Defence cuts are “financially driven” and could leave Britain’s armed forces dangerously exposed in the event of a future crisis, MPs have warned.
In a hard-hitting report published today, the Commons defence committee claims the restructuring programme, which will see the size of the army reduced from 102,000 to 80,000, was not thought through and could have “serious implications” for national security.
The report urged the Ministry of Defence to draw up contingency plans for a rapid recruitment programme, to be able to respond to a need for more troops in an emergency.
Under the current government plan, known as “Army 2020”, the cut in troop numbers will be offset by expanding the numbers of part-time reservists by 30,000 by 2018.
The committee said the rationale for the plan remained untested while the “high level of change” involved, at a time when troops were still engaged in Afghanistan, could “compromise” the forces’ ability to respond to emergencies.
It criticised the “apparent lack of consultation and involvement” of the head of the army, General Sir Peter Wall, who was simply told by the senior MoD civil servant what the future strength of the army would be, and urged ministers to “justify” their decision to cut 22,000 troops.
Despite the radical nature of the changes, the restructuring was not even discussed by the National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, even though it represented a further 12,000 reduction in the army’s strength, compared with plans set out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
The committee warned that, if ministers attempted to make any further cuts, the whole plan would “unravel” completely.
“We note that the Secretary of State for Defence [Philip Hammond] accepts that Army 2020 was designed to fit a financial envelope. We are concerned that this consideration took primacy over the country’s abilities to respond to the threats, risks and uncertainties contained in the National Security Strategy,” it said. “We remain to be convinced that the Army 2020 plan represents a fully thought-through and tested concept which will allow the army to counter emerging and uncertain threats and develop a contingent capability to deal with unforeseen circumstances.”
The committee said the plan even contained a built-in financial incentive not to commit troops on operations, as reservists were only cheaper to employ as long as they were not actually called up.
“It would be unacceptable if the UK decided not to take part in any action because of the cost of deploying reservists,” it said.
James Arbuthnot, the Conservative chairman of the committee, said: “Our concern is that the financially driven reduction in the numbers of regulars has the potential to leave the army short of key personnel until sufficient additional reservists are recruited and trained.”
He went on to warn that any loss of armed forces capability could have “serious implications for the UK’s national security”.
The MoD had to find eight per cent of budget cuts from 2010-11 to 2013-14 worth about £3 billion. On top of that, it also had to deal with a defence spending black hole left by the last Labour government of £38bn.
Last night, Mr Hammond accused the committee of failing to recognise the need to counter evolving threats, such as cyber attacks.
“It is not possible to maintain traditional regular forces at historic levels while also investing in countering the threats of tomorrow,” he said. “The Army 2020 structure is not simply about a reduction in size, it is a complete overhaul of how the army works to deliver a fully-integrated force, using a better mix of regulars, reserves and contractors.”
Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Vernon Coaker, said that ,with official figures showing a shortfall of almost 8,000 in overall armed forces numbers, the government should rethink the Army 2020 plan.
“Labour warned there could be consequences for Britain’s safety and security, but the Defence Secretary ignored all advice and sacked thousands of regular soldiers without the promised increase in reserve recruitment to fill the gap,” he said
The committee also highlighted the MoD’s broken promise to station up to 7,000 troops in Scotland, later reduced to 4,000.
Angus Robertson, SNP defence spokesman and Westminster leader, said: “These plans are, as the committee notes, totally financially driven and do nothing to address defence needs.”