Accusations of betrayal as Hoon cuts historic regiments

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The Government unveiled the most sweeping set of Army reforms in recent history yesterday, triggering accusations of betrayal and hypocrisy.

The Government unveiled the most sweeping set of Army reforms in recent history yesterday, triggering accusations of betrayal and hypocrisy.

Under the plans, four battalions will be abolished and some of Britain's most historic regiments merged. The Scottish regiments were the most affected with five, including the Black Watch, rolled into one.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, and General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army, forcefully argued the restructuring was necessary in the post-Cold War era.

But the announcement of the measures in the Commons led to acrimonious exchanges and Annabelle Ewing, the Scottish Nationalist MP for Perth, was ordered out of the chamber after calling Mr Hoon a "backstabbing coward". Her fellow Scottish Nationalist MP Mike Weir accused the Government of "a callous betrayal" of the Black Watch, which had just returned from serving in Iraq, and the Tory foreign affairs spokesman Michael Ancram said the plans from a "discredited and ineffective Defence Secretary" marked a dark day for the Army.

As well as the creation of "super regiments" from several merged ones, a "ranger" unit will be formed to work closely with the SAS and SBS (Special Boat Service). Members of the unit will be drawn from the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, which is being removed from its regular duties.

Sir Mike said the decision to form the unit had come directly from the experiences of special forces in operations in the past 18 months in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It has become clear there is something of a gap between their capabilities and other forces. Very clearly there comes from this a requirement to provide 'semi-conventional' support in a number of areas to our highly specialised special forces."

The decision by the committee of the Army Board to carry out the regimental mergers is embarrassing for Tony Blair, who is believed to have asked senior officials, including Sir Mike, to modify the plans to save political embarrassment. Downing Street is believed to have been deeply apprehensive about the public relations ramifications of the Scottish regiments losing their historic identity in the wake of the controversial deployment of the Black Watch to central Iraq in support of American forces.

During a Downing Street meeting, Mr Blair is reported to have asked Sir Mike to "get me out of a hole". The general is said to have bluntly responded: "Selection and retention of aim is a fundamental principle of war."

The Black Watch and the other Scottish regiments will keep their names but not as individual regiments. For example the 1st Battalion, The Black Watch will now become The Black Watch (3rd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland).

They will also be able to retain accoutrements such as their "hackles" - the red feathers worn on their head-dresses. The "super regiments" will, however, have a single cap badge, which is seen by commanders as an important unifying factor in achieving a sense of identity .

Opposition to the reforms was most vocal in Scotland, where five regiments will combine to form the Royal Scottish Regiment. Jeff Duncan of the Save the Scottish Regiments Campaign said: "Regiments like the Black Watch had put their lives on the line in Iraq, and now they have been betrayed."

The plans were also bitterly condemned by Mr Ancram, who said they were driven by the Government's need to cut costs. "It is a dark day for our armed forces. And an even darker day for the proud regiments it seeks to scrap. It is also a day of shame for this discredited and ineffective Defence Secretary," he said. "Our armed forces deserve better than to be betrayed in this appalling manner by their government."

Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: "There is a balance to be struck between hi-tech forces and the more traditional capability to deploy boots on the ground, as in Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan. We must adapt for the new threats, but the old threats will not go away. Soldiers and battalions can be axed in a single sentence in the House of Commons, but it could take years to bring them back."

Mr Hoon denied that the restructuring was being driven by cost considerations. He said: "These plans will make the Army more robust and resilient, able to deploy, support and sustain the enduring expeditionary operations that are essential for a more complex and uncertain world.

"The move to larger, multibattalion regiments that these changes bring about is the only sustainable way in which to structure the infantry for the long term."