Less than a fortnight after the Ministry of Defence was accused of having to go to allies with a “begging bowl” to ask for assistance in basic surveillance operations of the coast of Scotland, a row has erupted over plans to further slash the defence budget.
Former defence minister Sir Nick Harvey said officials were secretly looking at cutting the British Army to as few as 60,000 after it has already been cut from 102,000 to 82,000 after the last Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, the Telegraph reports.
The Lib Dem MP said the Ministry of Defence was looking at the reduction in troop numbers because the department faces an impending “financial crunch” after the election.
With the national debt still rising, meaning ever increasing interest payments and a budget which has not been balanced despite conservative party pledges, the defence budget is likely to take another bashing.
The Ministry of Defence denied further cuts were being looked at and said the Prime Minister was committed to maintaining an Army at the level of 82,000 soldiers.
Standing by his statement, Sir Nick told MPs: “There are already paper exercises going on in looking at what an Army of just 60,000 would look like because of the financial crunch that the department is going to be facing.”
The news is likely to hit morale further in Army bases and garrison towns across the country who have seen their numbers rapidly diminish while politicians still expect them to take a leading role in global peace keeping forces.
Last year the Chief of the Defence Staff Gen Sir Nick Houghton, who is head of the three components of Britain’s Armed Forces, said he would “fix my bayonet and fight to the last” if threatened with further cuts.
Military leaders fear another painful Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015 following the General Election but are bound to warn that with the threat from abroad still strong and the number of reservists applying failing to reach government targets the budget cannot take another attack from the Treasury.
The defence budget, unlike the overseas aid budget which was giving away £60 million a day in the last weeks of the year in order to spend its extravagant budget, is not ring fenced. Sir Nick told MPs in a debate on renewing Britain’s nuclear capability that defence spending could drop from its current level of two per cent of GDP to nearer 1.5.
While the threat from Islamic extremists and home grown terrorists is increasing, the Lib Dem MP for North Devon questioned why there would be an automatic renewal of Trident when it would cost more than £100 billion over 30 years.
“If defence was to face another cut comparable to that which it took in 2010, which seems to me entirely possible, then the proportion of our gross domestic product that we are spending on defence – which is already destined to go below 2 per cent next year – will make rapid headway towards 1.5 per cent of GDP,” he said.
The review would need to look into military hardware and equipment including the F-35 fighter jet, Type 26 Frigates for the Royal Navy, new vehicles for the Army including those more capable of withstanding IED attacks and helicopters which are increasingly used when troops are on the ground in foreign territories.
He said: “Now, all of us know these things are going to be there on the table being wrestled over in agony this summer.”
Sir Nick told the Telegraph: “I’m told that they have been performing paper exercises looking at an Army of 64, 62 and 60,000.”
Former Army Officer Richard Drax MP said the numbers were already at an unacceptably low level and could not be cut further. The Ministry of Defence’s own figures show that current numbers are below the recommended number of personnel the MoD thinks is necessary for a competent fighting force.
“Any further reductions in our Armed Forces would be foolhardy in the extreme,” he said. “We live in an increasingly unstable world and our first duty as a government is the protection of our country, our dependants and all those we are responsible for around the world and across Nato.”
An MoD spokeswoman said: “There is no change to the Government’s existing plans for an Army of 82,500 while increasing the number of reserves. And there is no work underway to look at further reductions. Indeed, the PM recently reiterated his commitment to maintaining regular forces at the level they are now.”