The number of British soldiers fit for action has fallen to just 60,000, with one in five troops unable to undertake full combat duties due to illness or injury.
A total of 18,000 soldiers currently suffer from physical or mental illness, lack of fitness or could only be deployed on certain operations, new figures show.
The Ministry of Defence says there are 78,407 full-time and fully trained troops, which is less than the Government’s 82,000 target. The revelation that there could be even fewer than that comes at a time when there is already unease at the impact of cutbacks on military expenditure.
Former naval officer and Tory MP Andrew Bowie, who uncovered the figures through a parliamentary question, said the “worrying” staffing gap could be heaping undue stress on serving soldiers.
Speaking to The Independent, Bowie said: “A decision has to be made. Do we fund and man our armed forces properly and ask them to do all we ask them, or do we continue to underfund and undermine, leading to overstretched and undue stress on our serving soldiers?”
Last week, new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was warned there would be a “substantial” revolt by Tory MPs in the event of more cuts to army numbers and diminishment of naval capability.
Hammond calls for cuts
According to The Sun, Chancellor Philip Hammond has told the Prime Minister the British Army only needs 50,000 troops, less than half the number when the Tories came to power in 2010.
During what the paper described as a “heated debate”, Hammond said cutting around 30,000 full-time and fully-trained soldiers would still allow the British Army to carry out its core task of being able to send a division to fight a war.
“Enraged Army chiefs said the much-reduced quota would leave the UK only able to sustain a war for around six months”, says The Sun. It would also rule out any large-scale peace-keeping mission or invasion like the 2003 Iraq War, says the paper.
The International Business Times says “the Government has controversially been trying to close gaps in defence spending by increasing the number of reservists, with the goal of recruiting 30,000 Army reservists by 2020”.
Following seven years of austerity cutbacks and an alleged £2bn black hole, the MoD is reportedly bracing itself for further cuts to spending as part of a Cabinet Office review of the UK’s national security next year.
According to series of leaks by senior military officials published in The Times over recent months, the MoD faces a funding shortfall of a least £20bn over the next decade, though this could be as large as £30bn.
During her tour of the Middle East last week, Prime Minister Theresa May repeatedly refused to guarantee that the number of troops in the army would not fall below 70,000 as part of the review, prompting Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood to threaten to quit if a series of cost-saving proposals to cut the armed forces went ahead.
He could be joined by as many as 30 other Conservatives, after ex-army officer Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who has led a campaign to boost resources, said a sizeable number of backbenchers were prepared to “hold the Government’s feet to the fire” on defence spending.
Labour has sought to directly link austerity with cuts to the military. The party’s shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith said reducing the size of the army to 70,000, “would seriously put our international credibility at risk” and accused the Tories of being in “open rebellion” over the issue.