Massacre in Paris raises concerns for UK forces’ capabilities

Portsmouth Naval Base, with the Historic Dockyard in the foreground''Picture: Shaun Roster
Portsmouth Naval Base, with the Historic Dockyard in the foreground''Picture: Shaun Roster

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Britain would struggle to respond to a terrorist attack similar to Friday’s atrocity in Paris.

That is the stark message an armed forces expert has given in the wake of last week’s massacre in France.

Andy Smith is the chief executive of the Portsmouth-based campaign group the United Kingdom National Defence Association.

The organisation fights on a national level to protect the nation’s armed forces, which since 2010 have suffered some of the most severe cutbacks in decades.

Speaking to The News, Mr Smith said that morale is now at its lowest ebb across all three services – the RAF, Royal Navy and British Army.

‘I don’t think I have known a time where service personnel have felt more worried about their job security and career prospects,’ he said.

‘At Sandhurst (the training institute for future officers in the British Army) the number of candidates attempting the course has fallen a little bit each year over the last few years.

‘People just really aren’t confident about a future in our armed forces any more.’

The association was set up in 2007 amid a flurry of concern about a lack of equipment for front-line troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since then, it has gathered more than 1,000 members – mostly retired military personnel of varying ranks.

Mr Smith is now worried about the impending budget review and crucial Strategic Defence and Security Review.

‘The review in 2010 left us with a hollowed-out armed forces,’ he claimed.

‘We have lost capability and so much manpower that it is very, very difficult.

‘We need to rebuild – that’s absolutely crucial.’

He added the terror attack in the French capital highlighted the importance of having a strong and flexible armed forces.

‘The French are going to deploy, on the streets of Paris, 10,000 regular troops,’ he said.

‘I very much doubt that we would be able to make that level of deployment in London if something similar happened.

‘I just don’t think it could be done, certainly not at the speed at which the French could achieve.’

Over five years all three services have faced a major reduction in manpower.

According to recent statistics from the MoD, the strength of the UK’s armed forces is at 143,200 people, down from 176,600 in 2010.

The army has cut more than 20,000 jobs.

And the other services have also already exceeded their targets for job cuts, with the RAF losing about 8,500 personnel and the navy cutting more than 5,500 positions.

The key point of investment, as part of that previous review, was to fill the gaps left by cuts with reserve forces.

To a degree, this has been successful.

Latest figures show more than a fifth of the army is made up of reserve forces – some 21,000 in total.

But in contrast, the Royal Navy has struggled to recruit similar numbers.

Out of a force of about 31,850, the navy is made up of a total of about 2,000 reserves – some 6.2 per cent.

This still leaves the navy 3,650 people short of its numbers in 2010, prior to the cuts.

‘Reserve forces are all well and good,’ said Mr Smith.

‘But to suggest that the reserve forces could step into the gap that is left is just simply fantasy.’

Mr Smith is now imploring the government to focus on investing in the nation’s military.

He stressed: ‘This upcoming review and SDSR have got to be realistic and honest appraisals of security issues post-2010.

‘So we need to look at what the challenges are – something which 2010 didn’t achieve.

‘Five years ago there wasn’t the rise of Isil and of the Russians. We need to be flexible in our future approaches to our armed forces.’

MILITARY RECRUITMENT

RECRUITMENT and retention policies within the armed forces remains ‘robust’, the Ministry of Defence has claimed.

The MoD has said contingencies are already in place to address a manpower shortage in the Royal Navy.

It comes amid fears from former naval chiefs about the number of people serving with the navy.

In a statement an MoD spokesman said: ‘The navy has already identified areas in which it can restructure its manpower to meet future requirements.

‘Through natural outflow the navy will reduce the number of officer posts by 300, and reinvest in the recruitment of 600 lower ranks.’

He added the navy was ‘on track’ to achieve its manning levels for 2020 as set out in the 2010 review.

‘There are no plans to reduce the size of the regular armed forces,’ he said.

AN MP’S VIEW

WE HAVE a duty to protect our armed forces.

That is the view of Fareham MP Suella Fernandes.

It comes after she held discussions with senior naval officers in Westminster to talk about the future of the senior service.

Miss Fernandes said: ‘All our armed forces are admired and respected around the world, and rightly so.

‘I believe firmly that the first duty of government is to make sure its citizens are safe and that our interests are secure.

‘As such, it is vital that we invest in strong defences.’

The meeting, between Vice Admiral Sir Philip Jones, commander and deputy chief of naval staff, gave the MP a chance to discuss the forthcoming spending and defence reviews.

She added that she welcomed chancellor George Osborne’s pledge to spend at least two per cent of the nation’s income on defence.

BASE COMMANDER IS OPTIMISTIC

THE commander of Portsmouth’s Naval Base says the future is looking brighter since 2010’s spending review.

Commodore Jeremy Rigby said defence cuts had taken their toll.

However, he highlighted the navy was on the cusp of a major expansion of its capabilities.

Overall investment in the base has soared from a typical £30m a year to £80m with major changes taking place to accommodate the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

Cdr Rigby added: ‘Knowing the naval base is going to be here until the end of the century means that we’ve got the opportunity to take a long-term view and get it right.’

He said warship tonnage would exceed the levels in the 1950s by 2020.

This would come mostly through the two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.