THE UK government has come under pressure from a grandee on its own backbenches to reverse its defence cuts after the country’s most senior officer warned that there was a danger the UK could be left with “hollowed out armed forces.”
The attack from General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the Chief of Defence staff, has prompted former Tory defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who now chairs the security and intelligence committee, to call for a rethink on strategy.
Sir Malcolm urged ministers to accept that there was a “very good case” for reversing cuts to the armed forces.
“He [Sir Nicholas] does raise very serious concerns,” he said.
“The one encouraging aspect is that manpower can be reversed relatively quickly if resources and circumstances require it. Capital projects take many, many years.
“So if there is a case - and I think there is a good case - to improve manpower, particularly in the Royal Navy, then I very much hope the Government will give very careful consideration to what he has said.”
‘Squeeze on activity’
In his speech Sir Nicholas said the result was that activity and training levels were being “squeezed” while the Royal Navy was “perilously close” to its “critical mass” in terms of manpower.
“Whilst exquisite technology has been protected as the key to operational superiority, manpower has been seen as more of an overhead. Activity levels and training has been squeezed,” he said.
“The one bit of defence’s future funding that has political commitment to real growth is the equipment programme but the dawning reality is that even if we maintain the non-equipment budget in real terms, rising manpower costs raise the prospect of further manpower and activity cuts in the future.
“Unattended, our current course leads to a strategically incoherent force structure - exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train. It is what the Americans call the spectre of the ‘hollow force’.
“We are not there yet, but across defence I would identify the Royal Navy as being perilously close to its critical mass in manpower terms.”
In a wide-ranging address, Gen Houghton said there was a “creeping aversion to risk “ when it came to deploying of the armed forces which he contrasted with the “mindset of aggressive risk management” shown by the French in recent operations in Mali and the Central African Republic.
The speech made at the Royal United Services Institute, the UK’s leading military think tank, is understood to have privately infuriated Prime Minister David Cameron who personally appointed Sir Nicholas to his role believing him to be more ‘on message’ than his rival, Lord Sir Peter Wall.
Sir Nicholas’ uncompromising message was that while future defence plans provided “exquisite” equipment, cuts to manpower including 20,000 army redundancies meant that there may not be sufficient personnel to use them.
Labour call for ‘leadership’
Ministers have refused to comment on the remarks, with the Ministry of Defence citing the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas, head of the Royal Navy, who said that there was “significant manpower pressure” but insisting it would not “throw us off track”.
But opposition parties suggested that the remarks revealed that the government has its priorities wrong.
Vernon Coaker MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, said: “We need to listen carefully to what is being said by the Chief of the Defence Staff.
“Labour has been clear that decisions made about the future configuration of the Armed Forces must be based on what is in the best interests of our country.
“After the procurement fiasco and ongoing concerns about reserve recruitment, the Defence Secretary needs to show leadership and get to grips with the serious issues raised by Sir Nick Houghton.”
Angus Robertson, SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesman, said: “The Chief of Defence Staff is highlighting the mistakes of past and present Westminster governments and his warning is stark. The neglect of manpower has led to a position that he describes as ‘incoherent’ - and yet the current coalition continues to cut service personnel numbers, close bases and post p45s to troops.”
He added: “The anti independence campaign promote defence as being an argument to vote No. The truth – from the most senior military figure in the country – is that Westminster is making a mess of defence with insufficient resourcing, personnel and lack of strategy. A Yes vote will put decisions about Scotland’s defence needs where they need to be – in Scotland.”