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Major retreat on defence pledge

DEFENCE Secretary Philip Hammond did his best to dress up yesterday's announcement about the redeployment of the remaining 16,000 British Army troops from Germany as good news for Scotland.

Nevertheless, once his statement is reduced to its bare bones, it is far short of what was promised by his predecessor, Liam Fox, a Scot who was perhaps more acutely aware of the importance of Scotland's military bases to the communities around them.

In the face of the demise of Scotland's historic regiments and faced with the closure of two of the country's three air bases, in 2011 even the Ministry of Defence was prepared to acknowledge that Scotland had suffered disproportionately from its cuts. The quid pro quo proffered by Dr Fox was that more than 6000 of the personnel being brought back from Germany would be based north of the Border.

With the end of the Cold War, it no longer makes sense to have thousands of British military personnel and their families stationed in Germany. The estimated £600m a year they pour into the German economy would be better spent on home soil. In addition the £1.8bn to be spent on building 1,900 new houses for service families and accommodation for 7,800 single soldiers, as well as the necessary refurbishment and infrastructure investment at UK bases, will bring a welcome jobs boost for the beleaguered construction industry.

Moreover, the MoD claims the redeployment will save the public purse £240m a year. If it is right, the redeployment will pay for itself within eight years, though the ministry does not have a good track record on such calculations. (In this instance, it does not appear to have factored in the cost of cleaning up the sites being abandoned in Germany, for example.)

However, the biggest disappointment in yesterday's announcement is that, since Dr Fox's pledge two years ago, the 6000 extra troops bound for Scotland have become barely 600. RAF Leuchars will be reincarnated as an army base but Craigiehall Camp near Edinburgh will close, along with parts of Redford and Forthside barracks. It is hard to see how the Defence Secretary managed to claim that Scotland would have "a little bit more than its fair share" of military personnel than the rest of the UK and the SNP were quick to accuse the minister of backsliding. Yesterday it was even suggested that the defence force in an independent Scotland would be bigger. That is debateable. This is difficult territory for the SNP because a government intent on bringing troops home from Germany seems unlikely to agree to station them in what might be another foreign country.

The reason for the dramatic change in numbers is the decision to reduce the size of the standing army to 82,000 but was the original promise ever realistic or was the Government merely attempting to buy off Scots protests over the regiments and the air bases? Yesterday The Herald reported a senior defence source, claiming thousands of defence jobs would be jeopardised by independence and accusing the SNP of offering national security based on "a wing and a prayer". But a promise of 6000 troops that can morph magically into 600 also raises questions about the reliability and competence of decision-making in the MoD and the Coalition. As the independence debate hots up, so will the war of words about the politics and economics of defence.

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