The cutting of one-fifth of the British Army’s strength – its most fundamental restructuring in recent times – is being held up by Downing Street’s unease over cuts to Scottish regiments, according to Whitehall officials.
The final details of the scaling back of numbers from 102,000 to 82,000, have been broadly agreed between senior officers and the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
But No 10 is said to be apprehensive about handing a propaganda coup to Scottish nationalists ahead of the referendum on independence.
Entire units are due to disappear under the proposed reduction of manpower.
Although none of the historic cap badges will be lost, the plans are said to include Scottish regiments losing battalions, a decision, defence planners maintain, which is justified on recruitment and demographic grounds.
Speaking at RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) today, Mr Hammond said: “While we are determined to maintain an effective regimental system, it must be based on the realities of today, and the primacy of capability. That means focussing on analysis of recruitment performance, demographic trends and future recruiting needs.”
But a senior Whitehall official stressed: “The Scottish regiments are a highly sensitive issue and there is concern in Downing Street on how battalions being cut will play up there. There are discussions on how best to go about this. One can’t have military decisions in isolation, other factors need to be considered.”
Current and former army officers warned the Government against letting political considerations dictate the policy over the restructuring. Colonel Bob Stewart, the Bosnia veteran and Conservative MP, pointed out that English regiments suffered disproportionately in the last round of cuts. “This time the Scottish regiments will have to take their share,” he said, adding that otherwise MPs “will fight like hell for their local regiments” in the Commons.
Colonel Stewart said that it was common consensus that an army falling below 100,000 is no longer an army, but a self-defence force. Mr Hammond rejected the charge, insisting that the British Army, although smaller, would be highly effective and would receive the best equipment available.
The economic crisis means that the cuts are inevitable for the UK’s military. In reality this means, however, that it would be extremely difficult for the UK to embark again on a prolonged expeditionary war such as Afghanistan, and even large scale missions would have to be undertaken along with allied countries.
The shortfall in regular troops is due to be made up by expanding the role of reservists whose numbers, it is planned, will rise from around 18,000 to 30,000 at a cost of £ 1.8 billion. There will also be an expansion of the role of private security companies taking over duties currently performed by soldiers.
The reservists will be more integrated with regular forces on deployment. The security companies will be engaged in providing support services such as logistics. The plan would be to leave the “teeth arm” combat units, who would be relatively untouched by the cuts, to concentrate on warfighting. However, a boom in the private security sector has seen increasing numbers from frontline units switching over. According to official figures, 570 Royal Marines and 170 from the Parachute Regiment left the services between 2009 and 2011, many of them experienced non-commissioned officers.
The Labour defence spokesman Jim Murphy said: “It will strike many as perverse if not self-defeating to sack 30,000 from the Forces only to hire private contractors. The Government plans to plug self-made capability gaps rather than reform our Forces for the future.”