Regiments face the axe in defence overhaul

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Indy Politics

The most radical overhaul of Britain's regimental system in more than a century is being prepared by defence chiefs who want lighter, more mobile forces.

The most radical overhaul of Britain's regimental system in more than a century is being prepared by defence chiefs who want lighter, more mobile forces.

Some of the most famous cap badges in the armed forces, including the Black Watch and the Green Howards, could be threatened by plans to specialise battalions, discussed by service heads last Monday.

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is fighting off Treasury-imposed cuts that could total £1.2bn a year.

Officials insist, however, that the shake-up of the regimental system is needed because of Britain's involvement in an increasing number of complex missions worldwide.

With British troops already committed to nearly half-a-dozen conflict areas from the Balkans and Sierra Leone to Afghanistan and Iraq, the need for reform has become pressing.

A glimpse of the new, expeditionary army was given in a speech by the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, at a Royal United Services Institute seminar last week. British soldiers must now be able to fight what he termed the "three block war".

"A soldier is now asked to fight a dirty, hand-to-hand, urban fight, conduct peace operations and provide humanitarian assistance all in the same operation. Recent experience in Baghdad, Basra and other places suggests that operations flow from war fighting to peace support and humanitarian actions and back without any obvious demarcation."

One of the biggest changes under discussion is to end what is known as "arms plotting", the system of deploying regiments introduced by Viscount Cardwell between 1868 and 1874.

Under the system one battalion of a regiment stays at home close to the recruiting area while the other battalion is on operations overseas, with the two battalions swapping round every few years.

Today this means regiments regularly move base and change roles every few years. Theses changes of barracks and accommodation are becoming too costly, according to MoD officials.

One view is that regular infantry regiments should be made up of at least three regular battalions, each with its own fixed base and speciality - with members of the regiment moving around between the battalions to broaden skills and win promotion.

However, this raises questions over infantry regiments that have just one regular battalion, such as the Green Howards, the Devon and Dorsets, the Cheshire, the Black Watch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Officially, any changes to the structure of the Army, along with those of the Navy and RAF, are still "matters for discussion". But the review has become linked to the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which decides Whitehall funding for the next three years.

If Treasury demands for a £1.2bn annual cut are met in full, the Navy and Air Force are likely to lose several thousand personnel - between 7,000 and 9,000 in the case of the RAF. The Army is due to lose four out of its 40 infantry battalions as a result of the winding down of its presence in Northern Ireland.

Tony Blair had hoped to be able to announce his spending plans this week but the announcement has been delayed because of the row over the budget cuts.

Officials admit that both sides are refusing to give way, promising a classic Whitehall bust-up.