The Mail on Sunday, whose defence journalism is traditionally strong, has revealed in its latest issue (14th April 2012) that the UK Government plans to cut two Scots battalions as part of its continuing and unstrategic cuts to the defence establishment.
We have already seen the disastrous decision to scrap our last two aircraft carriers prematurely, sell the Harrier aircraft they carried and go ahead with building the two contracted aircraft carriers – because, in the terms of the contract drawn up, it was cheaper to build them than to cancel. It was also decided to mothball or sell one of these two carriers as soon as it was built and – with the Harriers to be sold (very cheaply, to the USA) and no replacement jets for the retained carrier to carry for several years, to equip it with helicopters.
Then Argentina started agitating again about the Falklands. It did not take long to realise that the UK was in a serious bind with no carriers to get aircraft down to the South Atlantic.
We were left with the option of sending warships – like the new Type 45 destroyer, HMS Dauntless, to the Falklands now, along with other measures to strengthen the force there.
While this goes some way to prevent the possibility of the surprise invasion that saw the UK scramble to defend the Falklands back in the 1982 war, it looked provocative as a defensive action where defence was not yet required.
Modern warfare was supposed to be managed by remote control, conducted by missiles launched from ships or submarines beyond the horizon and from fast stealth aircraft.
The reality, as in Afghanistan and Libya, has been that ground forces are irreplaceable. And we have a current coalition government whose foreign policy is interventionist in an imperial tradition that does nothing so much as raise the issue of how far this policy is being driven by our arms industry.
We are told by the military chiefs - on evidence – that cost cutting has left the armed forces very seriously stretched in manpower. Periods between tours of duty have been significantly reduced; and fast jet pilots are getting so little airtime in training that there have been concerns for some time as to their operational capability.
Yet here we are, with a vote on Scottish Independence to come in a couple of years and the UK government plans to target Scotland to take the major hit on planned infantry reductions.
Militarily and politically, this shows no strategic intelligence.
The battalions fingered for the chop are the 4th and 5th of the y0ung (2004) Royal Regiment of Scotland, itself formed from the shrinking of land forces – to which poor recruitment has been a contributor.
Both marked to be disbanded are Highland battalions, the 4th Battalion the Highlanders (4 Scots); and the 5th Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (5 Scots).
The glib excuse from the Ministry of Defence is that it is policy to cut the most recently formed units first.
The regiment of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was raised in 1799. It has a proud place in history as ‘the thin red line’ in the Crimean War in 1854 that withstood and overcame a 2,500 strong Russian cavalry charge; it served with distinction in both World Wars, in Korea, in Aden under Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell; and more recently in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Aghanistan.
Regardless of this long and often sacrificial history, the Argylls counts as a ‘young’ unit because it was cut to battalion strength in 2004, as part of the overall downsizing that saw the formation of the new Royal Regiment of Scotland from six former Scottish regiments.
With Scotland’s own future yet to be decided and the UK busily suggesting possible interventions in Syria and Iran, whichever way the Independence referendum pans out, this does not seem a wise time to be binning the remnants of Scotland’s historic regiments.
‘The Argylls’, of course, resonate strongly here.
The Glengarry with its red and white dicing and red tourie; the box pleated Black Watch kilt with the ‘swinging six’ sporrans and the officers silk ribboned panels on the front flap; the diced hose – these have been so familiar down so many years.
There will be a decision to be made here as to whether Argyll accepts this decision made elsewhere or stands against it.
Back at the end of June 2010, the now retiring Provost, Councillor William Petrie, re-conferred the freedom of Argyll and Bute on the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. At a ceremony at the council chambers at Kilmory, he presented the battalion with a new pipe banner to mark the honour.
The battalion has had less than two years to enjoy that freedom.
The council to be elected on 3rd May 2012 might look, as an early matter, at whether or not it wished to take a position on the planned disbandment of The Argylls. This is not a history to be lightly binned at another’s behest.