Thursday, December 16, 2004

The elephant strikes again

The widely trailed cuts in the British Army have been announced today by defence secretary Geoff Hoon, who has confirmed the axing of four infantry battalions in what is described as a major restructuring of the Army.

According to various reports, this move prompted angry scenes in the Commons with Scottish National Party MP Annabelle Ewing ordered out of the chamber by the Speaker after calling Mr Hoon a "backstabbing coward".

She was angered by Mr Hoon's confirmation that two single battalion regiments in Scotland – the Royal Scots and The King’s Own Scottish Borderers – would merge into a single battalion and would combine with the other four Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, to form the new Royal Regiment of Scotland. Details of the other cuts can be found on the Scotsman site.

Hoon claims that his plans "…will make the Army more robust and resilient, able to deploy, support and sustain the enduring expeditionary operations that are essential for a more complex and uncertain world". He added: "The move to larger, multi-battalion regiments that these changes bring about is the only sustainable way in which to structure the infantry for the long term."

But what is significant is that we are not just seeing the "axing" of famous regiments, which has tended to obscure the wider debate. This is but one part of a "wider rebalancing" of the mix of light, medium and heavy forces. This revolves round that magic word FRES, standing for Future Rapid Effects System.

This is the driver of all these changes. Hoon needs to re-equip the Army to fit the expeditionary role required for Britain's forces to fulfil Blair's commitment to playing a leading role in the EU's rapid reaction force. FRES is the answer, but it is expensive. So, with it not becoming available until 2010, at the earliest, he is taking the savings now to fund the future. costs of the project.

Nothing of this emerges from the Conservatives, with shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram, completely missing the "elephant in the room" when he confined his attack on Hoon to a condemnation of his search for "cost cutting", without seeking to enquire what the savings were for.

Good theatre, it might have been as Ancram declared: "It is a dark day for our armed forces. And an even darker day for the proud regiments it seeks to scrap. It is also a day of shame for this discredited and ineffective Defence Secretary," but he has failed to get near the real issues.

In fact, Ancram has assiduously avoided discussing the underlying agenda: "The Secretary of State says that this is all about reorganisation", he told the Commons, "But this statement is not driven by a need to reorganise. It is driven by the chancellor's demand for financial cuts."

Unfortunately, this is partially true and close enough to sound plausible. But it is also badly wrong. Hoon is being driven by the need to reorganise, and that is being driven by Blair's plans for a greater EU military role for the Army. But Hoon is trying to do it on the cheap, because Brown will not give him the money he needs. That is where the infantry cuts come in.

Thus, instead of trying to ignore the fact that the Army is being subject to one of the most fundamental reorganisations in its history, for an entirely political objective, Ancram should be asking why it is being reorganised.

But then the answer might include the word "Europe" and, as we know, Ancram would not like that. If he was confronted with that, he would have to recognise the "elephant in the room".

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