Army reserves fully stretched by peace role: Christopher Bellamy explains why committing more troops to Bosnia is a problem for the Army

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The Independent Online
UNDER THE Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia, the Army will probably have to increase its forces to brigade strength - more than 5,000 troops.

The requirement would have 'pretty wide implications for the planners and for the future structure of the Army', one senior civil servant told MPs yesterday. In other words, it will mean halting the reduction in army strength by 1995 from 156,000 to 116,000 - 104,000 of whom will be fully trained.

How is it that an army designed to fight the Russians is, according to reluctant Ministry of Defence officials who were being questioned yesterday by the select committee for defence, now stretched to breaking point to meet relatively small commitments in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and a handful of former colonies around the world? Is this not just a sophisticated piece of lobbying by the generals and defence civil servants, ably abetted by MPs seeking to curry favour with their constituents by reprieving local regiments?

When the Cold War ended after 45 years a massive reduction in armed forces looked inevitable and unavoidable. In fact, the forces of western nations have been busier doing a job for real - as opposed to preparing for the unthinkable - than at any time since 1945. Britain has 3,000 troops involved in peacekeeping and related operations world-wide - five times the number two years ago. Even so, the commitment is trivial compared with that the Cold War armies were designed to face. So why, even if substantially reduced, can they not handle it?

The main problem is that Britain is not at war. Therefore, volunteer armed forces need a reasonable quality of life, and reserves, which were expected to be crucial in major war, do not enter into the picture. Perhaps those assumptions should be re-examined. Maybe we are, for the foreseeable future, in a state of 'permanent tension'. But even the keenest troops cannot be kept in a state of 'permanent tension' for years.

The Government has said that it wants units to have 24 months - an increase from 15 months - between the six-month 'emergency tours' where they are separated from family and constantly on alert. In fact, young soldiers and officers without family commitments like going on active service. That is what they joined for. But even so, they still need time to rest and train for the next role.

Concern has focused on the infantry battalions - reducing from 50 (excluding five Gurkha) to 36. Ten are in Northern Ireland. But why is it so difficult to have more than one in Bosnia?

Out of 148,000 troops, about 12,000 are under training. The largest concentration, 56,000, is in mainland Britain, but many of those are training, are preparing to go to Northern Ireland, are in the process of amalgamation, or unsuitable for UN peacekeeping, mechanised infantry roles.

About 45,000 - 10 battalions - remain in Germany, after battalions have been sent to Bosnia and Northern Ireland, including two in Berlin. The Berlin garrison looks an anachronism but Britain is obliged to keep forces there until the Russians finally withdraw next year. The same can be said for Hong Kong and Cyprus, where Britain again has international commitments. The forces in Brunei are Gurkhas - unsuitable for Bosnia-type operations. Those in Belize are also committed as a stabilising influence in the region, although the British Army has been trying to extricate itself.

About 18,000 troops - 10 infantry battalions and other units in the infantry role - are in Northern Ireland. Six battalions are resident; four are from Germany and the UK, on 'emergency tours'.

The reductions in army strength currently taking place take account of discarded commitments and still allow some spare capacity for the unexpected. The problem is not so much the final strength of the Army, but that it is in the middle of reorganisation. Take two battalions or regiments - the main building block of about 600 troops - of the old Army. In the new Army, they will be one. But, right now, while the amalgamations are taking place they are, for operational purposes, zero. That is much of the problem.

Nor is it just a question of numbers of troops or battalions. Bosnia requires mechanised infantry. A 'light scale battalion' - or the Royal Marines, for that matter - is not really suitable. When the expedition to Bosnia was announced, the Cheshires were the only full battalion at the right stage of training on the heavy armoured infantry vehicles.

The Vance-Owen peace plan proposes a Bosnia of 10 semi- autonomous provinces. Although the MoD insisted last night that the UN had not asked Britain to secure one of those areas, the British will almost certainly get Croatian-controlled area 10, coinciding with, but larger than, the area where they are now.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE BRITISH ARMY AROUND THE WORLD ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 FEBRUARY 1993 Total Infantry troops battalions Britain 59,000 20 Northern Ireland 18,000 10 Germany 45,000 10* Bosnia/Croatia 3,000 2 Falkland Islands 500 1 Hong Kong 6,000 3 Cyprus 2,750 2 Brunei 800 1 Belize 1,000 1 Training 12,000 TOTAL 148,000 50 * includes 2 in Berlin -----------------------------------------------------------------