THE BIGGEST cuts to the British armed forces for a generation were unveiled Wednesday by Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon with sweeping reductions in aircraft, warships, tanks and the infantry.
Mr Hoon told the Commons that the "restructuring" of the military was needed to meet the threats posed by international terrorism and the "forces of instability" in the 21st century. Opponents called the moves "reckless."
The changes will see an overall reduction in the strength of the armed forces of 10,500, with a further 10,000 civil servants at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) also facing the axe.
The brunt of the the cuts will be borne by the Royal Air Force (RAF) which will lose 7,500 personnel, including 65 of its 290 fast jet crews – a reduction of almost a quarter. It will mean XI(F) Tornado F3 air defence squadron will be axed while Jaguar ground attack aircraft will be phased out by 2007.
RAF Coltishall in Norfolk will be closed down by the end of 2006, and the overall air force manpower levels will be reduced to about 41,000 by 2008. (See the full report)
The British Army – which will be cut by 1,500 from its current trained strength to 102,000 – will lose four infantry battalions and 84 of its main Challenger 2 battle tanks.
One of the four cut battalions will be from Scotland, but the identity will not be known until at least autumn. All of Scotland’s six infantry regiments are single-battalion regiments, and include some of the most famous names in British military history like the Black Watch.
"The numbers are stark – some 20,000 in total, broadly split between military and civilian personnel," said General Sir Michael Walker, in a written message to service personnel.
The Royal Navy is to lose 12 service vessels, including a fifth of its destroyer/frigate fleet which will be cut from 31 to 25. Mr Hoon said three type-42 destroyers and three type-23 frigates would be taken out of service by March 2006. The number of nuclear attack submarines is being cut from 11 to eight.
The restructuring will hit the RAF in Scotland, with the fleet of Nimrods based at Kinloss in Morayshire being reduced from 21 to 16. Helicopter maintenance work currently undertaken by the RAF at Lossiemouth is to go out to contractors.
The Navy axe in Scotland will fall on both HMS Glasgow and HMS Inverness. Glasgow, a type-42 destroyer, will be paid off by the end of 2005, and Inverness, a mine countermeasures vessel, will be paid off by April 2005. Minehunters HMS Bridport and Sandown will also be paid off, and three Northern Ireland patrol vessels - HMS Brecon, Dulverton and Cottesmore - will be paid off by April 2007.
Mr Hoon told members of Parliament: "The threats to Britain’s interests in the 21st century are far more complex than was foreseen following the disintegration of the Soviet Empire.
"That is why the Defence White Paper (released last December) signalled that we should continue to modernise the structure of our armed forces, to embrace new technology and to focus on the means by which our armed forces can work together with other government agencies to meet the threat of international terrorism and the forces of instability in the modern world," Mr Hoon said.
The heavy equipment and large infantry units needed for the lengthy stand-off with the Soviet Union in central Europe are increasingly seen as redundant in the face of modern-day tasks such as tackling terrorism and peace-keeping.
Another objective is to free up funds for investment in hi-tech digital systems, enabling British forces to work more easily with their American counterparts. But the shake-up also reflects financial pressures on the MoD.
In his spending review released last week, Chancellor Gordon Brown gave the ministry a 1.4% annual real-terms increase in its budget, but he demanded 2.8 billion in savings on procurement of equipment and back-room support functions by 2007-08.
In his statement Wednesday, Mr Hoon said the Navy would pay off its oldest type-42 destroyers, HMS Cardiff, Newcastle as well as Glasgow, by the end of 2005. In addition, three type-23 frigates, HMS Norfolk, Marlborough and Grafton, would be paid off by March 2006.
The number of hunter-killer nuclear submarines will be reduced from 10 to eight, but no decision had yet been made on which ones. Four are based at Faslane in western Scotland, and one of these - HMS Spartan - is to be decommissioned in 2006.
The ministry said it expected no "significant" economic or jobs impact on Faslane as a result of the restructuring.
In the House of Commons, Nicholas Soames, the shadow defence secretary, said service personnel would feel "betrayed politically and morally" and the public would be "dismayed" to see the armed forces "treated in such an underhand way".
Mr Soames warned that the changes would "seriously damage our military capability ... while we wait for the arrival of unproven new technology". He told MPs: "There is a deep crisis in the defence budget."