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British forces hand over control of last base in Afghanistan

British forces Sunday handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan troops, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives.

The handover was hailed by British Prime Minister David Cameron but the southern Helmand province that foreign troops are leaving behind still confronts a resilient Taliban insurgency and remains a hub for opium production.

The Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion while the Stars and Stripes came down at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck — the last US Marine base in the country.

All NATO combat troops will depart Afghanistan by December, leaving Afghan troops and police to battle Taliban insurgents on their own.

The huge joint base built in the desert near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah was the most important installation for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Between 2010 to 2011, it housed almost 40,000 foreigners including sub-contractors.

Hundreds of US Marines and British troops are set to leave Helmand soon, though the precise date has not been revealed for security reasons.

In a ceremony Sunday the Afghans took formal control of the base, despite already being present in a portion of it. The British and US flags were lowered, leaving only Afghanistan’s national flag to flutter in the breeze.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron later tweeted: “As flag lowers at Camp Bastion, our Armed Forces can return with their heads held high – proud of all they have achieved to keep us safe.”

A total of 453 British troops and 2,349 Americans were killed.

Many facilities such as pipelines, buildings, roads and even office furniture remain in place, with the US alone estimating $230 million worth of equipment is being left behind.

– A failure? –

Marine General Daniel D. Yoo, regional commander, said the Afghan army is now now capable of taking over the reins.

“I’m cautiously optimistic they will be able to sustain themselves. I know from my experience that they have the capability and the capacity if they allocate the resources properly,” he said.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” added the officer, who was among the first Marines on the ground in autumn 2001, when a US-led coalition toppled the Taliban who had been in power since 1996.

General Sayed Malook, who leads the Afghan forces in the region and has now established his quarters in the base, said the camp would become a military training centre and house 1,800 soldiers.

“I’m certain we can maintain the security,” he said Sunday. Asked about the departure of the NATO troops, he said: “I’m happy and sad. I’m happy because they are going to their home, I’m sad because they are friends.”

Not everyone shared his optimism.

Atiqullah Amarkhail, a former high-ranking general turned analyst said the British mission in particular was a failure.

“You see that the British are leaving a broken Helmand, where the Taliban insurgency is at its highest, and government forces are struggling to hold territories, and the province is producing almost fifty percent of the world’s opium,” he said.

“These are all signs that the British mission in Helmand have been a failure.

“They failed to prevent the Taliban come back and they are leaving it to Afghans and Americans to clean up. I see a bleak future for Helmand and southern Afghanistan now. The only hope is that the Afghan forces will be able to correct the British mistakes there.”

At Camp Leatherneck troops busied themselves with packing up, sorting out what medical equipment will go and what will remain.

Corporal Ruf Stevens, in charge of vehicle transport, returned to his hut with his assault rifle in one hand and a guitar he found in a dustbin in another.

“I just think we got the job done. It’s a dirty job but pride come with it,” he said.

The operational command centre, a small room in a wooden hut filled with surveillance screens and computers, is seeing out its final days.

Surveillance has picked up little in the way of insurgent activity in recent days as the yearly fighting season comes to an end.

After Camp Leatherneck and Bastion, the most important NATO bases will be at Kandahar, Bagram, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

There are now about 40,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, down from their 2011 peak of around 140,000.

A residual force of around 12,000 soldiers including 9,800 Americans and 500 Britons will remain after December as part of a security pact signed by new president Ashraf Ghani.

Their role will be training Afghan troops and counter-terrorism.

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US F-35′s debut at British air show in doubt

US military officers are still unsure if the F-35 fighter will be cleared to make its debut at a British air show next week, a potentially damaging setback for the costly program.

The Joint Strike Fighter has been touted as a technical marvel but the fleet remains grounded as authorities investigate what caused an engine fire last month for one of the aircraft, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

Officials had viewed the July 14-20 Farnborough International Air Show as a promising opportunity to show off the new plane before a global audience in Britain — a country that has invested heavily in the project.

