LONDON — Winston Churchill rallied his country with some of history’s most memorable speeches during the darkest hours of World War II.
Speaking in the House of Commons in 1940, the prime minister vowed Britons would never surrender to Nazi rule. “We shall fight on the seas and oceans,” he said, “we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air… on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds… in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.”
Seventy years later, the military could hardly consider such a massive deployment. Now drastic cutbacks finalized last month will see the mighty imperial forces Churchill once commanded reduced to their lowest numbers in more than a century.
The government says it wants to create a lean, hi-tech force that will be able to face down future threats. But many in the military and the opposition say the cuts are part of austerity measures that will weaken the army along with the country’s influence in the world.
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These are grim times for the British military. Some 20,000 personnel will receive marching orders over the next five years as part of the plan to reduce troop numbers to 82,000.
The cuts, which call for disbanding or merging several storied combat regiments, have diminished morale already sapped by dwindling public support for intervention in Afghanistan.
The government says the measures are necessary to fill a $58 billion defense budget “black hole” caused by years of financial mismanagement. Ruling Conservative politicians blame the previous Labour government.
Although they have explained the cutbacks by the need for austerity during a time of economic crisis, officials have also tried to put a positive spin on their plans by arguing that new technology and changing defense requirements have made large armies unnecessary.
“We need to transform the army and build a balanced, capable and adaptable force ready to face the future,” Defense Minister Philip Hammond said this month. “Unlike the past, it will be set on a firm foundation of men and material, well trained, well equipped and fully funded.”
Other countries in Europe are also enacting cuts — except Poland, where military spending is on the rise — in response to the euro crisis, new technology and other factors, says Samuel Perlo-Freeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“Ever since the end of the Cold War, the trend in force sizes across Europe and elsewhere has been downward,” he said. “The Soviet threat no longer exists and the idea of mass army battles in the middle of Europe is an unlikely scenario.”
Perlo-Freeman says the large-scale military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are also inevitably influencing reductions. “Even the most determined war-mongers are going to think twice before embarking on similar operations in the future,” he said.
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The amount Britain spends on its military is set to drop from 3 to 2 percent of GDP between 2009 and 2015, the scale of which is about average for Europe. The Dutch will bring their defense spending down from 1.4 to 1.15 percent in the same period, while the French rate will fall from 2.3 to 2.0 percent.
Some of Britan’s top brass supports the idea for a lean 21st-century fighting machine. Former army chief Gen. Mike Jackson described it as an “innovative solution” to future military uncertainties. “What is required is a force structure which is as balanced and flexible as it can be,” he said.
But other senior military figures and experts who have expressed serious misgivings say enacting the plan would amount to surrendering to Britain’s enemies.
Critics say the plan will help erode their once-dominant country’s waning ability to punch above its weight in global politics. “This isn’t just a smaller army, it’s also a less powerful army in a less influential nation,” said Labour Party defense spokesman Jim Murphy.
Ending British military traditions by scrapping such respected battalions as the Green Howards, part of a regiment that dates back 300 years, has helped cause widespread resentment.
Brigadier David Paterson, commander of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, warned in a letter to the UK’s chief of defense staff that the decision to cut battalions under his command would hurt troops and undermine future military operations.
“If challenged or scrutinized by, for example the media, it cannot be presented as the best or most sensible military option,” he wrote.
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Col. Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said reserve troops would be unable to make up for the reduction of professional forces.
“History since time immemorial demonstrates that we can’t possibly anticipate the pattern of future conflict,” he said. “We can all hope there will never be a conflict that needs large forces, but hope is not a basis for strategy.”
Rendering Britain unable to rely on large forces if needed, he added, would mean it would “no longer be a serious player on the world stage.”
Kemp and others criticize the government for trying to justify the cuts with rhetoric about an agile military able to quickly adapt and respond. In fact, they say, British troops will be overstretched and at greater risk.
Revelations about bungled military procurement projects that contributed to the military’s budget “black hole” have added to critics’ anger. The government drew heavy criticism for costly policy u-turns over orders for American F-35 fighter jets and naval vessels to accommodate them.
Although money is the main reason for the decision to reduce troop numbers, Kemp says, political unwillingness to take flak for poor decisions may also be responsible. Fewer troops will mean fewer chances of embarking on unpopular military missions.
“Perhaps politicians are subconsciously looking to deny themselves opportunities to carry out intervention operations,” he said. “If you haven’t the troops, you can’t use them.”