* Lawmakers say saving money takes priority over security
* Opposition calls report “damning”
By Adrian Croft
LONDON, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Defence spending cuts may have so weakened Britain’s armed forces that they are incapable of carrying out their commitments, an influential group of lawmakers said on Wednesday.
Parliament’s Defence Committee, joining a chorus of criticism of last year’s defence review, said the government’s desire to save money had in some cases taken priority over Britain’s security needs.
The committee said the government seemed to have “postponed the sensible aspiration of bringing commitments and resources into line” by joining a NATO mission to bomb Libya at the same time as it was cutting defence spending.
NATO member Britain also has around 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, the second biggest foreign force after the United States.
But the need to cut a huge budget deficit has forced the 15-month-old coalition government to slash public spending, including on defence, which faces an eight percent spending cut in real terms over four years.
“There is mounting concern that the UK armed forces may be falling below the minimum utility required to deliver the commitments that they are currently being tasked to carry out, let alone the tasks they are likely to face between 2015 to 2020 when it is acknowledged that there will be capability gaps,” the Defence Committee said in a report.
Committee Chairman James Arbuthnot, a member of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, said the government seemed to think Britain could maintain its influence in the world while reducing spending on defence and diplomacy. “We do not agree,” he said.
Cameron’s government says it has been forced to take tough decisions to fill a 38 billion pound ($62 billion) defence “black hole” it says it inherited from the previous Labour government.
However, the cross-party Defence Committee said it deeply regretted the government’s decision to scrap an order for nine Nimrod MRA4 reconnaissance planes, built by BAE Systems .
“This appears to be a clear example of the need to make large savings overriding the strategic security of the UK and the capability requirements of the armed forces,” it said.
The committee also regretted the government’s decision to retire Britain’s Harrier jets.
The defence cuts stripped Britain of the ability to fly fast jets from an aircraft carrier for around a decade, when two new carriers are scheduled to be completed.
Britain hopes to plug gaps in its defence capabilities by cooperating more closely with allies, particularly France.
But the committee said it was not convinced this goal was feasible “given the challenges of aligning political with operational needs”.
Jim Murphy, the opposition Labour Party’s defence spokesman, said the committee’s report was “damning” and called for a review of the government’s decisions on defence.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox defended the defence review, saying it had put Britain’s defence back on a stable footing and that the 34 billion pound defence budget remained the world’s fourth biggest. (Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by David Stamp)