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Defence cuts: too far too fast?

'SINCE 1991 there have been a number of developments which have added significantly to the commitments that the Army is required to meet at the same time as it is in the process of reorganising ... I am therefore announcing today measures which, together with initiatives already in train, will make available 5,000 additional men and women for the front line units of the field Army,' said The Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Malcolm Rifkind last month, heralding the government's rethink on the newest and largest defence cuts to affect the British Army since the 1960s.

Though the announcement deflected much of the criticism surrounding the cuts, and pre-emptied some of the sting from the report of the all-party Defence Select Committee released shortly afterwards, many politicians and senior military commanders are left with the fear that the Army remains overstretched by present commitments, and will be unable to deal with any further operational requirements. In the shadow of Douglas Hurd's prophetic speech concerning the world's slide into disorder, and Britain's desire to defend its place on the Security Council, some of their fears may be justified.

The conservative and incestuous nature of the British regimental system is unlikely ever to welcome amalgamations and redundancy notices. Much of the criticism levelled at the Ministry of Defence in the wake of their Options for Change review is the inevitable reaction of time-honoured tradition faced with dissolution.

However beyond the small scale political battles of regiments attempting to preserve their individual identities against the impending wave of amalgamations lurk more important questions that threaten both the morale and efficiency of the Army, and Britain's ability to respond to new international threats.

The disintegration of the Warsaw Pact spelt not only the end of a massive and clearly defined military threat in Europe, but heralded also the need for a new and accurate strategic assessment to be made by NATO allies, both for their role as NATO forces, and as individual military entities with their own national interests at heart. Essential to any such assessment on national or international level is the need to equate military commitments with available resources. In Britain's case, against a backdrop of increasing international instability, with over 2,500 British soldiers already deployed on the ground in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the highest level of troops in Northern Ireland since 1976, it is this equation which appears threatened.

Prior to Mr. Rifkind's announcement, a reduced manpower level of 116,000 troops (including 12,000 trainees) had been decided upon in 1989 during the formative stages of Options for Change. It was not until two years later, in July 1991 that Tom King, then Defence Minister, announced the full scope of formulated cuts. 'Our commitment remains clear,' he announced, 'an Army for the 90s and beyond... well able to meet both its commitments at home and abroad, and to provide for our security in the future as it has done so well in the past.'

Central to the reasoning behind the cuts was the degree of warning time afforded by the receding level of Soviet troops behind the former Iron Curtain, whose presence was drastically reduced by the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement of June 1991. No longer threatened by the possibility of an enormous armoured thrust over a long frontier with as little as perhaps 48 hours' notice, it was conceivable that the CFE agreement had given NATO troops as much as a two year warning time in which it would take Russian forces to rebuild the necessary volume of men and equipment to pose a significant invasion threat.

This would make it a pointless and unnecessarily expensive exercise for NATO to maintain its own presence at pre-CFE levels. Instead the warning time would allow for a flexible increase of new troop levels should the threat arise. A significant level of forces were to stay though, for in spite of the CFE agreement Russia would remain, in the Defence Minister's words, 'a military super-power with much the largest conventional forces of any state in Europe, unconstrained forces East of the Urals and nuclear capability on a huge scale. This power can best continue to be counter-balanced by the collective security provided by the North Atlantic Alliance.'

In order to fulfil its continuing, though reconstituted role, the British Army is to maintain its forward presence in Germany. Though the overall number of troops there is in the process of its Options reduction to nearly half of its original 50,000 strength, those remaining have become the linch-pin of the new, smaller European force structure agreed upon by NATO countries in Brussels in May 1991, the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC). Comprising of four divisions, two of them entirely British, and with the further contribution of an airmobile brigade to one of the multinational divisions, the ARRC is commanded by a British General with a multinational Corps Headquarters. Each British division consists of three brigades, each of those in turn made up of a varying combination of four tank, infantry, or airborne regiments, according to specified role.

Furthermore, Options reduces the infantry battalions available as United Kingdom Land Forces to seventeen, plus engineer, signals, and aviation support. One further infantry battalion remains as an immediate (as opposed to rapid) reaction force--the ACE Mobile Force, (AMF) based in the United Kingdom, while five further battalions, including the three remaining Ghurka regiments, constitute overseas garrisons in Cyprus, Hong Kong and Brunei.

It is ironic that it is the teeth arms, the tank and infantry regiments, that have been bitten hardest by Options, for it is they who provide the cutting edge of any operational deployment. In numerical terms by 1995 the army will have been reduced from 144,000 to 106,000 trained personnel; the infantry from their 1991 level of 50 battalions to 40 battalions, the tank regiments from 19 to 11. Though supporting arms will also suffer, it will not be to the same degree; indeed the Army Air Corps looks set to benefit from Options in keeping with the increased significance given to the helicopter on the modern battlefield, while remaining artillery regiments will have their firepower enhanced by MLRS and AS90 weapon systems.