But the coming-out party may be called off over safety concerns, officials said.

“There has not been a decision made on that yet,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters when asked whether the plane would fly at the event as planned.

“I think certainly we’d be disappointed if we weren’t able to take it to Farnborough.

“That said, safety’s got to be priority number one, and it is. And nobody wants to rush these aircraft back into the air before we know exactly what happened.”

Four F-35Bs, the vertical take-off version designed for the US Marine Corps, were supposed to feature in the air show, including one aircraft belonging to Britain that is undergoing tests in the United States.

Both the US Air Force and Navy last week ordered a halt to all F-35 flights following the June 23 engine fire to allow for inspections of all the aircraft.

The blaze broke out at the rear of the plane on the runway during takeoff at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, according to the Air Force. The pilot managed to exit the jet safely and the fire was put out, but officials have yet to say what exactly triggered the problem.

– ‘Fully committed’ –

The incident raised fresh questions about the F-35 program and whether it can deliver as a game-changing stealth fighter. The most expensive weapons project in US history has been plagued by repeated delays and cost overruns.

The program’s costs have swelled to nearly $400 billion for more than 2,000 aircraft, with each plane costing $160 million.

The engine fire came just as the program appeared to be gaining a more solid footing, with officials pointing to progress in keeping costs under control and staying on schedule.

Kirby said military leaders had full confidence in the aircraft and that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was due to pay a visit on Thursday to the Eglin base where the engine fire took place.

“The secretary’s visit particularly at this time sends a strong message to our international partners that the United States remains fully committed to the F-35 program,” he said.

Defense officials told AFP it was possible that three of the four planes could take part at Farnborough toward the end of the show, if aviation authorities conclude there is no serious risk to safety.

“There’s still some time to make a decision,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Officials had originally planned for the F-35B aircraft to participate this weekend in a military aviation display, the Royal International Air Tattoo, but it was unclear if authorities would be ready to take a decision in time.

British military aviation rules are stricter than US regulations and it is looking increasingly unlikely that the British-owned F-35B — now at Eglin in Florida — would make the trip across the Atlantic Ocean, officials said.

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Historic British shipyard shut as defence cuts bite

BAE Systems will axe 1,775 shipbuilding jobs and close the historic Portsmouth yard in Britain as government austerity hits demand, the British maker of military equipment said on Wednesday.

The yard in Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, will be closed in the second half of 2014, but an engineering team will be retained to support new Type 26 warships, which will be built in Scottish city Glasgow, BAE said in a statement.

The undisclosed cost of restructuring BAE’s shipbuilding business will be borne by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the company added.

At the same time, the British government is imposing deep cuts to defence budgets as part of a round of sweeping public spending reductions aimed at slashing the nation’s deficit.

The MoD also announced plans on Wednesday for BAE to build three new Offshore Patrol Vessels for the Royal Navy. BAE’s share price ended the day up 0.55 percent at 455.8 pence on London’s FTSE 100 index, which closed flat.

A total of 940 jobs will be lost in Portsmouth, with another 835 axed in Filton in the southwest and at facilities in Glasgow and Rosyth in Scotland by 2016.

Prime Minister David Cameron described Wednesday’s announcements as “extremely difficult decisions and our first thought should be with all of those who are affected”.

He told parliament: “In Portsmouth, yes there will be job reductions but there are many more people involved in ship servicing than ship building, so the workforce will go from 12,000 to 11,000.”

Portsmouth is steeped in naval history, and is home to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s preserved flagship HMS Victory, upon which the British war hero died during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

BAE Systems said it had reached a deal with the government “to enable the implementation of a restructuring of its UK naval ships business” resulting in the loss of 1.3 percent of its global workforce of 88,200 people.

“Consultation will commence on a total employee reduction of 1,775,” it added.

BAE said it had experienced a “significant” reduction in workloads following the peak of activity on its current programme to build two aircraft carriers.

