- By Region
When Philip Hammond, Britain’s defence secretary, unveils a thorough overhaul of the British Army on Thursday, one item is certain to be the focus of attention for rank-and-file soldiers: the announcement that five battalions are to be scrapped.
In a week that has seen three UK soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Mr Hammond’s announcement will be one of the most politically painful defence decisions since the government unveiled its strategic review nearly two years ago.
For weeks, speculation has been rife across the Army over where the cuts will come as generals in the Ministry of Defence seek to implement the government’s plan to reduce regular forces from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020.
Even before decisions have been made public, some in the military have expressed anger at the process. One brigadier from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers said this week that proposals to scrap historic battalions “will not best serve the armed forces” and “cannot be presented as the best or most sensible military option”.
At Westminster, Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former paratrooper, says the entire process has undermined the morale of soldiers currently on active duty by failing to scotch speculation about their units. “It has a big impact on those soldiers in Afghanistan doing a difficult job,” he says. “The government have made it more difficult.”
At the higher levels of the Army, there is less bitterness than has been mooted by some commentators. While there is an acknowledgment that the manpower cuts are painful, the generals hope the public will judge this week’s huge reform, called Army 2020, more broadly.
“You cannot judge the announcement that is coming just in terms of battalions and cap badges,” says one official. “There will be understandable sentiment about that, of course. But this will be a huge overhaul that modernises the way the Army operates and looks to create new opportunities.”
At the heart of Mr Hammond’s announcement will be a range of reforms. He will announce that the regular Army is to integrate with a larger reserve force that will be expected to play a more important role in front line operations.
The Army will also be split into two. There will be a core force focused on engagement in heavy combat at short notice; and an adaptable force equipped for a wide range of tasks depending on the nature of the operation.
However, Thursday’s statement will not end the process. The Army is looking to the government to make a range of commitments over the next few months that make the pain of the manpower cuts easier to bear.
One request may be for the government to invest heavily in a new structure of bases for UK land forces. Between now and 2020 some 20,000 troops are returning to the UK from Germany, meaning the Army will be predominantly based in Britain for the first time in the modern era. The Army wants the government to invest billions in up-front cash constructing barracks.
The Army may also hope to get a big share of a new tranche of cash that will become available in the MoD equipment budget. Mr Hammond has created some £8bn of headroom as a result of his recent balancing of the budget. Army insiders hope to get a good deal of that available cash for equipment.
The hope among generals is that the Cameron government backs and funds the new concept. “After all, we have responded creatively and positively to the tough manpower cuts the government has demanded,” says one Army official.
However, Mr Hammond’s statement on Thursday is unlikely to appease critics. Mr Jarvis believes the new 82,000 figure for the regular Army is “arbitrary” and not based on a strategic assessment. “We are sleepwalking into a period of shrinkage,” he says.
They fought with the last English king to take to the battlefield, George II, at Dettingen in 1743. They resisted the French cavalry at Waterloo in 1815, relieved Kimberley from a Boer siege in 1900, stopped the Germans on the Marne in 1914 and were pummelled on the beaches of Anzio in Italy in 1943-44.
But the 3rd battalion of the Yorkshire regiment
looks set to hang up its boots for good after more than 300 years.
Local MPs believe the 600-strong battalion, which numbered about 20,000 in the first world war, is set to be amalgamated into the other three Yorkshire battalions.
Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central, where the battalion has recruited for generations, said he feared the worst though it was “almost inconceivable” troops serving in Afghanistan would be told their battalion was being abolished. A former paratrooper, he said unit identity was vital to morale. “They fight not for Queen and prime minister but because they are in 3 Yorks,” he said.
Five battalion members were among six men killed by a roadside bomb in March, the largest single UK loss of life in Afghanistan since the conflict began. Tim Robinson, editor of the Halifax Courier
in the Dukes’ former barracks town, said the news, if confirmed, would “anger many”. “Halifax people have a deep affection for the battalion.”