LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will delay renewing its nuclear deterrent and cut back its army, navy and air force, the government said on Tuesday, but the scale of the reductions was far smaller than of those facing other government departments.
Britain will on Wednesday unveil the harshest spending cuts for a generation, aimed at reducing a record budget deficit, but the traditionally pro-military Conservative Party, which leads the coalition government, has succeeded in minimising defence cuts, outlined on Tuesday in a military review.
That may make staving off deep cuts to causes championed by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners -- such as welfare -- more difficult. The Lib Dem leadership has had to break its widely-touted promise not to raise tuition fees for students.
Unveiling a sweeping military review, officials emphasised that Britain would retain a strong military presence in Europe and continue to be a key ally of the United States.
"Even after this review we expect to continue with the fourth largest military budget in the world ... Britain has punched above its weight in the world, and we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come," Prime Minister David Cameron said in parliament.
But outlines of how Britain would respond to future conflicts envisage fewer resources than it sent to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The armed forces review, the first since 1998, unveiled a military with fewer people, fewer ships, fewer aircraft, fewer nuclear warheads and a smaller budget.
The politically sensitive issue of when to renew Britain's Trident submarine-based nuclear deterrent was pushed back until 2016, after the next general election, but the system will be scaled back, saving 3 billion pounds ($5 billion) over 10 years.
That represents a boon for the Liberal Democrats, which has pushed for an alternative to Trident.
A Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll released on the eve of the spending review showed voters believe the Conservatives are better than their Labour opponents at managing the economy.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg remains more popular among Conservative supporters than among his own supporters, the poll showed.
The Ministry of Defence's budget of 36.9 billion pounds will be cut by 8 percent in real terms over the next four years, far lower than the average of 25 percent cuts faced by other government departments.
The government said that only 6,500 troops would be committed to future "enduring" stabilisation operations, about 3,000 fewer than the current number of troops fighting in Afghanistan. One-off quick interventions could muster a force of 30,000, a third less than the force deployed in Iraq in 2003.
Britain will instead focus more on fighting terrorism and beefing up cyber security, on which it will spend an extra 650 million pounds, plans it outlined in a security strategy on Monday which analysts saw as a cover for spending cuts.
The government is trying to reduce a record budget deficit close to 11 percent of national output.
"The broad reaction from me is that rather than this being a strategic defence review, this is a strategic political fudge," said Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BCG Brokers.
Analysts point to Britain's decision to retain an order for two new aircraft carriers at a cost of 5.2 billion pounds as out of step with a new focus on unconventional warfare.
Only one of the new aircraft carriers will be operational, and the other kept in reserve. The functioning carrier will only carry 12 of the 36 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) combat jets initially envisaged for it, but modifications to the vessel mean it will be able to carry French and U.S. planes.
One of the new carriers could eventually be sold off, and the number of JSF jets and Eurofighter Typhoon combat jets Britain will eventually order has not yet been decided.
Only Britain's funding for its troops in Afghanistan appears to have escaped cuts.
One of the few areas where Britain will spend more is on bolstering fragile states to prevent the need for a full-scale military intervention. Aid for Yemen will rise to 50 million pounds from 12 million pounds. More money will also be spent on "stabilisation" teams to bolster foreign security forces.