UK army, navy and RAF all to be cut back, defence review confirms

Cuts come despite Boris Johnson’s pre-election pledge not to cut armed services ‘in any form’

Britain’s army, navy and air force will all be cut back over this parliament despite promises made by Boris Johnson during the election campaign “not to be cutting the armed services in any form”.

A five-year defence review, published on Monday, confirms the army target size will be cut by 9,500 to 72,500 by 2025, its lowest level since 1714, towards the end of the war of the Spanish succession.

The number of navy frigates and destroyers will drop from 19 to 17 in the next 18 months. A third of the army’s Challenger tanks will be scrapped, while 148 will be upgraded, at a cost of £1.3bn.

The plan is to concentrate investment in replacing Trident and other hi-tech rearmament – which Johnson said earlier on Monday would give the military the kit to make them “all the more useful, all the more, I’m afraid, lethal, and effective around the world”.

A string of ageing RAF planes will be retired in the next couple of years, including 24 first-generation Typhoon bombers, as well as nine chinook helicopters, 14 Hercules transporter aircraft and 20 Puma support helicopters.

Defence sources acknowledged that the air force cuts would reduce logistics and supply capacity at a time when ministers want British forces to be more “forward deployed” in both Africa and the Indo-Pacific.

Cash for investment has come at the cost of day-to-day spending cuts. Last November, the government announced a £16.5bn increase in the defence budget over the next four years, largely earmarked for future projects and to plug a black hole of up to £17bn in the Ministry of Defence’s budgets.

Although many of the cuts spelled out in the defence command paper were anticipated, their breadth overall led to pointed exchanges in the Commons as the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, unveiled the five-year plan.

Labour’s John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, said: “What does the defence secretary say to each and every voter who heard the prime minister say at the launch of the Conservatives’ 2019 election campaign, I quote, ‘We will not be cutting our armed forces in any form. We will be maintaining the size of our armed forces.’”

Wallace accused Healey of “a desperate attempt” to make the additional capital investment “look like some form of a cut” – and the previous Labour government of having “delivered lots of regiments” and “delivered our soldiers into Snatch Land Rovers” which proved vulnerable to improvised explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Day-to-day budgets remain flat at £31.5bn from 2021-22 for the rest of the parliament – which Labour calculated on Sunday amounted to a cut of 2.4% in real terms between 2019-20 and the year ending in March 2025.

The current army size is 76,000, well below the formal target of 82,000 set at the 2015 defence review, because of continuing problems with recruitment and retention. No redundancies will be required to meet the new target of 72,500, with military chiefs confident they can complete the cuts through natural wastage.

Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that cuts in the size of the British army were “a huge concern” to him as an ally. “You are getting very close to not being able to contribute, quite frankly,” he told the BBC.

New programmes to be funded include replacing the UK’s Trident nuclear warheads, the cap on which was increased to 260 last week. No price tag was mentioned in the review for the work, which will take two decades and still needs to be authorised by parliament. Analysts estimate it will cost £10bn.

A total of £2bn over the next four years was earmarked for the Tempest future combat aircraft, which will launch towards the end of the next decade, with a mixture of crewed, uncrewed and computer-controlled “loyal wingman” drones.

Last week, Sir Mike Wigston, the head of the RAF, predicted that by 2040, 80% of “planes flying on operations” in combat zones such as Syria and Iraq would “not have a human in them”. Air chiefs also want to develop “high energy” weapons – a form of laser – to counter “swarming drones” from enemy countries.

Navy warship numbers are not expected to reach 20 until the end of the decade, as new type 26 and 31 frigates are built.

An emphasis on countering the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific region – described as posing a “complex, systemic challenge” – will be achieved by basing two small patrol vessels in the region from 2021 and a Royal Marine unit from 2023.


Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

The GuardianTramp

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