RESTRUCTURING the army is “one hell of a risk” that will weaken the armed forces, one of Britain’s most senior generals has warned.
General Sir Richard Shirreff warned that the “jury is out still” on plans to slash numbers in the regular army and substitute them with reservists, saying if the idea is going to work “the nation needs to get behind” it.
The general said defence cuts had “hollowed out” the armed forces, particularly the Royal Navy, which has been “cut to the bone”.
Sir Richard, the army’s third most senior officer, stepped down as Nato’s deputy supreme commander on Friday and will leave the army in August. His warning comes days after MPs warned Prime Minister David Cameron against further cuts to Britain’s armed forces following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The government is cutting the regular army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020, while the Army Reserve – formerly the Territorial Army – is being expanded from 19,000 to 30,000.
General Shirreff said: “The sort of defence cuts we have seen . . . have really hollowed out the British armed forces and I think that people need to sit up and recognise that.”
He said his biggest concern was the impact of cuts on the navy, which have left it without an operational aircraft carrier until 2020 and a fleet of just 19 frigates and destroyers.
“A hollowed-out navy means you can’t project power,” he said.
General Shirreff also believes it would need a “complete shift in culture” and support from the wider public and employers if the army being more dependent on reserves is to succeed, saying: “The nation needs to get behind this. It’s not just the armed forces – this is everybody’s business.”
The general, who has been co-ordinating Nato’s response to the crisis in Crimea and Ukraine, warned of further aggression by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Following Russia’s “armed illegal aggression”, the general said the country has now become a “strategic adversary” of Nato and argued that the UK and European nations now need to protect defence budgets to deter Russia, meaning cuts to other Whitehall departments.
He said: “We all support the efforts to get the deficit down, but it is all about priorities. What really matters? Well, the first duty of government is to protect the nation. Defence is really, really important. And the electorate need to understand there is no point in having hospitals and schools and welfare unless the country is safe.”
The Commons Defence Committee this week warned that Britain needs to maintain a “credible deterrent” against a full range of threats from cyber attack to a nuclear strike and that further cuts to the size of the UK’s conventional forces could question the effectiveness of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said the UK has the world’s fourth largest defence budget. She added: “With a restructured, more flexible and agile army and with £160 billion planned on new equipment over the next decade, we will ensure our armed forces retain their formidable range of cutting-edge capabilities and ability to project power across the globe.”