LONDON – British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said Thursday the country's army will lose 17 major units in a sweeping restructuring to handle the loss of 20,000 soldiers under the government's austerity drive.
The U.K.'s army is shrinking from 102,000 troops to 82,000 by the end of the decade — part of efforts to meet steep cuts to public spending ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron. The military is handling an 8 percent cut to its annual 37 billion pound ($59 billion) defense budget, and has already announced plans to scrap a fleet of jets and an aircraft carrier.
Hammond said that with British troops withdrawing from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the armed forces must rethink their structure after more than a decade of continual combat — including the simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"After a decade of enduring operations, we need to transform the Army and build a balanced, capable and adaptable force ready to face the future," Hammond said.
He said four infantry battalions — each of which typically includes between 500 and 600 troops — will be scrapped under the plans, and a fifth relegated to performing ceremonial duties in Scotland.
Under the new plans, the army would be divided into three levels of readiness: rapid reaction forces to deploy quickly on operations as needed; adaptable forces at a lower level of readiness who would take over after reaction forces; and force troops, which are specialist support units such as intelligence and medical units.
With military families still reeling over the job cuts to get force numbers down to 82,000, anger boiled over Thursday at the loss of some historic battalions.
Stuart Parsons, mayor of the northern England town of Richmond, said the Conservative Party-led government should be embarrassed and "hang its head in shame" for deciding that his town's 2nd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment would lose its status, ending 300 years of military tradition.
Hammond said that the loss of full-time soldiers would be offset by increases in part-time reservists, whose numbers will double to 30,000. However, the ex-head of the Army, Gen. Richard Dannatt, warned that relying on part-time soldiers could be risky.
"We all recognize that placing more emphasis on the reserves is a good idea in theory, but it has got to be made to work," he told BBC radio. "Let's hope that the next decade is rather more peaceful than the last decade, but I wouldn't bet on it."
Jim Murphy, a lawmaker with the main opposition Labour Party, said the plans would leave Britain with its smallest army since the Boer Wars of the late 19th Century. He said the cuts come as NATO operations will be under increasing pressure, particularly as the United States shifts its military focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
The government has acknowledged a smaller army would no longer be able to deploy in the same numbers as during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"Jobs and military capability have been lost and tradition and history have been sacrificed," said Murphy, the Labour Party's defense spokesman. "This isn't just a smaller army. It's also a less powerful army in a less influential nation."
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd