British troops in southern Afghanistan are at present counter-attacking one of the most serious Taleban offensives for some time.
Operation Panther’s Claw is one of the largest air-mobile operations mounted in this region and includes more than 3,000 troops, spearheaded by soldiers from, among other units, the Royal Regiment of Scotland and 2 Mercian.
It is centred on highly manoeuvrable light infantry deployed by helicopter. While these men fight the nation’s enemies, we are told that the Ministry of Defence plans further cuts to the infantry, including the units mentioned above.
Times are hard and every ministry is being told to look at drastic savings. Clearly the MoD will not be exempt. It won’t discuss proposed cuts in public, hiding behind the excuse that next year’s spending round is “ongoing”. But there are hints that the Navy may look at prematurely scrapping its Type-42 destroyers and that the RAF’s ageing Harrier jump jets may be retired early to achieve savings. But these decisions are not central to the immediate concerns of our Armed Forces – the withdrawal from Iraq and the prosecution of the campaign in Afghanistan.
When the Government announced an expansion of the mission into Helmand in February 2006 many of us warned that it was underresourced in both fire and airpower. Also, it was clear that the Armed Forces could not cope with two simultaneous “hot” wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan – a point borne out by Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, who said this week that too few troops had been committed to Iraq.
But even if the political will had existed, there were not the fighting troops to send. Every brigade commander who has served in Afghanistan has begged for more manpower, especially infantry. That is exactly what the Americans are providing in the British sector in preparation for the Afghan elections in August and, at the same time, our commanders need more bayonets.
How can a responsible Ministry of Defence even contemplate the idea of cutting infantry battalions?
We are told that savings must be found to pay for more mine-proof vehicles to protect our men in this operational theatre. I completely understand this, but aren’t there other areas that can be cut to find the money?
For instance, if the three Services already have a single permanent joint headquarters why do we need the three individual headquarters in the shape of Land, Strike and Fleet? And why do we have a vast MoD overseeing all four?
All are stuffed with civil servants and officers (there are more civil servants in the MoD than soldiers in the Army) whose pay, allowances and pension rights could fund several infantry battalions. It must also be asked why the MoD was refurbished recently at the cost of about £352 million when the fighting forces are stretched to their financial limits.
The equation is simple. The British Ambassador in Afghanistan and others say that the counter- insurgency campaign will last for years. If money is tight, should we not use every resource available to produce the combat power to fight this sort of war? Obviously, we must be prepared for other eventualities: nuclear deterrence, tank fleets and so on cannot be ignored. But our men are losing their lives in Afghanistan now and this must be the MoD’s main priority. Manpower is needed but the problems with providing it are systemic.
My last job in the Army was with the training and recruiting agency whose main function was to produce that manpower and train it. At the start of the Kosovo conflict it became clear that there were simply no plans to increase our capacity to recruit or to train.
That problem remains today – the training pipeline, especially for the infantry, is stretched to the limits simply to maintain an understrength Army, never mind expand it. So tightly have the purse strings been drawn that when 3,000 suitable applicants presented themselves for recruitment to the Army in the present financial crisis the vast majority were told that there was no room in the training system for months. Youngsters who decide to join the Army want to join now; delay them and they will find jobs elsewhere. So the vicious downward spiral of manpower has continued.
Such are the long-term difficulties with recruitment and retention that regiments of three battalions have plenty of headquarters and officers, but only enough combat power – men – for one and a half of those battalions. In this stark light, “axing” infantry battalions might be better called “rationalisation” – if you simply do not have the men and cannot (or will not) recruit them, then savings could be made by reducing battalion infrastructures.
But this is nonsense. Reducing the Army by 1,800 men does not sound too radical – but these are precious fighting men and they are already dwindling at an alarming rate. On paper, the Army is about 98,000-strong but even a superficial examination shows that half of them cannot be deployed, because of chronic sickness or training and bureaucratic commitments.
Of those who can take the field, less than 25,000 are combat troops and each unit that returns from operations has a long list of casualties (physical and mental) who are out of action. Operationally this is disastrous: already we lack enough troops to hold ground taken from the Taleban and if that ground cannot be held then no improvement can be made to the lives of Afghan civilians.
Only infantry battalions can take and hold enemy territory and the Government is talking about eroding this very force. The most senior voices in the Army are talking about increasing the size of the force, not decreasing it, a point reinforced this week by General Sir David Richards who takes over from General Dannatt in August. The facts of the campaign in Afghanistan must suggest that they are right.
Further reductions would make our Army weaker than at any time since the Crimean War. The MoD may not wish “to reason why”, but it must remember that our soldiers have both “to do and die”.
Patrick Mercer, an infantry officer, 1974-99. He is Conservative MP for Newark & Retford and chairman of the Commons Counter-Terrorism Sub-Committee.