Yesterday was a grim day for service families. Although army life is dangerous in other ways, it is normally a secure source of employment, protected from the vicissitudes of the market economy. But now thousands of service families are looking anxiously into the future, following the announcement that 17 major units, including five infantry battalions, are to disappear over the next eight years. The number of regular soldiers is to be reduced by almost a fifth, from 102,000 to 82,000. That will make the Army barely half the size that it was 30 years ago during the Cold War. It is no wonder the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, conceded that "morale is fragile".
Aside from the disbanding of units with long histories and traditions, there is the loss of a valued source of employment. The Army is a major recruiter in several of the country's black spots for joblessness; it has kept generations of the same families off the dole.
The cuts cannot but reduce the UK's capacity for mounting military interventions abroad. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, British forces went into action in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq; at the start, they were still patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland. In future, the Government may have to ration itself to one conflict at a time, without any certainty that the rest of the world will oblige by doing the same. It might be tempting to argue that a smaller army might restrain any interventionist ambitions a future government might have. But, as the shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, remarked, in reply to Mr Hammond's Commons statement yesterday: "There is an arc of instability from the West African states to Central and South-east Asia. Non-state actors are on the rise, climate and population change are new sources of tension." We simply do not know what the Army will be required to do in future.
Whatever it is, however, we can be reasonably sure that to do the task properly, the Army needs a proper proportion of foot soldiers to officers. Extraordinarily, despite annual cuts across all the armed services this century, there has been one startling growth area. The number of army officers, which had shrunk to 13,600 in the 1990s, started to grow again in 2000, reaching almost 14,800. Every other branch of the armed services, including the other ranks of the Army, contracted over the same period. As the Ministry of Defence draws up plans for the next round of cuts, the first place to look must be the officers' mess.
Despite the obvious sadness of the occasion, yesterday's announcement was inevitable. We are in recession. Every part of the public sector is being cut. The police, to take one example, have to budget for a 20 per cent reduction in their central government funding by March 2015. Earlier this month, HM Inspector of Constabulary reported that this would mean a loss of 32,400 jobs overall, including a 10 per cent drop in the number of police officers, with support staff taking an even bigger hit. The NHS will lose more than 48,000 jobs, despite the special protection the Government has given the health budget. No part of the public sector is untouched.
Against this grim backdrop, the scale of the cuts that the Army is facing does not seem unreasonable. The UK has not adjusted well to its diminished status in the world. There are pensioners who remember when this was the third greatest military power. Now, in global terms, the UK economy comes sixth or seventh, on a par with Brazil. Yet Mr Hammond was able to boast yesterday that Britain's defence budget is the fourth highest in the world. His announcement, unpopular though it will be in many quarters, brings the country closer to having an army it can afford.