Two of Britain’s top defence officials will step down later this year, the UK government says. But it denies they were being blamed for mistakes in Afghanistan or for wasteful military spending.
Britain’s most senior military officer, Chief of the Defence Staff Jock Stirrup (pictured), and Bill Jeffrey, the top civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, are expected to leave towards the end of the year once a strategic defence review (SDR) ordered by Britain’s new government has been completed. “We’ve talked about the best time to be replacing our senior staff, probably at the end of the SDR in the autumn,” Defence Secretary Liam Fox said in an interview with The Sunday Times, referring to the two men.
The strategic defence review will set out the future role of Britain’s armed forces and may pave the way for cuts in defence spending as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government moves to rein in a big budget deficit. The newspaper said the changes at the top of the Ministry of Defence were designed to improve the military’s performance in the Afghanistan war and to cut wasteful spending, adding that both men were close to the former Labour government.
The armed forces and top civil servants in Britain are traditionally politically neutral.
Stirrup’s term had been due to end in 2009 but was extended for two years by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In a BBC interview, Fox would not rule out a cut in troop numbers after the review: “I’m not saying that I’ve got any pre-conceived idea about the size and shape of the forces.” A study by the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think tank, said this month Britain could be forced to cut ground troop numbers by 20 percent by 2019 and to sharply reduce the number of its aircraft and ships to save money.
Fox told the BBC that the two men had not been dismissed and portrayed their departure as their own decision. Fox denied Stirrup was too close to the previous government and said: “I really don’t think, whatever mistakes may have been made in Afghanistan or anywhere else, that the blame should land anywhere else but firmly on the desks of the politicians.”
British forces have been locked in some of the fiercest fighting against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and almost 300 British soldiers have now been killed there since 2001.