* Last phase of plan to trim armed forces by a sixth
* Cuts spark debate over Britain’s role in the world
* Government rejects idea it will fade as U.S. partner
By Andrew Osborn
LONDON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Britain on Thursday announced the final part of a plan to shrink its armed forces by around a sixth to save money, but said it could still project force globally and be a worthy partner to the United States on the battlefield.
Unveiling details of around 1,500 job losses - the final tranche of some 30,000 to be cut from the army, navy and air force - Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain remained the world’s fourth largest military spender.
“Completion of this final tranche will mark a turning point,” Hammond told parliament. “(The) armed forces will not only be affordable and sustainable but among the most battle-hardened, best-equipped and best-trained forces in the world.”
Under the plan - designed to help Britain tackle its large public debts - the army is being shrunk by 20,000 soldiers and will stand at 82,000 in 2018, down from 102,000 in 2010.
The navy will lose around 6,000 personnel and the air force about 5,000. At the same time, new aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, destroyers and frigates are being built under a 160 billion pound ($265 billion) investment programme.
The scale of the cuts has fuelled a debate about Britain’s role in the world and its ability to project force globally. They come as it prepares to withdraw the last of its troops from Afghanistan at the end of this year.
Top generals and even senior lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party have suggested the cuts are too deep, while former U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates ruffled feathers this month when he said they meant Britain would no longer be able to be a full partner to the United States.
Prime Minister David Cameron rejected Gates’ comments at the time, but Hammond went further on Thursday, underlining how sensitive the government is to charges that Britain’s close ties with the United States have been undermined.
“I have a great deal of respect for Secretary Gates, but he’s been out of office for a couple of years now. I noted ... that he seemed distinctly vague about some of the details of our defence policy,” said Hammond.
“He couldn’t even quite remember what our position on aircraft carriers was. It seemed to have completely passed him by that we were building the two largest ships in the Royal Navy’s history.”
Hammond said he “absolutely rejected” Gates’s suggestion, adding that the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet had told him only last week that the British navy was Washington’s “partner of preference” in the Gulf.
The opposition Labour party accused Hammond and the government of gambling with Britain’s future.
“The government is letting down our Armed Forces and their families, and taking risks with our nation’s safety,” said Vernon Coaker, Labour’s defence spokesman. ($1 = 0.6030 British pounds) (Editing by Mark Trevelyan)