Scottish independence vote threatens to ruin army reform
Names like Black Watch and Gurkhas are to stay, because Cameron doesn't fancy taking on the Scots and Joanna Lumley at once
THE GOVERNMENT, understandably, has been trying to keep defence out of politics, but it seems they cannot keep the politics out of defence.
This week we should have been given the plan for the new, smart, but much reduced army. Numbers are due to be slashed by a fifth from 102,000 to 82,000 – which leaves us with the smallest British Army since Wellington's forces were demobilised after defeating Napoleon at Waterloo some 197 years ago.
The blueprint for 'Army 2020' is to be the keystone of the government's reform of the services announced in the Strategic Security and Defence Review (SDSR) of October 2010. The RAF and the Royal Navy, including the Royal Marines, are fast being shrunk to about 30,000 each.
The fighting army is to be based on a large multi-role infantry, with many of the support arms, like the Royal Signals, being cut back as many of their tasks and roles become 'contractorised' – in other words, handed out to civilian companies.
The plans for the new model army have hit a snag, largely because the tartan card is in play yet again. It must surprise few who watch these things that the name Black Watch is now being bandied around on the airwaves and in headlines, particularly north of the border.
Army planners had suggested that at least one, and maybe even two, of the five battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland should be scrapped or merged. The Scottish regiments have long struggled to recruit fully, and the numbers have been made up with recruits from the Commonwealth.
At the last major infantry reform, the historic Scottish regiments formed into the five battalions of the new Scottish regiment, but crucially were allowed to keep their names. Thus the 3rd Battalion, or 3 Scots for short, has kept its moniker of the Black Watch.
Under the new proposals, the Black Watch faced the axe. The Scottish regiments have overlapping recruiting areas, and a disproportionate number of Scottish soldiery are drawn from Glasgow and its environs.
The Black Watch isn't the only famous Scottish regiment under threat.
There have been mutterings that the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, based on the Royal Scots Greys, is due to go under a rearrangement of the tank regiments of the Royal Armoured Corps. The Queen's Dragoon Guards – 'the Welsh cavalry' – was also due to drown in the anonymity of merger.
This week, the word round Westminster is that the Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to intervene 'personally', and the Scottish regiments, their names and emblems, are to stay. The Scottish Daily Record crows today that "Two-faced Cameron has joined our save the historic Scottish regiment names campaign".
The problem is that while there are few votes to be gained from defence policy, the government senses that there is a lot to be lost from defence decisions. Looming large over the issues of Scottish regiments and the Scottish work share from defence contracts is the referendum on Scotland's independence due in October 2014.
Sentimentality and the eye for quick political advantage are hugely damaging to the defence programme - and the viability of the fighting forces. Not that the government seems to care, as it believes it can avoid major military operations altogether once the troops come home from Afghanistan the year after next.
Some units now make little sense in their reduced form. The Gurkhas, at only a few thousand, are hugely costly to raise and recruit. "But just imagine the row if they were to go," a leading commentator averred privately this week. "Ms Joanna Lumley would be out of her box like a flash, and Cameron doesn't want to take on Ms Lumley and the Scots at the same time."
The Royal Marines, a separate fighting corps under the Royal Navy, at around 7,000 look very expensive for what they deliver as a lightish infantry brigade. The argument has long been lost, however, that they should follow the French model and be switched to the army as a separate marine infantry regiment.
The army already has the model for the future in its five-battalion Rifles regiment, which evolved from several famous regimental names including the Green Jackets and the Devon and Dorsets, eight years ago. The regiment is big enough to offer a huge choice of career experience for all ranks – so unsurprisingly it is fully recruited.
By bowing to sentiment over names and cap badges, and wielding his long tartan screwdriver from Number Ten, Cameron threatens to make a nonsense of what looks a perfectly rational reform of the army.
The trouble is that to appease the Scots, the Welsh, and the supporters of Ms Lumley, unwarranted deep cuts will be made to the Royal Engineers, the Signallers and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who have been spectacularly productive – helping improve and save many lives – in Afghanistan.