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PM dismisses defence cut concerns

David Cameron has dismissed concerns raised by the head of the US army about the impact of cuts on the capacity of British forces, insisting it remained a "very strong and capable partner" for the Americans.

US chief of staff General Raymond Odierno said he was "very concerned" about the falling proportion of national wealth devoted to the military and warned it could result in British units being forced to operate within US ranks rather than alongside them.

But Mr Cameron insisted that President Barack Obama appreciated the contribution made by British troops who were able to fight alongside US forces "anywhere in the world".

Ministers are under increasing pressure from Tory MPs and senior military figures to commit Britain to meeting the Nato target to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence beyond 2016.

With deep cuts to Whitehall budgets to continue after May's general election, Chancellor George Osborne is reported to have warned privately that it may fall below that level.

The most senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence said that the department would "clearly" like the Nato target to be met - although he said that it would be for ministers in the next government to decide.

Giving evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Jon Thompson, the permanent secretary at the MoD, said: "Clearly, we would like 2% of GDP but that's for the next government to decide."

He said that on current forecasts, GDP growth was expected to outstrip the growth in the defence budget, so that it would drop below 2% at some point in the next parliament.

He warned that further cuts in spending could ultimately affect the capability levels of the armed forces.

"It rather depends on how deep the cut is and how much further financial efficiency we can drive. If it were to be more than the level of financial efficiency we can drive, then yes, it will impact on capability," he said.

Speaking at a campaign event in Colchester, the Prime Minister said the UK's defence budget was the fifth largest in the world and second only to the US in the Nato alliance.

He said: "You can see that very specifically today in Iraq, where the second largest contributor in terms of air strikes and air patrols is Britain by a very large margin. You have to add up several other countries to get to the scale of what we are doing, second after the Americans."

He said that the current equipment programme, including two new aircraft carriers, the Type 45 destroyers, and the Joint Strike Fighter would ensure the UK would continue to have " some of the most capable armed forces anywhere in the world".

"In terms of spending, the promise we have made is that the equipment budget, which is £160 billion over the next decade, that will grow by 1% in real terms in each year of the next parliament.

"Also we have said we don't want to see further reductions in our regular armed forces. So we have that commitment: second largest in Nato, fifth largest in the world.

"And as for working with the Americans, I know because I spend time with President Obama and others, how much they appreciate the fact that Britain is a very strong and capable partner and able to fight with them, when it's in our national interest, anywhere in the world."

In a sign of the pressure on Mr Cameron over the military budget, former defence secretary Liam Fox said he and fellow Tory MPs would find it "hard to swallow" if the Prime Minister allowed spending to fall below the 2% Nato threshold while maintaining a pledge to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid.

In an intervention which will bolster those seeking a manifesto commitment to maintain resources above 2%, Genl Odierno told The Telegraph: "I would be lying to you if I did not say that I am very concerned about the GDP investment in the UK.

"In the past we would have a British Army division working alongside an American division. Now it might be a British brigade inside an American division, or even a British battalion inside an American brigade.

"We have to adjust our programme to make sure we are all able to see that we can still work together. It is about having a partner that has very close values and the same goals as we do."

The Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, said that the UK could still deploy a full division in response to a "major contingency", although there was a limit to the time it could sustain such a commitment.

"In those circumstances we could deploy up to divisional level but we wouldn't expect to be able to deploy a division and leave it there forever," he told the Public Accounts Committee.

He added: "I am confident from what I see sitting at the centre of the Ministry of Defence that the British Army remains a highly credible force that is able to work alongside the US army."

Some 41% of voters back calls for Britain to commit to the 2% spending target beyond 2016 while around one in five, 21%, oppose such a move, according to Usurv polling for the Press Association.

More men than women, 51% compared with 32%, agreed the proposal was the right approach. People in Yorkshire were most supportive, with 56% in agreement, while Scotland was the least at 20%.

Support increased in line with people's salaries, with 28% of those on under £10,000 behind it, rising to 41% of those on £10,000-£19,999, 44% of workers on £20,000-£39,999, and 51% of those earning more than £40,000.

The overall results contrast starkly with support for the pledge to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, which was opposed by 45% and backed by 29%.

:: 1,000 people were polled by Usurv today online and results reflect the gender and regional breakdowns of the UK according to the 2011 census.

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