5 Jul 2012

How will cuts hit Britain’s future defence role?

A 20 per cent cut in the size of the army is announced today. But as Britain continues to punch above its weight militarily, Carl Dinnen asks if this is the first step on the road to a beating.

Just after midday the future of the army will be unveiled in the House of Commons by the Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond.

We already know that the government wants to shrink the size of the army from 102,000 to 82,000. In a few years the whole British Army will be able to visit Wembley Stadium together (with room to spare for 8 thousand Royal Marines).

Units expected to be cut are 5 Scots (The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders), 3 Mercian, 2 Royal Welsh, 2 Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and a battalion from the Yorkshire Regiment. 3 Yorks might escape the chop by virtue of being on operations in Afghanistan.

There is barely concealed fury about this. These are the sorts of thing military people were telling me yesterday: “Morale has never been as low as it is now,” said one. “Spineless fools in Westminster making decisions about something they do not understand,” said another. “It’s all nonsense,” said a third.

All agree that the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review was based not on strategy, as the government claimed, but on cost. That perceived deceit is what annoys senior military folk the most.

Substantial reductions

The regimental cuts will grab the headlines, but at least as significant will be the substantial reductions to the support arms: the Royal Artillery, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Royal Logistic Corps, the Corps of Royal Engineers, will all have their numbers cut massively. The damage is likely to be between a fifth and a third in each case.

To make up for all of this, the government wants reservists (like the Territorial Army) to play a much bigger role and private contractors will do more in the future too. But the quantity and quality of future reserve forces and contractors is much harder to guarantee than that of regular forces.

Expect the political arguments to sound familiar: “the government is managing decline”, “the opposition left such a mess we have to”. Although the truth is that Britain is still a reasonably sized power with the world’s fourth largest defence budget, backed by the seventh largest economy.

As a nation, the UK probably can still claim to punch above its weight. But I think it was a military man who said that punching above your weight is the first step on the road to taking a beating. So Britain won’t be doing any of that on its own.