02 Jul 04. The Times reported today that the UK Government is about to embark on a “potentially dangerous” policy of cutting back on Armed Forces manpower, replacing “boots on the ground” with a new generation of high-tech warfare systems, a committee of MPs said yesterday.
In a highly critical report which attacked the whole thrust of the Government’s thinking about the future of Britain’s security strategy, the Commons Defence Committee said that the new systems were not even in place, and yet there were plans to reduce both manpower and platforms — ships, aircraft and tanks.
However clever the new technology systems, there was often “no substitute” for troops on the ground, the MPs said. “A policy of reducing or restructuring existing forces in advance of acquiring new capabilities is potentially dangerous,” the report said. The timing of the report, after an inquiry into the Government’s defence White Paper published last year, could not be more embarrassing for the Ministry of Defence. In two weeks’ time, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is expected to reveal cuts across all three services, including reductions in the number of infantry battalions. The committee said that the MoD should be concentrating more on building up the forces to their proper manpower levels. It detailed
present undermanning and overstretch suffered by all three Armed Forces, particularly the Army.
However, the MoD, the committee said, was focused more on its new concept of “network-centric capability”, in which longer-range precision weapons and information technologies united to produce a “military effect”. Under such a system, the MoD considered that there was less need for large numbers of troops on the battlefield. The MPs also criticised the MoD for spending too much time on overseas operations and underestimating the need to defend Britain against a possible international terrorist attack.
The report said: “We are not convinced that an essentially reactive approach to defence of the UK homeland is satisfactory, given the nature of the threat to the UK today.” The Government has set up a civil contingency reaction force, with pools of 500 reservists in each of the brigade districts in the country, to assist in a terrorist emergency.
Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the committee, said that with troops already overstretched by overseas operations, they would struggle to deal with a major terrorist campaign in Britain. “If terrorists decide not to play by our rules, then we will need forces that can react quickly to threats abroad and at home,” he said. But the MoD’s approach was to fight terrorism “at a distance” – targeting suspects overseas.
Mr George also said that plans for defending the homeland were being hampered by inter-departmental wrangling. “The Home Office, the MoD and other government departments need to work more closely together on this issue; their discussions need to be about defending the homeland, not defending their departmental turf, as appears to have been in the case in the past,” he said.
Heralding the expected cuts across the board later this month, Mr George said: “Cutting the number of boots on the ground, ships or aircraft are not sensible options, particularly when we have no guarantee that the new (high-tech) equipment which is meant to replace them will arrive on time or perform as planned.”
The committee said that any attempt to cut the size of the services would place “unsustainable demands” on Armed Forces personnel. The Government’s strategy, the MPs said, was to develop “effects-based” warfare, procuring highly accurate weapon systems and intelligence-gathering platforms such as airborne sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which would give commanders and political leaders instant information to make