‘Devastating blow’

Trade unions described the cuts as a “devastating” blow for the industry.

“There is no doubt that this is a devastating day for the UK shipbuilding industry,” said David Hulse, a senior official with the GMB union.

The newly-commissioned MoD ships will meanwhile be built at BAE’s shipyards on the (river) Clyde, Glasgow, and will play a “key role” in counter terrorism, counter-piracy and anti-smuggling operations, the MoD said in a statement.

“This deal will provide the Royal Navy with three brand new maritime patrol vessels with a wide range of capabilities which will support our national interests and those of our overseas territories,” said Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.

“This is an investment not only in three ships but in this country’s warship building industry. It prevents workers standing idle and sustains the vital skills needed to build the planned Type 26 frigate in the future.”

In addition, the MoD will invest more than �100 million ($161 million, 119 million euros) to expand the dock at Portsmouth, which will become home to the two new aircraft carriers — HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

Hammond revealed that the cost of the two new aircraft carriers had risen to �6.2 billion. That was more than double the original �3.0-billion cost when the deal was announced back in 2007 under the previous Labour government.

BAE, which has been rocked by government cutbacks to military spending worldwide, was also hit last year by the collapse of a proposed mega-merger with European aviation giant EADS.

Paris-based EADS recently warned that it will have to apply tough restructuring to its own defence activities.

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North Korea highlights British need for nuclear deterrent: PM

By on Friday, April 5th, 2013

Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday warned that Britain would be left defenceless against the “highly unpredictable and aggressive” North Korean regime if it wound down its Trident nuclear deterrent programme.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Cameron said the recent actions of North Korea coupled with concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme meant it would be “foolish” to scrap the fleet of nuclear missile submarines.

“We need our nuclear deterrent as much today as we did when a previous British government embarked on it over six decades ago… The Soviet Union no longer exists. But the nuclear threat has not gone away,” he wrote.

“The highly unpredictable and aggressive regime in North Korea recently conducted its third nuclear test and could already have enough fissile material to produce more than a dozen nuclear weapons.

“Does anyone seriously argue that it would be wise for Britain, faced with this evolving threat today, to surrender our deterrent?”

Tensions have been rising on the Korean peninsula, with Pyongyang saying on Thursday that it had approved plans for nuclear strikes on US targets.

Cameron’s Conservative Party is at odds with its junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, over the Trident programme.

The Lib Dems want Britain to consider a cheaper alternative to the Conservatives’ £20 billion ($30 billion, 23.5 billion euro) plan to replace the Trident submarines, which will approach the end of their working lives from the 2020s.

Cameron is committed to maintaining the submarine-based system, which Britain has had since the 1960s.

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British Companies Keens to Win Contracts to Upgrade Fatahillah-class

17 Januari 2013

Fatahillah class corvette (photo : Irwan)

UK defence minister bullish on arms sales

British defence companies such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce should be able to boost their sales to fast-growing markets like Indonesia without becoming entangled in corruption, according to Philip Hammond, the UK defence secretary.

On a trip to Jakarta to promote the British defence industry and deepen nascent military ties with the world’s third-largest democracy, Mr Hammond told the Financial Times the risks of doing business in Indonesia, where corruption is endemic, were “manageable”.

“From the companies I have talked to, they recognise that there is a challenge but they think that it is manageable, and they can operate here successfully while observing the UK and US legal requirements to address anti-corruption issues,” he said.

Rolls-Royce is the latest major British industrial and defence group to become bogged down in graft allegations.

It asked the Serious Fraud Office to investigate accusations that the company had engaged in bribery connected with its business in China, Indonesia and other markets.

Mr Hammond sought to play down the impact of the SFO involvement on defence sales to Indonesia, noting that it was “primarily focused” on Rolls-Royce’s civil engines business in Indonesia, not its defence business.

Under pressure from prosecutors in the US and the UK, British defence companies have been trying to improve their anti-corruption efforts in emerging markets like China and Indonesia, where facilitation payments to government officials are commonplace.

