In Depth

A new job for the British Army - protecting the homeland

As the 'Desert Rats' lose their tanks, the Army needs a new role - and our national security fits the bill


THE HEADQUARTERS of the 7th Armoured Brigade - the 'Desert Rats' - is to leave the dingy garrison town of Bergen–Belsen, 50 miles south of Hamburg, and move back to the UK as part of the army's accelerated exit from Germany, announced by the Ministry of Defence on Monday.

In the process, it will lose its tanks and become the 7th Infantry Brigade, whose heaviest equipment is likely to be the Jackal wheeled reconnaissance vehicle. And it will be based in the unappetising garrison town of Chilwell outside Nottingham.

You can hear the retired colonels and generals spluttering into their mid-morning pink gins. One veteran of the Desert Rats' exploits against Rommel wants to wring David Cameron's neck. But the criticism is hardly fair.

Cutting heavy tank formations is logical enough. They haven't been used in a serious two-sided conflict since Korea (few regard Iraqi conscripts or even Saddam Hussein's much-hyped Republican Guards as a serious opponent).

More tanks would be kept on if we had designed one that might have been useful in the last decade of conflict. Regimental rivalries prevented the development of a troop-carrying tank like the Israeli Merkava ('chariot' in Hebrew) where the heaviness of the tank turret and tracks provides additional protection to the infantrymen in the back – up to six of them. The Israelis even have a version fitted for medical evacuation, the 'tankbulance'. Hezbollah struggle against the Merkava – their only attack technique is to hide in a tunnel or ditch and attach a mine as the tank rolls over.

Anyway, the UK will maintain three armoured brigades equipped with both Challenger 2 tanks and tracked armoured vehicles for the infantry. The skills won't die.

But the current defence cuts are about more than the number of tanks. The army is undergoing an existential crisis.

The army's principal raison d'etre since the defeat of the Young Pretender at Culloden in 1745 – defence of the Empire – expired on 28 February 1948 when the Somerset Light Infantry marched through the Gateway to India on Bombay's dockside and onto a troop ship - to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

A bastardised version of imperial defence lived on until the evacuation of Aden in 1968 and the withdrawal from east of Suez. And, of course, the Empire struck back in the Falklands in 1982, to paraphrase the words of the famous Newsweek cover of May that year. But basically, it was over. Time to bring the troops home and turn swords into ploughshares.

This stark truth was veiled for a time by the Cold War. Armoured troops and others were required on the plains of northern Germany to counter a threat from an expansionist and aggressive Soviet Union. Some arrived direct from their imperial postings and are there to this day. But by the time my generation arrived in the British Army of the Rhine in the early 1980s, no one seriously thought the Russians would invade.

Ulster, where the army performed well in the face of great provocation for nearly 40 years, was the other veil. But despite the discovery of mortars on the Letterkenny Road in Derry this past weekend, it is hard to see that a full-scale deployment of metropolitan troops will be necessary there again. Certainly, tanks will never be required.

With the imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan the existential crisis has returned with a vengeance - the army is due to be at its smallest in over two centuries.

If a Conservative-led government, traditionally strong on defence, can do this, then it is open season. I doubt 82,000 regulars with a beefed up reserve of 30,000 or so is as small as the army is going to get. I doubt also that there is much mileage left in the idea of overseas military interventions. Unless a clear and present danger can be demonstrated to our national security, a weary and cynical electorate just won't buy it.

The chiefs of the army need a new strategy if it is to survive – and fast. A number of generals have made impassioned interventions over the last few years, painting a vivid, but bogus, picture of how our national security is affected by events in Iraq, Afghanistan or now Mali. Not one of them as far as I can tell has ever had the balls or wit to highlight the security threat at home.

Our national boundaries have been dissolved by a cross-party political elite, aided by a campaigning judiciary and an ineffective border force. It is like living in a house with no locks. The security downside can be seen in every newspaper and news bulletin – every day.

The future is protection of the homeland, in particular securing our borders. Organise, train and project the army as the vital protectors of the homeland. It's not fashionable yet. But it's coming. And it's the only sort of army the taxpayers will eventually be willing to fork out for.


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