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The British Army is set to lose 17 of its 136 major units as it aims to cut regular forces by 20,000 over the next eight years, Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, announced on Thursday.
Unveiling one of the most painful decisions on defence since the coalition came to power, Mr Hammond said the units to go include four infantry battalions and two sections of the Armoured Corps.
He insisted that the reduction in troop numbers was part of a wider strategy aimed at turning the army into a “forward-looking, modern fighting machine”. But he acknowledged to journalists that morale among UK land forces was now “fragile” as a result of the cuts, even if he insisted it remained upbeat among troops deployed in Afghanistan.
The removal of the 17 units and the reduction of the regular army by 20 per cent make Thursday’s announcement the biggest overhaul in UK land forces since the end of National Service at the end of the 1960s.
It means the number of regular soldiers will be at 82,000, while reservists will double to 30,000. This will mean the regular army will be about half the size it was during the cold war era and its smallest since the Napoleonic wars at the start of the 19th century.
Mr Hammond told MPs that after a decade of enduring operations, “we need to transform the army and build a balanced, capable and adaptable force ready to face the future”.
He said the overhaul of land forces – called Army 2020 – would create a more flexible and agile army. “Unlike the past, it will be set on a firm foundation of men and material, well trained, well equipped and fully funded,” he said.
For Labour, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy accused ministers of putting ”savings before strategy”. He said jobs and military capability have been lost and tradition and history sacrificed.
Mr Murphy added: “This isn’t just a smaller army, it’s also a less powerful army in a less influential nation. Our armed forces and their families deserve better.’’
James Arbuthnot, chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said the Army 2020 plan “relies on an increased recruitment of reservists unparalleled in modern history”. He asked Mr Hammond to explain what incentives will be offered to employers to release their best workers to serve their country.
Mr Hammond replied: “The co-operation with employers will be absolutely critical, we will be publishing a consultation paper in the autumn on our proposed changes and our engagement with employers – the offer if you like. We will bring forward our final proposals in the new year and if it requires legislation in order to implement our vision of reserves, we will legislate.’’