(from the Telegraph)
Leaked papers highlight danger of Forces cuts
By Michael Smith, Defence Correspondent
SWEEPING cuts in Army numbers and equipment expected within weeks of the election will have a "highly damaging impact" on Britain's defences, say leaked Ministry of Defence documents.
They will put soldiers' lives at much greater risk, the papers say.
The cuts of at least £1.2 billion have been forced by the Treasury because of the rising cost of the Royal Navy's two new aircraft carriers and their aircraft, defence sources said. At present that bill stands at £8 billion.
The documents contradict claims last week by John Spellar, the Armed Forces minister, that there had been no discussion or even "theoretical paperwork" at the MoD about Army cuts.
Mr Spellar was responding to a report in The Daily Telegraph that up to 10 of the Army's front-line units were to be axed, with not even the Household Cavalry and the Guards regiments safe.
Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow defence secretary, said: "It is clear that they have accepted plans to make vicious and deep cuts to our Armed Forces. We cannot believe their denials."
The documents discuss extensive cuts to armoured regiments and the cancellation of a number of "high priority" equipment contracts.
Defence sources said yesterday that there were also plans to reduce the Territorial Army by 15,000 soldiers and wipe out many historic regimental names for ever.
The cuts follow the end of 12 years of Army control over the forces. Adml Sir Michael Boyce, the new Chief of Defence Staff, is a fervent advocate of the aircraft carriers. He told The Daily Telegraph last week that they were "essential" and at the heart of defence policy.
The Army has been told to find the cuts but not to put anything in writing to ministers until after the election because of Labour's pledge that there would be no cuts on top of those in the 1998 strategic defence review.
"Ministers want to keep it as deniable as possible, so no final decision will be taken until after the election," a senior Army officer said. If Labour returned to power, the plans would go to ministers within weeks, he added.
The cuts will then be sold as the result of a reduction in tension in Northern Ireland and an inevitable result of the inability of the Army to push its numbers up to the target figure of 108,000.
One of the leaked documents, entitled Short Term Plan (STP)/Equipment Plan (EP) 2001 says: "We propose to reduce the cost of the planned equipment programme by some £1.2 billion over the four-year period 2001/2 to 2004/5.
"Inevitably, the deferrals, reductions in planned numbers and in some cases cancellations needed to effect this will have a highly damaging impact on our previously planned improvements to capability."
It concludes by saying that the recommended programme "makes only limited progress towards the rectification of some important capability gaps.
"In some cases, where the threat from potential enemies is increasing, this could result in future operations carrying a higher level of risk than current ones."
The ministry claims that such studies are made all the time. But the document, marked Confidential UK Eyes Only, makes clear that the Army has no choice but to implement radical cuts.
It says: "In view of our circumstances, we have considered whether a more radical examination of the force structure would offer savings."
The document, written in February, states that while "no force structure is immutable, it would be premature and potentially counter-productive to make changes at this stage".
But within weeks the Army Board had been forced to think the unthinkable and cut the number of front-line units to match the levels of manpower it could hope to meet, defence sources said.
This would mean axeing up to 10 armoured and infantry battalions. As most front-line regiments have only a single regular battalion, 10 regiments could go.
A second document, dated April 4, 2001, speaks of the need to shed two tank battalions, a quarter of the tank force, and suggests cutting a complete battle group from each of the four armoured brigades.
The document, entitled Armour/Anti-Armour Study, Force Structure Implications, says that this would leave the fighting forces "structurally flawed". The Army would have "some difficulty" in taking part in even "medium scale war fighting operations", it concludes.
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, said: "There is more than a hint of a retreat to the salami slicing approach of the last Government, which caused considerable damage to morale and to capability. The truth is that if we want good defence we have to pay for it."