General Sir Mike Jackson: 'I was skating on some thin ice, but I made damn certain I was not going to fall through'

The Monday Interview: Chief of the General Staff

General Sir Mike Jackson, 60, is surprisingly image-conscious for someone regarded as a "soldier's soldier". He had the famous bags surgically removed from under his eyes and when interviewed in his newly refurbished office at the Ministry of Defence, he refused to have a photograph taken of him in a suit.

General Sir Mike Jackson, 60, is surprisingly image-conscious for someone regarded as a "soldier's soldier". He had the famous bags surgically removed from under his eyes and when interviewed in his newly refurbished office at the Ministry of Defence, he refused to have a photograph taken of him in a suit.

The Chief of the General Staff (CGS), who is in charge of the British Army, prefers to be seen in uniform, proudly sporting the maroon beret of his old regiment, the Paras.

The gravelly voiced CGS is highly respected, but may come to haunt some old soldiers this Christmas. He is preparing for the painful announcement by the Army Board that four of the Army's historic battalions are to be disbanded and merged into bigger regiments.

Sir Mike confirmed that the Army Board, on which he sits, will announce the decision before Christmas and it will reduce the number of regular battalions by four, from 40 to 36. "I am quite confident of that. It's still four battalions," he said.

It is widely expected that the Black Watch will be brought back next month from its hazardous operation in Iraq to hear that it is among the battalions to go, in spite of a campaign to save it in Scotland, and the personal intervention of the Prime Minister.

"Yes, people are going to be sad," he said. "I dare some people will say, 'Bloody man Jackson - why is he doing this?' That is the heart talking. The head will say, once we have got from A to B, although it's a pretty uncomfortable road sometimes, it will be more than worth it."

He is adamant that the restructuring of the armed forces will give Britain a more flexible and capable army to meet the more unpredictable threats posed by terrorism, civil war and Muslim extremism. Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, is among those keen to save the identity of their local regimental links. Mr George has told Sir Mike he wants to preserve the Staffordshire Regiment.

"I fully understand the people like Bruce George who are very fond on their local regiment," he said. "These things are part of the local and regional fabric. The reason for making this quite substantial change to the half of the infantry which aren't already on a large regiment basis is to provide the Army with a better capability."

But he is also determined to ensure that the proud history of the regiments are not lost. The museums and regimental silver will be preserved, along with the cap badges. "It is not a bonfire ... It's not as it if hasn't happened before. If you look at the antecedents of most regiments, they amalgamate, change, it's ongoing."

Sir Mike was born into the Army. His father was in the Army, and "Mike", as he likes to be known, joined at 19. He was commissioned into the intelligence corps, specialising in the threat from the Soviet Union, before joining the Parachute Regiment in 1970. Leading a parachute company in Ulster at the start of the Troubles, he rose to command the first battalion of the Parachute Regiment but became famous in the Balkans in the 1990s, leading the UN peace-keeping forces with a firm hand.

His judgement was tested when the Nato commander, General Wesley Clark, ordered him to intercept Russian forces who had entered Kosovo without agreement. "I'm not going to start the Third World War for you," he is reported to have told the US general. After that, he was dubbed "Macho Jacko" by the British tabloid press.

It grieves him to be the one who, with the Army Board, disbands the Black Watch. "I don't want to do it. I would much rather those four battalions don't have to go. It goes back, I am afraid, to the fact that you have to make the Army as good as you can get it within the resources given to you and I have to put those resources elsewhere," he said.

It was reported last weekend that Mr Blair had personally appealed to Sir Mike to preserve the Black Watch because of the political fall-out. Sir Mike confirmed he had had a private meeting with the Prime Minister. He said he had told Mr Blair the "selection and maintenance of the aim is a fundamental principle of war". He did not deny that Mr Blair had retorted, "I need you to get me out of this hole," but described the report as "colourful".

Some critics have complained that elite regiments, such as the Guards, have not been threatened with the axe. But Sir Mike said the Guards battalions "did not come up on the radar screen as poorly manned" - unlike some of the Scottish regiments, which have been forced to recruit from the Commonwealth countries and and other nations.

One of the Black Watch soldiers to die on their current posting to Camp Dogwood in Iraq was from Fiji.

