It is Armed Forces Day and army morale is low – according to the Telegraph at least. The prospect of a 20 per cent cut in personnel is provoking anger in the ranks, which the civilian can perceive dimly by looking at the posts left on the Army Rumour Service.
Rumours of amalgamation and abolition have been circulating for some time in the run up to next week’s announcement. The Telegraph reports that historic English regiments are going to be remoulded, especially those that rely on foreign recruits (usually from the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands). Two of the so-called ‘Super Regiments’, the Yorkshire Regiment and the Rifles, are set lose a battalion each, while there is likely to be a merger of the Royal Anglians, the Princess of Wales’s and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to form a new ‘Super Regiment’. The last Welsh cavalry regiment is expected to join the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (itself the product of 3 previous reorganisations), and there will be substantial reductions to the artillery and logistics corps.
This follows news earlier in the month that the two battalions of Ghurkhas will be protected, and rumours that the Scottish regiments will also emerge from this process largely unscathed. In the final analysis it seems that only the famous Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders will beat a retreat into the Territorial Army (or oblivion).
As Charles Moore points out in his Telegraph column today, the Scottish regiments struggle to recruit Scots, relying on Fijians and to a lesser extent South Africans and Irishmen (and, apparently, an officer corps largely drawn from English public schools). Charles says that the ‘exemption is designed to head off Alex Salmond’, who has pledged considerable support to regiments that are Scottish predominantly in name.
The British army of the future is going to be small, what will it do? To my mind, the most important paragraph in the Telegraph’s extensive reporting on this subject concerns the long-discussed permanent ‘Reaction Force’ (of 3 armoured brigades comprised of 2 tank and 3 infantry regiments each to be used in military expeditions) has made a comeback, pushed by the highly regarded Lieutenant General Nick Carter. This indicates that the British army’s horizons remain global; but such a force would presumably be a mere contingency in the current political and diplomatic climate.
The Reaction Force story also suggests that the army is still thinking in conventional strategic terms. This is confirmed to an extent by a story in Defence News earlier this week, which revealed that counter-insurgency training is being replaced by schemes to ‘tackle more conventional scenarios’.
It remains to be seen what the chiefs, post the highly political defence review, believe ‘conventional scenarios’ to be. I recall some junior officers telling me some years ago that their units had prepared for deployment in Iraq by ‘fighting imaginary Russians on Salisbury Plain’. As I write, Sky News is airing a report from inside a Syrian rebel training camp. There the Russians are still imaginary, but the paramilitaries screaming ‘God is Great’ are real.