LONDON (Reuters) - The British Army has been damaged by spending cuts and by 2020 it will be even more “vulnerable” from a lack of manpower, a panel of lawmakers said on Friday, in a warning to the government at a time of heightened geo-political tensions.
The report was issued as the Ukraine crisis dominated the first day of a NATO summit hosted by Britain. Britain joining U.S. air strikes on Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq is also being debated.
“Shortfalls in Army recruitment are increasing the risk of capability gaps emerging in some parts of the Army’s structure,” said a report by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee on Britain’s Army 2020 plan.
The Ministry of Defence said in a statement that it accepted that its targets were challenging but believed that they were achievable. Many of the issues raised by the report had already been addressed, it said.
“Our Army 2020 plans are on track and will deliver by 2020 the army we need to counter the wide range of threats we face,” Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said.
Britain has cut defence spending by around 8 percent over the last four years as part of the government’s drive to reduce its record budget deficit.
Under the Army 2020 programme, the country’s regular soldier force is to shrink from a pre-2010 size of 102,000 to 82,500, its smallest since the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, and be supplemented by 11,000 more reserve soldiers.
The committee questioned whether the MoD plan to increase the number of reservists - part time soldiers who also have another job - could be done in time.
“Army 2020’s smaller Army will be even more vulnerable to the under-manning that was common before the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said committee chair Margaret Hodge.
“What contingency plans we heard of could have long-term negative consequences.”
Amongst the report’s criticisms of the ministry were that it had not involved the head of the Army in the decision-making process and had therefore not tested whether recruiting that many reserves was possible or not.
It also said the ministry had been over-optimistic on recruitment targets and had wasted 70 million pounds ($115 million) through a bungled contract with Capita (CPI.L), the company appointed to handle the staffing process.
Army reserve numbers had remained at 19,000 for the last two years, the report said, the same level as they had been pre-2010. Capita had missed its target to recruit 6,000 reserves in 2013-14 by 4,000.
The report also accused the ministry of preventing full parliamentary scrutiny of its Army 2020 plans by withholding timely information from the National Audit Office, the body which examines public spending on behalf of parliament.
Reporting by Sarah Young