THOUSANDS more troops will be required to defeat Islamic State (IS) and other religious extremists, the former head of the UK’s armed forces said yesterday.
Lord Richards of Herstmonceux said cuts to the army must be reversed as part of the battle against jihadists in Syria and other parts of the world.
The former General Sir David Richards said it was a “tall order” to expect the SAS and other special forces to track down and bring to justice the killers of UK hostages Alan Henning and David Haines, including the English-accented executioner nicknamed “Jihadi John”.
Lord Richards, who stepped down as Chief of the Defence Staff last year, said the army’s present strength was inadequate to deal with what Prime Minister David Cameron has called a “generational struggle” against Islamic extremists.
UK government cuts will see the regular army reduced from 102,000 to 82,000 while reserves are increased from 19,000 to 30,000 over the next five years.
The general said: “The reservist plan could yet be made to work within two or three years but we are now in a different era.
“This needs to be put right quickly. If it can be, then fine, I will go along with that solution.
“But my instinct is it can’t be, and we need to go back to the drawing board and revise the size of the regular army back up again.
“If we are talking about a generational struggle, as I think the Prime Minister is, and he is absolutely right, then we need an army that can sustain a demanding operation not just in Syria and Iraq, potentially in a support role, but think of all the other places where Muslim extremism is causing havoc.
“I am thinking Nigeria, Kenya is very fragile, the countries around Syria that need more help like Jordan, and obviously Iraq and perhaps Lebanon. And then you go into Afghanistan, Pakistan needs more assistance. We have to see the grand strategic challenge which is confronting us all now and that, I’m afraid, needs a grand strategic response of the type that our forebears dealt with.”
Lord Richards also said not enough was being done to train Iraqi and Syrian ground forces to take on IS. He said: “You either have to put your own boots on the ground at some point or else you have to very energetically and aggressively train up those who will do that with us and for us. My worry at the moment is that the scale of the challenge isn’t being met by the right scale of response.
“I am worried that without more intensive use of Western boots on the ground in a support role, then we won’t do it in the time we need to get on and do this in.”
Lord Richards’ views on UK troop numbers come four months after the National Audit Office said ministers did not know whether the policy was “feasible” when they signed it off, and recruitment of part-time soldiers appeared to be up to six years behind schedule.
Labour also said his intervention was just the latest criticism from former senior military figures.
Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker said: “A rushed strategic defence and security review (SDSR) has led to huge problems at the Ministry of Defence. As Lord Richards said, it’s clear that reserve recruitment is still way off track, and unless it’s sorted out then Britain could be left with dangerous capability gaps.”
However, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described Lord Richards’ call as simplistic.
He said: “How you respond to it is not quite as straightforward as David Richards, much though I respect him, suggests.
“I don’t think it’s a question of simply ramping up conventional armed forces again as if we were fighting state-to-state conflicts.
“Increasingly, what you are having is states co-operating together in a jigsaw operation where different countries bring to the effort different capabilities against stateless mobile groups.”
Mr Clegg indicated he was not persuaded of the need for the UK to join l in Syria but declined to say whether he would vote against it if David Cameron brought the issue to the House of Commons.
The Ministry of Defence insisted its restructuring plans, made in response to the government’s 2010 SDSR, would keep the army fit for purpose.
A spokesman said: “Our ‘army 2020’ plans are on track and will deliver the army we need to counter the wide range of threats we face, wherever in the world they might be.
“However, the effectiveness of the army is not simply based on its size. It is about the capability that force is able to bring to bear on the battlefield around the world. This includes recruiting the right people, giving them world-class training and providing them with world-class equipment.”