"One of Britain’s top generals has warned that the armed forces have been “cut to the bone”, “hollowed out” and are “failing”.
In a devastating critique, General Sir Richard Shirreff, the outgoing Nato deputy supreme commander, branded plans to recruit thousands of reserve troops to offset the shrinking regular army “one hell of a risk” and warned the “jury is still out” on whether it would succeed.
He said Russia’s annexation of Crimea had changed the “defence paradigm” in Europe and required Britain to “prioritise defence”.
However, he feared cuts had already hit the UK’s military capabilities hard, particularly the navy, which had been so “cut to the bone” that it could not take part in Nato maritime operations.
“A hollowed-out navy means you can’t project power. I’ve heard this said in the Ministry of Defence: ‘The yardstick by which we measure ourselves is our ability to punch above our weight’. You can’t do that now. By that yardstick, therefore, we’re failing.”
His comments are the most outspoken and critical by a serving senior officer since the coalition was formed in 2010. Shirreff, the third most senior officer in the British army, stepped down from his Nato post on Friday and is due to leave the army in August.
His intervention is likely to reignite the debate over whether David Cameron’s government has cut defence spending too far at a time of growing global instability. Under a plan called Army 2020, the size of the regular army is being slashed from 102,000 to 82,000, the lowest level since Napoleonic times.
Shirreff said the architects of it had “made a pretty good fist of a very difficult hand of cards” but he is clear that the restructuring will weaken the armed forces. “I wouldn’t want to let anybody think that I think that Army 2020 is good news, it’s not,” he said.
“The sort of defence cuts we have seen . . . have really hollowed out the British armed forces and I think that people need to sit up and recognise that.”
Shirreff is the first senior officer publicly to voice serious concerns about the government’s £1.8bn plan to recruit a 35,000-strong reserve force by 2018. The plan, a cornerstone of the government’s defence policy, has threatened to unravel due to a recruitment crisis.
Shirreff said it was yet to be demonstrated whether moving to an army so dependent on reserve forces “is going to work or not”.
“It’s certainly one hell of a risk. The point at which a risk becomes a gamble is a subjective view. I think the jury is out still.”
A “complete shift in culture” among employers and the wider public would be needed for the plan to succeed, he said. “If the dependence on the reserves is going to work . . . the nation needs to get behind this. It’s not just the armed forces — this is everybody’s business.”
Despite his position in the army, Shirreff said his biggest concern was the impact the cuts are having on the Royal Navy, which now has only 19 frigates and destroyers.
“It is very noticeable in Nato that the one navy which is never participating in Nato maritime operations pretty much is the Royal Navy, which sends a pretty bad signal for a navy which [was] once one of the world’s greatest navies . . . that has an impact in the way people think about the UK. This is the result, I think, of cutting to the bone.”
Shirreff, a married father of two, is one of the most battle-hardened and experienced officers in the army. He fought as a tank-squadron leader in the Gulf War in 1991 and commanded British troops in Basra in 2006. He last week returned to Britain after serving three years with Nato. He spoke to The Sunday Times as he left from Nato’s headquarters in Belgium, where he has been co-ordinating the alliance’s response to Russia’s takeover of Crimea and the build-up of forces on Ukraine’s eastern border.
Shirreff believes it is “very plausible” that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, could extend his “land grab” into eastern and southern Ukraine and that even the invasion of Latvia, a Nato country, is a “realistic” scenario.
“He has demonstrated that armed illegal aggression is part of the way he does business, so anything is possible,” said Shirreff.
After years of being treated by Nato as a “strategic partner”, Russia is now “a strategic adversary”, he said.
Shirreff argues that the UK and other European nations need to protect their defence budgets to deter Russia. This would mean deeper cuts to other Whitehall departments when further cuts are made after the next election.
“It may just be that rather than defence, those cuts, which will have to come, come from other budgets and other departments,” he said. “We all support the efforts to get the deficit down but it is all about priorities. What really matters? Well, the first duty of government is to protect the nation. Defence is really, really important. And the electorate need to understand there is no point in having hospitals and schools and welfare unless the country is safe.”
Unlike the Russians, the UK had lost the ability to manoeuvre huge army formations, of around 20,000 troops, around the battlefield, Shirreff said. Complex wargame exercises involving an entire division of troops, which had not been held for more than 20 years, needed to be resumed, he said."
Top general: Cuts mean UK forces can?t do the job | The Sunday Times