Britain’s new army: small but perfectly sensible
The rush to condemn the cutbacks is wrong - part-timers have a noble history in warfare
Wendi Murdoch's right hook was a joy to watch but unfortunately the ongoing News of the World farrago overshadowed a key report into the future of the UK's armed forces.
On July 18 the government announced the conclusions of its Future Force 2020 Review. It outlines what all three services will look like after withdrawal from operations in Afghanistan and the closing of our remaining bases in Germany.
Given that the country is broke, it is a good settlement that envisages a small but significant increase in the planned equipment budget for navy, army and air force, including 14 extra Chinook helicopters.
There is a catch in the plan for the regular army - numbers will reduce from 100,000 to just over 84,000, requiring the disbandment of at least two regular infantry battalions, probably from Scotland and the north-east where, despite high unemployment, recruitment is poor.
However, the size of the Territorial Army, part-time reservists, will increase by 5,000 to 36,000 with an extra £150 million available each year for their training and recruitment. By 2020 the ratio of regulars to reserves will be 70:30 and nearly all of them will be deployable.
This is building on a trend which began as the Northern Ireland Troubles drew to a close in the late 1990s when reservists began to provide troops for the Falkland Islands garrison.
Since 2002, reservists of one sort or another have provided 20,000 personnel to the conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. At any one time in Afghanistan there are 600-700 in theatre. Many of the surgeons, nurses and medical technicians who have wrought such miracles in the operating rooms of Camp Bastion are territorials. Earlier this year a territorial battalion of the British army was in charge of defending General McChrystal's headquarters in Kabul.
This brings us much more into line with Australia and Canada whose reservists are well integrated into their force structure. The Canadian guardsmen, for instance, who provided the ceremonial guards of honour for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their recent visit were all reservists and, judging by their medals, most had seen recent active service abroad.
The United States has also relied heavily on reserves for large-scale conflict throughout its history. The British troops in the First Gulf War were supported in their rapid desert advance by heavy artillery from the Arkansas National Guard. Today, if you are unlucky enough to get a ticket from a traffic cop in California or any other state in the Union there is a strong possibility that he or she will have served in a reserve military police unit in Iraq or Afghanistan, or both.
The government's plan seems eminently sensible. Spend what money there is on much needed equipment but reduce the numbers of expensive regulars. Territorials fight with the same spirit as their regular comrades and they require the same equipment. But because they have other jobs to go back to they are cheaper. No quarters, pensions, or private school fees have to be paid for and there are few senior officers.
But it has, needless to say, proved unpopular with some of the military establishment. Their allies in the press have reacted with over-the-top headlines usually containing a combination of the words 'betrayal' and 'Boer War'. To some, any reconfiguration of our armed forces is a kind of treason.
The traditional regular disdain for the part-timer is partly explained by insecurity. It is an extraordinary paradox of British military history that many of our greatest military achievements have not been by regulars at all.
Most military historians agree that the British Army reached its all-time peak performance in the last months of the Great War. The great combined arms victories over the German army of the summer and autumn of 1918 were an astonishing virtuoso display of courage and competence. Most of the frontline young officers and soldiers who actually did the fighting were short-term volunteers or reluctant conscripts who returned eagerly to civilian life. No professional British army has ever matched their fighting power.
And you never know what might happen if we adopt the American policy of encouraging talented reserve officers to transfer to full-time soldiering. That's how Colin Powell started off in the army he was to command with such distinction and wisdom - not at West Point. ·
Comments are now closed on this article