This week’s UK defence news has seen The Times report that the Army will increase the number of troops it holds on standby to respond to large scale terrorist incidents. A battalion of several hundred troops is already primed to react to any kind of emergency, from floods to a terrorist attack. However, an unnamed Whitehall source told the newspaper that contingency plans are being drawn up to ensure that the military is prepared to respond to any kind of attack on British soil should their assistance be requested by the police. Ten thousand troops were deployed by France in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the country earlier this month.
Meanwhile, The Times also reports that Britain will send up to 100 troops to Iraq in a watered-down plan to help to combat Islamic State militants. The deployment of military trainers is far smaller than a proposal set out by Michael Fallon MP, the Defence Secretary, before Christmas. Mr Fallon’s proposal had envisaged 400 British personnel operating from training camps in central Iraq and in the Kurdish north in support of a US-led training effort, starting this month. However, as reported previously in this monitoring, Downing Street is understood to have stopped the move after concerns over the risk of British casualties so close to an election. In Iraq itself, the RAF has continued to provide support to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces this week, staging numerous strikes against Islamic State fighters using Tornado and Reaper aircraft.
Claims made that army may be cut to 60,000
The Daily Telegraph reports that former Liberal Democrat Defence Minister Sir Nick Harvey MP has claimed that officials were secretly looking at dramatically cutting the British Army to as few as 60,000 soldiers. Sir Nick said the radical reduction was being examined by the MoD because the department faces an impending “financial crunch” after the election. The MoD denied it was looking at further reductions and said the prime minister was committed to maintaining the Army at its 82,000 level. But Sir Nick later stood by his claim, and later told The Daily Telegraph the possibility of a 60,000-strong Army was being looked at under “background scoping work”, which has already begun in preparation for this year's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
During questioning on the matter in Parliament on Wednesday, the Prime Minister made a pledge that the regular Army would not fall below 82,000 as long as he remains in office.
Whilst spending cuts of up to ten per cent are being mooted for the MoD, pledges such as the one above make it increasingly difficult to see where savings of such magnitude could be found in a Conservative-led SDSR 2015, given existing commitments to spending on equipment.
Speculation that Labour may abandon Trident to facilitate alliance with SNP
The Scotsman has reported that Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP has suggested the Labour leadership’s decision to abstain on a motion in the House of Commons, put forward by the SNP and Plaid Cymru, to scrap the Trident system was a sign Labour is preparing to strike a deal to eliminate the deterrent in exchange for a post-election alliance. Mr Fallon accused Labour leader Ed Miliband MP of going back on his party’s commitment to maintain the nuclear deterrent because he was courting the SNP. Responding for Labour, Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker MP said there had been “no change” to Labour’s position as being committed to a “continuous at-sea deterrent”.
Meanwhile, the BBC has published an analysis of public opinion regarding the renewal of Trident. In general, most recent opinion polls have found that slightly more members of the public are opposed to the plan than are in favour. Amongst its most interesting findings were that a poll recently conducted in Scotland found that 77 per cent of those people who said they were going to vote for the SNP were opposed to Trident, whereas in contrast only 22 per cent of those planning to vote Labour were against the system.
UK and Ireland sign defence agreement
The Financial Times reports that Ireland and the UK have signed an agreement on defence that will see the armed forces of the two countries working closely together for the first time. A memorandum of understanding between the two governments, announced on Monday, will enable soldiers from both countries to co-operate on peacekeeping in conflict zones and could evolve to include procurement, joint training exercises, and reform of their respective defence services. It is the first time that co-operation on defence matters has been agreed between the two countries since the UK in 1938 ceded its right to the use of three Irish ports which it had retained for military purposes after the declaration of the Irish Free State, the precursor to the republic. The agreement comes as relations between Dublin and London across a range of issues have been strengthened in recent years as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that largely brought an end to three decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Royal Navy turns to Canada and New Zealand to plug recruitment gap
The Times reports that the Royal Navy is planning to put Canadian and New Zealand sailors to work on British warships to plug a shortage of engineers. The navy is facing a deficit of some 250 of the specialist personnel. To compensate, the Royal Navy has developed a number of schemes to try to fill the void, including a plan to hire as many as 100 sailors from Canada and 50 from New Zealand, although the actual number is expected to be a lot lower, a defence source told The Times. Options are also being explored with the French navy to use “limited numbers” of their engineering technicians. Members of the US Coast Guard have already been signed up as part of an initiative, aimed at preventing ships being forced to cancel deployments because of a lack of technicians on board.
