THE rationale for launching the UK Government's Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010 was to make Britain's armed forces fit for purpose in the 21st century, an era in which Britain no longer rules the waves and areas of red on the world map have been reduced to a few small splashes.
Does the overhaul of the British Army announced yesterday lay the foundation for a "balanced, capable and adaptable force" as Defence Secretary Philip Hammond claims?
To reduce the standing army by 20,000 to a fighting force of 82,000 by 2020, 17 major units have been sacrificed. Scotland, which undoubtedly bore an unfair proportion of previous cuts, escapes comparatively lightly. Though the 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) will be reduced to a 100-strong company engaged on ceremonial duties, none of the famous cap badges will be lost. That is a tribute to the vigour of the campaign supported by politicians across the spectrum, including Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. The Herald supported the creation of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, on the basis that, potentially at least, it provided the Army with a more flexible fighting force while transferring the historic regimental names to the individual battalions. This was more than mere sentimentality. In the regiments' traditional recruiting grounds, where "Army families" have furnished fighters for generations, these names continue to hold a special resonance. Abandoning them now would have broken a pledge made when the RRS was created in 2005.
The outcome announced yesterday is partly a reflection of the political leverage of the SNP, though the Nationalists' continued insistence that the Government turn the clock back and restore all six of the old regiments, is neither practical nor sensible. Some sympathy is due to other battalions, such as the now- doomed 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which has the best recruitment record in the Army, when Scottish battalions with major recruitment shortfalls have been spared the axe. Ballooning the part-time Territorial Army up to 30,000 is intended partly to compensate for the reduction in the standing army. This plan looks fine on paper. Nevertheless, it is a gamble. In the current economic climate, how many employers will be sanguine about their high fliers disappearing to fight (or keep the peace) in some foreign field?
Most serious of all, this announcement smacks of a political fudge. A review of Britain's defence capability was certainly overdue. A budget shortfall of £38bn was unsustainable. However, instead of starting with a blank sheet of paper and asking what role British forces should play in the world in the 21st century, this review appears to have been an exercise primarily driven by accountants. Those who opposed British involvement in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan may be pleased that the country will no longer have the capacity to fight two wars simultaneously. Would they feel differently if this were to prevent us from mounting morally-justifiable life-saving interventions, like those in Kosovo and Sierra Leone?
Relief that Scotland has been spared the worst of these cuts should be tempered by concern that the UK could be left with an Army that is not fit for purpose.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.