Eight thousand British soldiers – many serving on the front line in Afghanistan – will be told days after Christmas that they are to lose their jobs.
Redundancy notices will be sent to servicemen and women telling them their careers are over as part of sudden speeded-up cutbacks by the Ministry of Defence.
The Army has already been shaken by the announcement of a swathe of cuts, which included the loss of historic regiments and the prospect of a gradual reduction in personnel over the next eight years.
But now The Mail on Sunday has discovered that the MoD will make a single devastating cut of 8,000 servicemen and women, reducing the Army to 86,000 – its smallest size since the 1700s. A further 4,000 soldiers will go before 2020.
The axe will fall across every branch and regiment of the Regular Army, with only Special Forces ringfenced. Thousands of soldiers will disappear from regiments such as the Royal Welsh, the Royal Fusiliers, the Royal Engineers, the Royal Lancers and the Army Air Corps, which includes Prince Harry among its officers.
The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers is expected to lose 600 of its most skilled personnel, while the Royal Logistics Corps will also be badly hit.
Last night serving officers, military experts and MPs condemned the drastic measure as a stab in the back for soldiers and a blow to the Army’s capability.
Former commander Tim Collins, who led the Royal Irish Regiment into Iraq in 2003, said: ‘This is meltdown. We’re still fighting in Afghanistan, the world is changing rapidly and looks increasingly dangerous yet the Government is crippling our operational capability.
‘The sheer size of the redundancies in a single hit will devastate morale and send totally the wrong message to soldiers on the front line. In the new year they could find envelopes on their doormats with bad news inside. The job cuts across the Army cannot sit alongside Britain’s commitments to its operations against the Taliban and terrorist organisations appearing in other countries.’
In another move, British Army officers would be forced to retire at 45 – ten years earlier than at present – in a radical proposal by a Conservative member of the Defence Select Committee.
Julian Brazier MP wants to pare down the number of senior officers, leaving just a small cadre to fill specialist positions advising politicians. The plan, called ‘Manning The Army Of The Future’, represents the most drastic change to the structure of the Army since the Second World War.
Under his proposal, which could become policy by 2015 if it is approved by the Government, thousands of senior officers will be forced out.
Currently the Army has just over 7,000 senior officers holding the ranks of Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier, Major General, Lieutenant General and General. Their starting salaries at these ranks range from £47,760 to £148,000.
The majority of these officers are 45 or older and reducing their numbers by half would save £144 million a year.
Mr Brazier believes the top end of the Army is ‘over-commanded’ and ‘over-administered’ and wants the money saved on salaries to be used on benefits such as housing for serving officers.
But former commander of British Forces in Bosnia Bob Stewart, now a Conservative MP, said: ‘If the “Career to 45” scheme is introduced many of the most talented officers will leave in their early thirties. Why would they hang around to 45, by which time they might struggle to find really good jobs in the major industries?’
The sending out of 8,000 sacking letters after Christmas has stunned senior personnel. One major, who expects to be among those selected for redundancy, accused the Prime Minister of ‘cowardice’.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: ‘The Government and the Prime Minister want the redundancies out of the way in 2013 so their disgusting treatment of frontline soldiers is forgotten about by the time of the next General Election.
‘They don’t care what this reduction in Britain’s fighting capability will do to morale or to our combat effectiveness. All they care about is what is on voters’ minds the year after. This is a most cruel example of political expediency. The redundancies and the commitment to shrink the Army to a strength of 82,000 could have been met by natural wastage, a slowing down of recruitment and cherry-picking those who are the most keen to leave.
‘Some really good people are going to be chopped, some of them who are serving in Afghanistan now – their post-operational tour holiday periods will end just in time for the Government to hand them a P45. Morale will take a skydive.’
In July, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced the total loss of 17 units. At the time no schedule for the redundancies was confirmed. Only those soldiers about to deploy to Afghanistan and those serving on the front line that month will be safe from the January cull. No redundancy notices will be posted to Camp Bastion.
The MoD said last night: ‘There are no plans to make any further reductions beyond the changes announced last year. The size and timing of any future redundancies has yet to be determined, however we aim to remove uncertainty for Army personnel and their families as soon as possible.
Difficult decisions have had to be taken to deal with the multi-billion-pound black hole in the defence budget.’
It added that it had no plans to change the retirement age for senior officers.