Restructuring the British army is “one hell of a risk” that will weaken the armed forces, one of the country’s most senior generals has warned.
General Sir Richard Shirreff warned that the “jury is out still” on plans to slash numbers in the regular army and substitute them with reservists, saying if the idea is going to work “the nation needs to get behind” it.
The general said defence cuts had “hollowed out” the armed forces, particularly the Royal Navy, which have been “cut to the bone” and left unable to take part in NATO maritime operations.
Russia’s takeover of Crimea meant it was imperative for the UK to protect its defence budget, he said, even if that meant other departments suffered.
The general, the army’s third most senior officer, stepped down from his post as NATO deputy supreme commander on Friday and will leave the army in August.
His warning, in an interview with the Sunday Times, comes days after MPs warned Prime Minister David Cameron against any further cuts to Britain’s armed forces after Russian’s annexation of Crimea.
The government is cutting the regular army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020, while the newly-renamed Army Reserve – formerly the Territorial Army – is being expanded from 19,000 to 30,000.
General Shirreff said those implementing the changes had “made a pretty good fist of a very difficult hand of cards”, but added: “I wouldn’t want to let anybody think that I think that Army 2020 is good news, it’s not.
“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.”
He told the newspaper his biggest concern was the impact of cuts on the navy, which have left it without an operational aircraft carrier until 2020 and a fleet of just 19 frigates and destroyers.
The general said the Royal Navy’s ability to participate in NATO naval maritime operations have been compromised, which affected how people think about the UK.
He said: “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.”
General Shirreff warned the question of whether the army being more dependent on reserves would work or not was still unanswered, but he said it was “one hell of a risk”.
He said it would need a “complete shift in culture” and support from the wider public and employers if it is to succeed, saying: “… the nation needs to get behind this. It’s not just the armed forces – this is everybody’s business.”
The general, who has been co-ordinating NATO’s response to the crisis in Crimea and Ukraine, warned of further aggression by Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Sunday Times said.
After Russia’s “armed illegal aggression”, the country has now become a “strategic adversary” of NATO, rather than a “strategic partner”, General Shirreff said, and he argued that the UK and other European countries now need to protect their defence budgets to deter Russia, meaning cuts to other Whitehall departments.