Yesterday’s shakeup of the army was dictated by the need for a “more agile and mobile force”, not by pressure to make cuts, General Sir Mike Jackson, the chief of the general staff, insisted yesterday.
Echoing comments made in the Commons by the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, he talked about the need for a more “robust” infantry, better equipped for the sort of expeditionary operations abroad to which military chiefs have committed themselves.
The army has been helped by progress towards “normalisation” in Northern Ireland, which has freed up some 3,000 troops – more than the number of infantry soldiers to be cut in yesterday’s plan.
And recruitment problems have played a part. One of the arguments used by the generals – who insist they are all behind the plan – in choosing which regiments to merge or amalgamate was the extent to which they were under-recruited.
The changes, which are designed to leave an army of 102,000 men and women, will not lead to cost cuts if, as intended, better equipment is more widely used and soldiers are paid more for their skills in much-needed areas such as communications and intelligence-gathering.
Mr Hoon told MPs yesterday that cutting the number of army battalions from 40 to 36 and the creation of a small number of “super regiments” would be more efficient, provide more stability for families and give far more scope for individual soldiers’ career development.
The plan sees soldiers as having to move from place to place too often in what is likely to be a small regiment; it envisages a far greater variety of jobs and skills available to them in much larger regiments.
Mr Hoon told the Commons yesterday that of the 40 battalions in the British army’s order of battle, as many as 11 are likely during any 12 -month period to change their location or role.
“At the end of this process, many more, if not all, of the future 36 infantry battalions will actually be available for operations,” he said.
Gen Jackson said he had spent more than two years trying to come up with yesterday’s package. Opposition – fired by emotion as much as by reason, the general suggested – intensified as the army’s pre-Christmas deadline approached.
It was fuelled by the Black Watch’s deployment, at the request of the US, to a dangerous mission south of Baghdad, and the forthcoming deployment of the Royal Scots – now to be merged as a battalion – to southern Iraq.
The results of hard-fought battles and special pleading can be seen in the plan.
The names of former Scottish regiments will appear before their new “super regiment” battalion number; and the Foot Guards remain untouched, in order, as Mr Hoon put it, “to sustain the ceremonial roles which are so important to the fabric of our national life”.
The Gurkhas, believed by some in the army to be an anachronism, are saved, for now. The Royal Irish Regiment will remain unchanged “at this stage”, said Gen Jackson.
Military bands are an easier target, and their number will be cut from 30 to 24 – although the general was quick to defend the bands yesterday: “The justification for musicians in the army is their operational role,” he said, referring to their training as medics.
But the package also smacks of last-minute decisions.
Mr Hoon announced the creation of a tri-service “ranger” unit to support Britain’s special forces, the SAS and its naval equivalent, the SBS. He also announced a number of “sub-units for surveillance and target acquisition, bomb disposal and vehicle maintenance capabilities”.
Gen Jackson told journalists later that the “ranger” unit would be based on the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. This is the fourth battalion that the army found to cut: a clear indication that its nomination was dictated by difficulties in finding any other battalion for the chop.
Gen Jackson, a former paratrooper himself, put a brave face on it by saying it was an obvious choice: 50% of the SAS were former Paras, he said.
Details of the make-up of the new “rangers” group, including its name, had still to be worked out.
The army will get rid of some heavy armour – some Challenger 2 battle tanks – and long-range artillery.
In Scotland, two historic single battalion regiments are to merge. The Royal Scots, the British army’s oldest infantry regiment which recruits soldiers from Edinburgh and the surrounding areas, will merge with The King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which recruits from the borders, Dumfries and Galloway and Lanarkshire. In England, The King’s Own Royal Border Regiment, The King’s Regiment, and the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment will become the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the new King’s, Lancashire and Border regiment.