A Starstreak air defense missile system is manned by members of the British Royal Artillery during a May 3 media demonstration in London. The Royal Artilllery and other British Army units are facing cutbacks under a government plan to reduce the Army's regular forces by 20,000 personnel. (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE)
LONDON — Seventeen major units are to be culled by the British Army as part of a transformation plan that will see regular force personnel numbers reduced to 82,000 from the current level of 102,000, the defense secretary announced July 5.
The extent of the personnel cuts was flagged 12 months ago by the Ministry of Defence as part of its austerity budget effort. But it has taken until this week for the details to emerge of exactly which units would be affected.
The plan is to reduce regular Army numbers while building a 30,000-strong force of reservists better able to integrate and deploy with front-line troops than the current arrangements allow.
The transformation plan, known as Army 2020, will ax five infantry battalions; three of the 14 Royal Engineer units will go, as well as three of 15 Royal Logistics Corps units.
Dropping infantry battalions from some of Britain’s most famous regiments has caused controversy in the media and elsewhere, masking the deep cuts to engineering and logistics capabilities that will in part be taken up by contractors and reserves.
Other units to be cut will be two Armoured Corps units and one unit each from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Army Air Corps, the Royal Artillery and the Military Police. The latest cuts bring to 23 the number of units to be axed by the Army since the government rolled out its 2010 strategic defense and security review.
Most of the cuts to units will kick in during the 2013 to 2015 time frame, but the Army expects to complete the wider structural changes involved in its Army 2020 plan over a five-year period. The outline plan involves high-readiness reaction forces aimed at meeting the Army’s contingency tasks, and adaptable forces based on a regional footprint and held at lower readiness.
A third force will encompass specialist support units, such as logistics and intelligence and surveillance.
The high readiness forces comprise an air assault brigade with two attack helicopter regiments and three armored infantry brigades. The lower readiness units will be made up of seven infantry brigades, comprising paired regular and reserve units.
Roles for the adaptable forces will include manning garrisons in the Falkland Islands and elsewhere overseas, and the generation of additional brigade-sized units for enduring operations.
A rebasing plan for the Army, including units returning from Britain’s pullback from Germany, is expected by early 2013.
Speaking to reporters ahead of his announcement in Parliament, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the Army is “thinking ahead beyond the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014. Looking at that challenge, the Army needs to reshape to face an increasingly uncertain world, and go back to its more usual posture of contingent capability to deal with unknown events, while the last decade has largely been about structuring the Army around a very much known event in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The cuts were condemned by Jim Murphy, the Labour Party’s shadow defense secretary, during a speech in Parliament. He said Britain’s Army is getting weaker as instability around the world increases and the U.S. military is increasingly focused on Asia.
“Plans to deliver the smallest Army since the Boer War is an entirely inadequate response,” Murphy said. “The U.K. is cutting a higher proportion of our Army than many major allies.
“With a cut of 20,000, it is inconceivable that there won’t be an impact on force projection, in particular in light of cuts to combat support and key enablers,” he said. “These plans may provide flexible forces, but it’s far from certain that it will provide sustainable military utility.
“This isn’t just a smaller Army, it’s also a less powerful Army in a less influential nation,” Murphy said.
A spokesman for a military lobby group, the UK National Defence Association, said, “These are dangerous cuts, as they can only be interpreted as an admission by the government that we can no longer play an influential role on the world stage. The government’s intention to plug some gaps in our military capability by expanding the Territorial Army is hopelessly unrealistic.”