Royal Mint to resume bullion bar and ingot production
Coin Update reports that the Royal Mint has announced that after an absence of 47 years from the bullion bar and ingot product field, they will resume production of these items. The Royal Mint Refinery (RMR) brand originally dates back to 1852 and was operated for more than 100 years by N.M. Rothschild and Sons. It became an established brand with a strong reputation for handling much of the gold and silver bullion sent to London from across the globe for processing under the RMR label. Production ceased in 1968. Customers will have the option of storing 100g gold bars in ‘The Vault’, the Royal Mint’s on-site precious metal storage facility, which is protected at all times by the Ministry of Defence Police.
Security bill for NATO Wales conferences reaches £60m
Wales Online reports that Gwent Police have revealed that the extensive security measures and vast police operation for last year’s NATO Summit in Wales cost nearly £60m. Some 9,500 officers from 43 police forces were drafted into the two-day event, which saw more than 60 world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, grace the Celtic Manor Resort and Cardiff Castle on September 4 and 5 last year. It is expected that the Home Office – which had provided Gwent Police with £10m in upfront funding in August 2014 – will cover the costs. More than 8,500 officers came from outside the South Wales and Gwent areas, including members of the British Transport Police, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Police Scotland, Civil Nuclear Constabulary and Ministry of Defence Police.
Relaxation of police fitness tests being examined
The Times reports that police officers who are unable to cope with the twists and turns of the back-and-forth shuttle run fitness test could be allowed to walk on a treadmill instead, under plans being considered by their professional body. Although the fitness test was only made compulsory in September, senior officers are already examining alternatives for those “age groups or weight groups” who have a higher rate of failure in the 15-metre shuttle runs, or for injured officers who cannot handle the quick turns. One alternative, the Chester test, involves a graded walk on a treadmill where the speed would not surpass 3.9 miles per hour. The College of Policing, the professional body which introduced the compulsory tests, denied that the alternative would be easier. Officers would only be able to take the alternative for good reason, such as a doctor’s note, it said. Hundreds of officers across England and Wales have failed the bleep test, which involves a series of 15-metre shuttle runs in which the speed, dictated by bleeps, is increased every 60 seconds. Those who have completed the test say that breaking into a proper run is not necessary to pass.
MoD faces £1.2bn bill to re-hire sacked staff
The Daily Mirror reports that the MoD has spent £1.2billion of taxpayers’ money on private consultants to do the jobs of sacked civil servants since 2011. More than 500 firms were paid millions in the past four years to work on defence equipment contracts previously done by MoD civilian staff. In some cases, consultants earned £4,000 a day. Almost 25,000 civilian MoD workers will have been sacked by next year as a result of budget cuts. However, despite claims that the government will save £650million-a-year through this, more than £300million a year is being spent on replacing them with freelancers.
Army launches new publicity and recruitment campaign
The BBC reports that the Army is launching a publicity campaign to keep its work in the public eye, following the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. The “Normal Day” campaign aims to explain to the public the roles the Army fulfils around the world. It has been launched alongside a recruitment drive, aimed at attracting regulars and reserves. Both campaigns will cost a total of £7m. Last year, the Army only recruited a net total of twenty 20 fully-trained reservists. In its recruiting year 2013/14 it also missed its target for regulars – 6,198 recruits joined the Army, against a target of 9,382. The rebranding campaign comes after a survey suggested 20 per cent of Britons believe the Army is less relevant now than ever before. This figure rises to 25 per cent among the Army's core recruitment audience, of those aged between 18 and 34.