Were it simply a matter of Britain scaling down its commitments to the army's traditional roles the changes resulting from Options might have met less resistance. However, that is not the case, and opponents of the cuts have identified three major flaws in their concept and effect: the lack of a coherent strategic overview, insufficient leeway to deal with the unexpected, and an unacceptable level of strain in dealing with present 'peacetime' commitments.

Inspite of Tom King's words, the extent of the Russian threat remains a contentious issue, and many argue that the ARRC is a creation that locks a large number of troops into a NATO theatre in an obsolete role, where their presence is one of political symbolism rather than a counter to conceivable reality. Whatever the case, Options made scant reference to alternative flashpoints in its original form, failing conspicuously at the time to anticipate beyond Germany. Already since its implementation the first British soldier has been killed in Bosnia; in Cambodia UN soldiers, among them British troops, are being taken 'hostage by an increasingly uncooperative and hostile Khmer Rouge; Kuwait has requested a further allied troop presence following air strikes on Iraq, while Britain has failed to provide troops at the request of the United Nations to join the French and US contingents operating in Somalia. A Pentagon threat assessment leaked at the beginning of 1992 included two further scenarios for a 1990s' war involving British forces; a war to repel the Russian invasion of a Baltic state, and simultaneous war against North Korea and Iraq. It is not perhaps surprising that Mr. Rifkind has opted to 'adjust' the depth of the cuts.

Though the precise organisation and tasking of the ARRC has yet to be finalised, its formation has been disrupted to cater for the unforeseen additional troop requirements to Bosnia and Ulster. The infantry battalions it 'has lost to those locations will find themselves the vanguard of troops 'double-hatted' to two or more roles. In itself this is nothing new, but it should provoke the need for a reconsideration as to the exact nature and purpose of the ARRC, which will soon discover increasing numbers of its component units become absent on active duty elsewhere.

The army has had over twenty years' experience embroiled in the troubles of Northern Ireland, yet the strain on its resources there appears greater than ever following Options. Including troops already there, troops training in preparation to go, and troops retraining subsequent to returning from the province, it holds down over 20,000 soldiers. Military personnel are sent there on one of three possible tour types. The garrison tour is two years long, the 'official' emergency tour six months (usually with a considerable warning period first) while the 'true' emergency tour is up to six months, with minimum prior warning time, and usually in response to a particular upsurge in violence. Options intended to increase the interval between soldiers' unaccompanied tours to 24 months but instead infantry battalions are finding as little as 15 months between such tours, sometimes less. This is due not only to an increased level of sectarian violence but also the smaller overall number of available infantry regiments. Though the government hopes the situation will be resolved eventually with new tour cycles involving greater use of the Royal Marines and Royal Armoured Corps in the province, they admit that things are unlikely to improve for at least three years.

The knock-on effect is damaging. Training and structural cohesion become the first casualties as brigades are fragmented to deal with the sudden short-term obligations, while manning levels are further undermined. Though there has been a cap on recruiting, the level of entrants into the army is still too few. This owes much to a demography that ensures that by 1995 the male recruiting age group will be 25 per cent smaller than it was in 1985. Meanwhile vital experience is lost as many officers and NCOs unaffected by the cuts leave prematurely to escape the unacceptable disruption that they find their families exposed to.

A correct judgement of the army's size is impossible. Almost any ceiling could be justified to deal with some or other contingency plan. Yet if, as it at present seems, the manpower-intensive operations of peacekeeping and humanitarian aid will predominate amongst the tasks of the British Army, then the arms most suitable to undertake them will find themselves hard pressed to cope even without an escalation in workload, and in spite of the presence of the two extra infantry battalions saved from amalgamation last month. MPs of the Defence Select Committee appointed to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the MoD, already highly critical of Options, suggest that Britain's efforts in the Gulf War could now only be repeated with a far greater dependence on reservists, significantly fewer forces left in Germany, and an atmosphere of 'detente and stability' in Europe: high risk prerequisites without guarantee.

If Britain is to keep its place on the Security Council and carry the responsibilities integral to that of a medium-power nation, then it must ensure that its army is of adequate size and capability. As the situation stands, the future will not necessarily be one of humiliation. It is conceivable that the situation in Ulster may improve enough to release at least some troops for other duties, while the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese will afford a further two infantry battalions to be deployed elsewhere. Likewise if the ARRC adopts a more flexible mandate for 'out of area' operations the situation would be considerably alleviated.

Cynics suggest that the government has conceded a revision of the cuts only because its narrow majority forced it to listen to a Select Committee and backbench unrest. More likely is that the potential international repercussions that would result from any repeated inability to provide for United Nations' requirements have provoked the response.
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Title Annotation:United Kingdom
Author:Loyd, Anthony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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