1981 Defence White Paper

The 1981 Defence White Paper (titled "The UK Defence Programme: The Way Forward" Cmnd 8288) was a major review of the United Kingdom's defence policy brought about by the Conservative government under the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The main author was the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott. The aim of the review was to reduce expenditure during the early 1980s recession and to focus on supporting NATO rather than out of area operations. It was ultimately judged however to have been extremely detrimental to the Defence of the Realm, being among other things widely considered to have been one of the contributing factors that led to the outbreak of the Falklands War.

British Army

The regular army was to be reduced to 135,000 men, a loss of 7,000, which was to be partly offset by the gradual expansion of the Territorial Army by a figure of 16,000. In Germany, Britain's NATO land commitment was to be reduced by about 2,000, giving a total of 55,000. This was to be achieved by the withdrawal of a divisional headquarters.[1]

In Nott's statement, it was announced that four armoured regiments would be equipped with the Challenger tank, while there would be an increase in the order of the MILAN anti-tank missile.[1]

Royal Navy

This review proposed extensive cuts to the Royal Navy, including the sale of the new aircraft carrier Invincible to Australia. Under the review, the Royal Navy was focused primarily on anti-submarine warfare under the auspices of NATO. Any out-of-area amphibious operations were considered unlikely. The entire Royal Marine amphibious force was in jeopardy of being disbanded and the sale of Intrepid and Fearless was mooted.[2] Although an additional Type 22 frigate was confirmed ordered, Nott stated that nine of the navy's 59 escorts would be decommissioned, mainly from the County, Leander, and Rothesay classes. This decision was attributed to the growing cost of refitting and maintaining older warships. Alongside the proposed hull cuts, Nott revealed that the navy would incur a manpower reduction of between 8,000 and 10,000 people.[1]

Nott announced an order for five nuclear-powered attack submarines, increasing the total to 17. The Royal Navy's building programme of 20 warships was to be unaffected by the cuts, as would the navy's acquisition of the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile.[1]

The ice patrol ship Endurance was also due to be withdrawn from the South Atlantic. This was interpreted as a sign of weakness by the Argentine Government, encouraging the invasion of the Falkland Islands. Chatham Dockyard was also to be closed as an operational base. Feasibility studies for the Type 43 and Type 44 destroyers were also cancelled, together with the Sea Dart MkII surface-to-air missile.

Royal Air Force

Manpower losses for the Royal Air Force would amount to 2,500, but the white paper committed to retaining all of the RAF's projects, and confirmed the procurement of the AV-8B Harrier in collaboration with the United States. Two F-4 Phantom squadrons were to be retained rather than being phased out with the introduction of the Panavia Tornado ADV, while the number of refitted Nimrod Mk II maritime patrol aircraft would be increased by three to 34.[1]

Reflecting the white paper's emphasis on air defence, the number of Hawk trainers equipped with the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile would be doubled to 72 with the intention of augmenting the Royal Air Force's front-line fighter squadrons.[1]


In a 1982 live interview about the White Paper for the BBC 2 television programme Newsnight, during the interview by broadcaster Robin Day, taking umbrage at a perceived insult when Day made the comment on the lines that the public might question the judgement of a "here-today, gone-tomorrow politician" on the best long term defence interests of the country, Nott stood up, took off his microphone, and walked out on the interview.


  1. The Times (60964), p. 1: "Nott axes warships, 19,500 men and Chatham dockyard". 26 June 1981.
  2. Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins: The Battle for the Falklands, chapter 5: "Task Force": "In the previous decade, the very existence of the marines had come into question." and "both the assault ships Fearless and Intrepid were at that time threatened with sale to foreign powers"
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