Military spending axe will endanger international capabilities of UK and hurt prospects for women in armed forces, critics warn, By James Brewer
As the row grows over cuts in UK military spending, there has been a warning that the move could have a particularly worrying impact on women serving in the forces.
The effect on women has been overshadowed amid fierce debate over government plans to shrink the size of the regular army by 2017 to its smallest number for 200 years: from 102, 000 to 82, 000. There have been signs that there will be further cuts in the next spending review by Chancellor George Osborne in June 2013. While the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has urged that the new cuts should be in welfare rather than in defence spending, Prime Minister David Cameron is said to be insisting that key departments must shoulder the curbs.
Meanwhile, four UK barracks and parts of three others are to be closed, while £1.8bn will be spent on providing new housing and restructuring to accommodate troops to be repatriated from Germany.
Critics say that the currently planned Army reduction, combined with cuts to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, will have a significant impact on the ability to deploy and sustain expeditionary forces overseas. This comes out strongly in comments on the future of the armed forces, in the new Spring newsletter of the Women in War Group.
An editorial in the newsletter argues: “The consequences for women serving in the military are likely to be profound. The Treasury’s alarming habit of cutting support and logistic capabilities because of the smaller political cost means that many of the opportunities open to women will be reduced. The Royal Armoured Corps, Royal Artillery and Reservist Units have all been utilised as infantry during Operation Herrick, with women playing vital roles in the distinctly ‘non-permissive environment’ in Afghanistan, but a shift to conventional contingency operations may see a reduction in positions that are deemed suitable for women.”
The newsletter comments: “Our recent collection of essays showed that woman were not passive actors in the armed forces of the United Kingdom in the past and that there were many roles (including a number that are considered to be combat) where they excelled. In the army of the future, the potential of talented women should not be side-lined by political constraints.”
The essays were published under the imprint Pen & Sword, as Women in War: From Home Front to Front Line, written collectively by the Women in War group of The British Commission For Military History.
The Ministry of Defence has denied that current cuts will affect operational capability, but this has been strongly questioned by among others Major General Julian Thompson, who commanded land forces in the 1982 Falklands War.
Maj Gen Thompson said that coverage of Prince Harry’s return from fighting in Afghanistan had coincided with ministers warning of “a generational struggle” against al Qaeda and other extremist groups in north Africa and the Sahel region. “Leaving aside the wisdom of getting ourselves into another Afghanistan-type quagmire, one of the questions that the government should be asking itself is: How will they maintain the present standards and personnel strength of the UK’s Special Forces if they cut the Army?” Around 60% of Special Forces are selected from the Army (the remaining 40% from the Royal Marines).
Maj Gen Thompson said that the excuse being “trotted out” for the cuts is the size of the defence deficit inherited by the Government. “This is used as a cover for the real reason, which is that although this Government says it believes that the defence of the realm is the first priority of government, it fails to put its money where its mouth is by cutting expenditure elsewhere. A good place to start would be the overseas aid budget of £11.4bn, most of which is frittered away by corruption and in futile schemes.”
Defence writer Georgina Natzio said that the cutting mentality has been ongoing since 1979. “Some of us will remember how the onset of the Falklands War stopped the [then] new Conservative Government’s proposed cuts dead in their tracks.” Ms Natzio said that the cutting mindset eventually reasserted itself and persists, complicated by the largely procurement defence deficit; some reports suggest rising to almost £40bn, certainly £38bn had been frequently mentioned.
Major Gordon Corrigan, who served in the British Army’s Royal Gurkha Rifles, mainly in the Far East, said: “A sensible government looks at the threat, examines what it wants its armed forces to do and then designs them accordingly, matching resources to commitments. No British government ever does this, because there are no votes in defence.”
Maj Corrigan said of the severe pruning planned: “It is rather akin to saving money by not taking out house insurance, and hoping that when the house goes on fire you will have moved. We live in a dangerous world. The ever present threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the instability in the Middle East, the flexing of muscles by China, the uncertain direction of Russia, piracy and banditry off the Horn of Africa, Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, to say nothing of a resurgence of misbehaviour in Northern Ireland, all make this the wrong time to reduce defence expenditure.
“The government claims that an increase in the size of the Territorial Army will compensate for a reduction in the regular forces. This is nonsense and the government knows it. While individual specialists from the reserves can certainly be employed in the short term, and individual TA private soldiers can be used as cannon fodder to fill up regular sections, TA soldiers can never obtain the experience or the skills to replace professionals, even if employers were willing to grant them the time to do so. Cutting the regular forces is sheer lunacy, but it will happen and we will, eventually, pay the price.”
The historian Andrew Roberts, in an article written for the UK National Defence Association said that the armed services that Britain will be left with once the Coalition’s plans go through will simply not be large and credible enough to deal with severe scenarios, even if we are fortunate enough that they come singly, rather than in multiples, as is often the way with international crises, especially where weakness is perceived by antagonists.