It has also been pointed out that Sir Mike avoided axing his former regiment. It was like "skating on thin ice", he admits. "The fact I am Chief of the General Staff and late of the Parachute Regiment puts me on some thin ice. And I made damn certain I was not going to fall through it. I am utterly confident that the whole of the Army Board are of the same view. There was no dissent on this point. I even offered to leave the room while it was discussed."

Another factor that weighed in the Parachute Regiment's favour was that it supplies more than 50 per cent of Britain's special forces, although it represents only 2 per cent of the Army. A new unit of special forces, to meet the terrorist threat, is almost certain to be on his secret plans. When asked, he hesitated, then gave the clearest hint that a brother unit of the SAS will be formed.

"There are rules about the special forces. I shouldn't comment," he replied. "All I would say is that the structure and capability of our special forces are kept under review all the time." As part of the wholesale restructuring of the infantry, Sir Mike is phasing out the "arms plot" system, which involves moving battalions between locations and roles every few years. It will give Army families more stability, and the mergers will allow soldiers to widen their experience.

"If you move between battalions, you are still within the same tribe," he said.

The future Army structure will have 40 fewer Challenger tanks in the Army's heavy forces, and switch to more medium forces that can be deployed more rapidly than heavy armour but can deliver more punch than light forces. Critics say that its success will depend on new technology - including a new combat support vehicle - being delivered on time and on cost between 2008 and 2012.

It is not hard to imagine "Macho Jacko" kicking down doors, and the Treasury woodwork could see some damage if the costs mount, as they usually do with defence projects. Another civil emergency in Britain, such as the foot-and-mouth outbreak, or the firemen's strike, could also upset the best-laid plans. Sir Mike has no extra men to spare to factor in Army support for a disaster on the home front.

The Iraq war is adding to the strain on the British Army, but its chief says it is "nonsense" to claim that it is "at breaking point". He also dismisses the assertion by Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, that the deployment of the Black Watch outside the British-controlled Basra region marked the start of "mission creep" in Iraq. Sir Mike says the mission for the British Army was for Iraq as a whole, not one corner of it.

He is clear that when the Black Watch are withdrawn, as promised, before Christmas from Camp Dogwood, they will not be replaced by another British unit. Their task was related to the US-led action in Fallujah, and now that has ended, there is no operational need for the British to send more troops to Camp Dogwood. "The military task will not be there. There will be no requirement," he said. But he is prepared to send more British troops to other parts of Iraq if necessary.

"They all have been [in the Basra area] until this one-off deployment of the Black Watch. That is not to say there may be a military requirement within the coalition as a whole for a British unit to be elsewhere.

"That is not mission creep in my view. The mission is Iraq. The mission is to provide Iraq with its political and economic future," he said.

Are we living in a more dangerous age, post-Iraq? "It's more 'challenging', is the word I would use, in that it's clear a minority and I believe a pretty small minority of Iraqis with some outside assistance cannot face the idea of progress in Iraq and are prepared to do some pretty revolting things to prevent it," he replied. "And they cannot be allowed to succeed." The forces are braced for an upsurge in violence in the run-up to the January elections. The mandate for the coalition forces in Iraq runs out in December next year, when the new sovereign Iraqi Government is due to be elected.

Most people think by then, British forces will be withdrawn, but the general hinted it could be more open-ended. "How long we stay there is going to be event driven."

The reforms could be the most sweeping since the end of the Crimean War, when the modern Army was created. Sir Mike recalls that the obituary of one old soldier said he would be glad to have died before his regiment had been reduced from the 42nd to the name of a county town. Sir Mike, a member of Mensa, said: " Plus ça change."

THE CV

Born: 21 March 1944

Education: Stamford School, RMA Sandhurst, Birmingham University

Personal: Married, with two sons and a daughter

1963 Intelligence Corps

1970 Parachute Regiment

1989 CO 39 Infantry Brigade, Northern Ireland

1995 CO UN-profor Bosnia

1996 Bosnia CO I-For

1997 Commander ACE rapid Reaction Corps

1998 KCB

1999 Commander Kosovo Force

2000 Commander in Chief Land Command

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