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Telegraph: 'Historic battalions could be lost in cuts, warns general' (Updated)

The Daily Telegraph (Mon 22 Aug) claims that up to a fifth of Britain's infantry battalions, "including some of Army's most historic names", will be abolished under Government defence cuts.  The story represents much the sort of speculation which the Ministry of Defence has earlier criticised as "putting troops at risk", apparently on the basis that personnel in Afghanistan might be dangerously distracted, while on patrol, by concerns about closures and disbandments.

Such worries appear, howevee, to be well enough founded in principle, given the scale of the cuts. The "speculation" only relates to the detail, as it does appear that some famous regimental names stand to lose their present identity whether by amalgamation, outright removal, or some novel reassignment of the name.

It is inevitable that media reporting on this issue will cite some of the best known regimental names, as examples. Other recent reporting on this issue mentioned at least one other historic regimental name. If not these particular battalions, it seems that it will be somebody else.

The Telegraph's story continues:

[Commanders] believe that as many as eight of the existing 36 battalions could cease to exist as the Army loses 12,000 posts in the next four years.

The cuts have raised fears that historic regimental names such as the Black Watch and the Green Howards could be at risk.

Gen Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of General Staff, is understood to have warned David Cameron about the impact of the cuts at a meeting in Downing Street last month.

The general is said to have told Mr Cameron that some units' historic names and "cap badges" – unique identifying symbols – could be lost because of the cuts.

Fearful of public protests, the Prime Minister is understood to have responded by asking the general to try to make the cuts without disbanding any "cap badge" battalions.

But Army chiefs have warned that could force them to "salami slice" all regiments, leading to much smaller units that would be of limited military value. One officer told The Daily Telegraph that Mr Cameron's request was "pretty naïve really – it's as if he thinks he can order cuts of this size without any real consequences".

The Daily Telegraph disclosed last month that Gen Wall has written to commanding officers warning them of the "removal of formed battalions and regiments".

The Army is in the process of shedding 7,000 of its 102,000 posts, under cuts announced in last year's Strategic Defence and Security Review. The first personnel to be sacked under the SDSR will be notified on Sept 1, when about 1,000 will be laid off. In addition, ministers last month ordered a further 5,000 cuts by 2015 and the Army will be reduced to 80,000 members by 2020.

Army planners are understood to be looking at cutting between five and eight battalions from the infantry. A battalion typically has around 600 men.

Early indications are that at least one Scottish battalion will be lost, and one from the north of England.

The last attempt to scrap historic infantry units, in 2004, left the Labour government facing angry protests from local MPs and military campaigners.

Some Government insiders suspect the generals are trying to use the emotive appeal of the historic regimental names to put pressure on Mr Cameron to back down on the cuts.

Some of the historic cap badges only survived the 2004 restructuring thanks to a compromise deal that means some units effectively have two official names.

So the Green Howards, whose history reaches back to the Glorious Revolution, are officially designated "the 2nd Bn, The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards). Likewise the Scottish battalions: the Black Watch is formally titled "3rd Bn, The Royal Regiment of Scotland".

Both regiments could be vulnerable because they are short of their full complement of soldiers, partly because of poor recruiting in recent years.

Reports have also suggested that a Guards regiment could be disbanded, perhaps the Coldstream Guards. However, the Prime Minister is said to have insisted that the Guards and other units directly associated with the Royal family must be kept intact.

The Ministry of Defence said that the detail of the Army cuts was still being considered.

A spokesman said: "These additional manpower cuts are being scoped and detailed planning is under way to identify a range of options to meet the target of 90,000 by 2015.

"Whilst this planning is ongoing it would be wrong to speculate on the possible outcomes."

UPDATE 23 Aug: The latest MoD comments quoted in today's media support our view that identifying particular famous regimental names as candidates for cuts is indeed speculative, and arguably unfair to the battalions which have mentioned in various media stories because they carry especially famous names.

The "speculation" reflects the reality, however, that infantry and other units will disappear under plans to further reduce the Army.

... An army spokeswoman said the rumours that The Black Watch faces the axe are unfounded.

"There is absolutely no truth in this — it is all complete speculation," she said. "Although the chief of general staff did say battalions would have to be cut, nobody has said it would be one particular battalion."

"However, she added that the army will have to find a way to reduce its numbers significantly over the next four years. "It is a fact that there will be a reduction in manpower."

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