Revealed: plan to split Army into two forces

Structural reforms will include expanding special operations, reports Kim Sengupta

The British Army is to undergo drastic structural reforms in the face of budget cuts and the changing face of conflict. Plans being drawn up will see the force split in two, with greater emphasis placed on undercover special operations, intelligence, surveillance and cyber warfare, The Independent has learned.

A blueprint entitled Army 2020 has been drawn up by Lieutenant General Nick Carter, who has been tasked with the Army's reorganisation while overall numbers are cut by a fifth. It recommends the separation of "Reaction" and "Adaptable" forces, enabling the UK to respond in an emergency while also preparing for longer-term deployment.

In addition to the Carter plan, senior officers – including, it is believed, General Sir David Richards, the head of the military – want to expand the type of combat carried out by the SAS and the SBS as well as Istar (Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance). They also want to focus on cyber security, which they argue is vital for a "lighter, more agile" type of combat.

Although the scheme will take time to come to fruition, the plans have been heavily influenced by the events of the Arab Spring, the confrontation over Iran's nuclear arsenal and the possibility of an Israeli attack as well as lessons learned from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Senior officers are urging caution over British involvement in Syria and only basic contingency plans have been made for such an operation. There is, however, much more planning for the aftermath of a possible Israeli strike on Iran.

One idea that will be considered in expanding special operations is the enlargement of the role of the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), which is based around members of the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment and augmented by troops from the Royal Marines and the RAF Regiment. The Group, which backs up the SAS and SBS, may be opened up to recruitment from a wider array of regiments. The proposals will also include expected reductions of five infantry battalions and two armoured regiments, although no regimental cap badges will be lost. The final details have not yet been finalised but, according to defence sources, the Parachute Regiment and the brigades of Guards and Gurkhas will largely escape the cuts. However, Gurkha recruits who joined reinforcement companies – set up to make up a shortfall – will face redundancy.

Two Scottish battalions are set to be axed, but Downing Street is said to be delaying signing this off because it does not want to provide a propaganda boost to Alex Salmond and the SNP with a referendum on independence on the horizon. English regiments, the Yorkshires and the Mercians, and the Royal Tank Regiments are believed to be vulnerable to losing soldiers.

The "Reaction" force, according to confidential documents, will be comprised of three armoured brigades, each with a tank regiment, two infantry regiments and an airborne brigade, commanded by a major general and armed with two regiments of Apache helicopter gunships and Warrior fighting vehicles. One armoured and one airborne battle group will be on standby.

The "Adaptable" force will consist of seven infantry brigades able to deploy for two to three years while maintaining a permanent presence in the Falklands and Cyprus. The days of 13-year commitments – which the Afghan mission will come to by the time it ends – are over, it is felt. "Not only would something like that be logistically impossible in the future, but would show a failure of strategy," said one senior officer.

No less than 30 per cent of the "Adaptable" force is meant to be made up of reservists who will "shadow" regular soldiers in exercises in preparation.

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