Army set to double troops in Scotland

THE UK government plans to double the size of the army in Scotland to try to prevent military cuts being used by the SNP to boost the case for independence, The Scotsman can reveal.

With the 18,000-strong British Army presence in Germany to be completely withdrawn between 2015 and 2020, it is understood about 3,000 of the returning troops are to be re-based in Scotland, bringing the total to 6,000.

Ministers hope the increase will make up for the loss of a similar number of RAF personnel, as two bases north of the Border are closed.

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Military sources have made it clear that the option of being moving more troops to Scotland is being resisted by senior army figures, mainly because of a lack of training facilities.

However, Ministry of Defence sources say ministers intend to make "a political decision" to set up one of the new multi-purpose brigades in Scotland to make up for the RAF losses and to challenge the Nationalists by showing a statistical increase in military personnel in Scotland under the coalition's watch.

According to some sources, the recent Scottish Parliament elections - where Alex Salmond led his party to a historic majority - have hardened the resolve of UK ministers not to allow defence to become another tool for those pushing the case for independence.

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Already, they had delayed a decision on whether to close RAF Leuchars or RAF Lossiemouth - the Fife base is the most likely to be decommissioned - to prevent it being used by the SNP as a campaigning issue in the election and to allow time for plans to be drawn up to bring in the army as a replacement.

However, those plans were dismissed as a "three-card trick" by the SNP, with defence spokesman Angus Robertson claiming they will merely result in a like-for-like replacement, while not making up for the 10,500 personnel removed from Scotland in the past decade.

An MoD decision is expected by the end of this month, around Armed Forces Day on 26 June, which is to be hosted in Edinburgh this year.

But key decisions have yet to be made about how and where the troops in Germany will be re-based. The army is understood to be demanding a new purpose-built barracks in the Central Belt if it is forced to have a brigade in Scotland, but the government wants the cheaper option of using closed RAF bases - Kinloss in Moray and probably Leuchars, although Lossiemouth in Moray could also be closed.

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Plans for the Scottish brigade include what remains of the heavy armoured battalions in Germany, including the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, but neither Fife nor Moray offer easily accessible areas for troop training.

An MoD source said: "The decision on the brigade in Scotland is mostly made, but the big question mark is over where it will be based. The RAF bases are the cheap option, but there is a question of where they will train and how accessible that is."

An added problem with RAF bases is that the living quarters are different because the two services have a different ranking structure and RAF personnel are more likely to be married, while most squaddies are single.

There are also concerns the reorganisation could see some famous military cap badges retired, with four battalions understood to be in danger. Two of the names to go could be Scottish - the Highlanders, currently based in Germany, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, based in Canterbury, are the two most junior battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Former SAS commander Clive Fairweather, who is due to step down as an honorary colonel of the Argylls, said "From what I am being told by senior figures, we are looking at the size of the army being doubled in Scotland.

"The trouble is, we know it will be a brigade and will probably include heavy armour, or what's left of it, but we don't know what names and which battalions will survive or get cut."

He said he had been told the political situation caused by recent Scottish election had influenced government thinking but that the SNP could end up scuppering the increase in the army.

"The government wants to be able to say to the SNP that it is increasing the number of personnel in Scotland," Mr Fairweather said. "Having said that, if the SNP cause problems, then Scotland could lose out altogether. For example, if they push the independence question, it will make the military extremely reluctant to locate there on the basis that Scotland could become a foreign country. As it is, the army would prefer to be in the south of England anyway."

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There is speculation that much of the British Army in Germany could be retired altogether, with the government thought to be considering cutting the total army strength from about 100,000 to 80,000.

This week's criticism of the government's haste in withdrawing from Afghanistan by General James Bucknall, second in command in the warzone, was seen as evidence that the army is worried that, once the conflict is over, it is going to see heavy reductions in its ranks.

Defence analyst Tim Ripley said: "It is all up in the air at the moment. Certainly, there is a lot of evidence to suggest the government wants to reduce the army to 80,000 and if you consider that there are 18,000 troops in Germany now, it makes them an easy target for disbandment.

"You have to remember many of them are in logistics, and people won't be crying in their beer over their loss in the same way as infantry battalions. The government has also signalled that it wants to reduced its tanks and heavy armour, and many of them are based in Germany currently."

Last night, Mr Robertson said there was insufficient detail in the government plans to make a clear judgment, but ministers appeared to be trying to "con" Scotland. He warned that, despite the MoD's efforts, defence and the underspend in Scotland would be "major issues" in the context of the independence referendum expected in 2014.

"This is a three-card trick by the coalition government, but nobody will be fooled by it," he said. "We need to remember that the MoD is actually considering a 70 per cent reduction in the RAF in Scotland while it is proposing to add to what is already an anaemic army presence north of the Border.

"The MoD has for some time been concentrating its resources in the south of England, and it's clear that this is what it intends to continue doing."

A spokeswoman for the MoD said no decisions had been made and the basing review was ongoing and "complicated".

Ministers have said the decision will be announced before the summer recess.