Indonesia is one of the world’s more corrupt countries, according to Transparency International, a campaign group, which placed it 118th out of 176 countries, alongside Egypt and Madagascar, in its ranking of global governance.

Some executives in Indonesia have argued that the UK’s stringent bribery law of 2010, which expressly prohibits such payments, makes it very hard to win deals.

Nonetheless, Mr Hammond said he was hopeful that defence sales could form a key part of last year’s pledge by David Cameron, the British prime minister, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s president, to double bilateral trade by 2015.

But that sales growth would not come without adjustments to military contractors’ business models, he said. As Indonesia and other emerging nations seek to deepen their manufacturing base, Mr Hammond said that military contractors would have to incorporate more local production and the transfer of technology.

“The days of bashing metal in the northwest of England, crating it up and shipping it off are over,” he said. “What people want to buy is the technology transfer and partnership but with local production, leveraging lower local production costs and also building an indigenous capability.”

Like the US, Japan and other developed nations with anaemic domestic economies, Britain is keen to win business in fast-growing markets like Indonesia.

Following the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, Mr Hammond said the UK was “looking east in a way we have not done before”.

As its economy continues to grow rapidly, and it becomes a more prominent on the global stage, Indonesia is keen to accelerate the modernisation of its military.

It has bought F16 fighters and Apache helicopters from the US, Sukhoi 27 and Sukhoi 30 fighters from Russia and missile systems from China, underlining a multilateral defence and foreign policy that eschews alliances.

Britain has sold Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles, Hawk jets and small arms to Indonesia. Now, British companies are keen to win contracts to upgrade Indonesia’s ageing Fatahillah-class frigates and other ships.

(Financial Times)

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British troops may return from Afghanistan earlier

By on Friday, September 14th, 2012

British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond is considering bringing some British troops back from Afghanistan earlier than expected, he said in an interview published Thursday.

“I think that the message I am getting clearly from the military is that it might be possible to draw down further troops in 2013,” Hammond told The Guardian in an interview at Camp Bastion in Helmand province.

Hammond said that six months ago the military was privately pushing “for keeping force levels as high as possible for as long as possible”.

But he said “I think there is a bit of a rethinking going on about how many troops we do actually need — there may be some scope for a little bit more flexibility on the way we draw down.”

The British government has said it intends to pull out all its 9,500 combat troops by the end of 2014.

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British army capable US ally despite cuts: minister

By on Thursday, July 19th, 2012

British defense minister Philip Hammond assured the United States on Wednesday that Britain’s army would remain a trusted ally, despite severe austerity measures.

“I want to reassure you about our resolve to remain a capable power,” the minister said in a speech to a Washington thinktank, the Center for a New American Security, insisting “the bonds between our armed forces are special.”

Hammond said London plans to spend around $250 billion on military equipment over the next decade and will “continue to have the fourth largest defense budget in the world, exceeding the NATO standard of two percent of GDP.”

Hammond is in the United States to receive the first international delivery of a F-35 stealth fighter, developed with the United States, and took the opportunity to explain the budget cuts to Britain’s foremost military ally.

“Our objective is clear: to maintain highly capable, agile armed forces supported by balanced budgets, disciplined processes within an efficient, effective department,” he said.

Britain’s army bore the brunt of a 2010 austerity plan, providing for an eight percent defense department budget cut over a period of four years. The plan will also eliminate at least 7,000 army posts by 2015.

“The force we’ll be able to field in 2020 will be smaller, but better equipped, better supported and better configured to meet the challenges of the new security environment,” he said.

“We’ve taken great care to protect those capabilities that underpin our value as an ally to the US and in NATO,” Hammond said, highlighting Britain’s “command capability, our special forces, our industrial and technology base, the knowledge and the experience of interoperability.”

Hammond said that, although London will seek to work “more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany the defense relationship with the US will always be paramount.”

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