Central Front is to be maintained, the cuts affecting mobility, support and reinforcement capability will have a weakening effect on both the Northern and Southern flanks."
In other words, the last review conducted under a Labour government, still in the heat of the Cold War, shifted the UK's defence posture away from mobility and flexibility of response - that is in precisely the opposite direction to that in which the 1998 SDR, in response to a very different world situation, was to push.
In a further Report, in January 1976, the Expenditure Committee concluded : "... that the Ministry's previous long-term programme had become unrealistic ... In the public debate on defence, the view is often expressed that the defence budget can safely be cut, with instant savings or other benefits to the economy, and with acceptable consequences for national security. Our examination ... has convinced us that this view is largely fallacious ... The force reductions resulting from the defence review may over-stretch the Services in the fulfilment of their remaining commitments, and may leave an inadequate margin for dealing with unforeseen tasks."
In 1976, the sterling crisis precipitated a decision to relinquish virtually all other overseas commitments by withdrawing entirely from Singapore, closing the air base on Gan Island in the southern Maldives in the Indian Ocean and withdrawing from the Simonstown Agreement with South Africa. British commitments to permanently stationed forces were thereafter effectively, with some minor exceptions, confined to Europe.
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