Defence Cuts: Too Far Too Fast?

By Loyd, Anthony | Contemporary Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Defence Cuts: Too Far Too Fast?


Loyd, Anthony, Contemporary Review


'SINCE 1991 there have been a number of developments which have added significantly to the commitments that the Army is required to meet at the same time as it is in the process of reorganising ... I am therefore announcing today measures which, together with initiatives already in train, will make available 5,000 additional men and women for the front line units of the field Army,' said The Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Malcolm Rifkind last month, heralding the government's rethink on the newest and largest defence cuts to affect the British Army since the 1960s.

Though the announcement deflected much of the criticism surrounding the cuts, and pre-emptied some of the sting from the report of the all-party Defence Select Committee released shortly afterwards, many politicians and senior military commanders are left with the fear that the Army remains overstretched by present commitments, and will be unable to deal with any further operational requirements. In the shadow of Douglas Hurd's prophetic speech concerning the world's slide into disorder, and Britain's desire to defend its place on the Security Council, some of their fears may be justified.

The conservative and incestuous nature of the British regimental system is unlikely ever to welcome amalgamations and redundancy notices. Much of the criticism levelled at the Ministry of Defence in the wake of their Options for Change review is the inevitable reaction of time-honoured tradition faced with dissolution.

However beyond the small scale political battles of regiments attempting to preserve their individual identities against the impending wave of amalgamations lurk more important questions that threaten both the morale and efficiency of the Army, and Britain's ability to respond to new international threats.

The disintegration of the Warsaw Pact spelt not only the end of a massive and clearly defined military threat in Europe, but heralded also the need for a new and accurate strategic assessment to be made by NATO allies, both for their role as NATO forces, and as individual military entities with their own national interests at heart. Essential to any such assessment on national or international level is the need to equate military commitments with available resources. In Britain's case, against a backdrop of increasing international instability, with over 2,500 British soldiers already deployed on the ground in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the highest level of troops in Northern Ireland since 1976, it is this equation which appears threatened.

Prior to Mr. Rifkind's announcement, a reduced manpower level of 116,000 troops (including 12,000 trainees) had been decided upon in 1989 during the formative stages of Options for Change. It was not until two years later, in July 1991 that Tom King, then Defence Minister, announced the full scope of formulated cuts. 'Our commitment remains clear,' he announced, 'an Army for the 90s and beyond... well able to meet both its commitments at home and abroad, and to provide for our security in the future as it has done so well in the past.'

Central to the reasoning behind the cuts was the degree of warning time afforded by the receding level of Soviet troops behind the former Iron Curtain, whose presence was drastically reduced by the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement of June 1991. No longer threatened by the possibility of an enormous armoured thrust over a long frontier with as little as perhaps 48 hours' notice, it was conceivable that the CFE agreement had given NATO troops as much as a two year warning time in which it would take Russian forces to rebuild the necessary volume of men and equipment to pose a significant invasion threat.

This would make it a pointless and unnecessarily expensive exercise for NATO to maintain its own presence at pre-CFE levels. Instead the warning time would allow for a flexible increase of new troop levels should the threat arise. …

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