Hoon branded 'coward' over Army cuts

Last updated at 08:16 17 December 2004

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon was yesterday accused of being a 'backstabbing coward' as he unveiled his long-awaited programme of regimental cuts and mergers affecting some of the Army's most historic names.

The announcement sparked scenes of uproar in the Commons and the Scottish National Party's Annabelle Ewing was expelled from the chamber by the Deputy Speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst after a volley of bitter exchanges.

For the Tories, shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram said that the announcement from a "discredited and ineffective Defence Secretary" marked a "dark day" for the Army.

However Mr Hoon said that the changes were essential to provide a more "agile, flexible and deployable" Army capable of meeting the evolving strategic challenges of the post-9/11 era.

As expected, the Defence Secretary set out plans to cut the number of infantry battalions from 40 to 36, with the amalgamation of the Army's smaller regiments into a series of regional "super regiments".

In Scotland, where the changes have proved most controversial, The Royal Scots and The King's Own Scottish Borderers will merge into a single battalion, which will combine with the remaining four battalions - including The Black Watch - to form The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

One of the other battalions being "axed" from the infantry - the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment - will be re-roled to provide the core of a tri-Service "ranger" unit providing support

for the Special Forces like the SAS.

The head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, said the idea of creating a ranger unit had only emerged over the autumn as a result of the experience of Special Forces operations during the past 18 months.

The other battalions being cut will come from the North west and from southern England. In the North west, The King's Own Royal Border Regiment, the King's Regiment and the Queen's Lancashire Regiment will merge to form the two battalion King's Lancashire and Border Regiment.

In the South, the Gloster element of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment (RGBW) will merge with the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment with the Light Division to form the 1st Battalion the Light Infantry.

The remaining elements of the RGBW, previously the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment, will merge into the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment within the Queen's Division.

In the House, Mr Hoon denied opposition claims that the changes were driven by the need to cut costs.

"These plans will make the Army more robust and resilient, able to deploy, support and sustain the enduring expeditionary operations that are essential for a more complex and uncertain world.

"The move to larger, multi-battalion regiments that these changes bring about is the only sustainable way in which to structure the infantry for the long term."

All the new multi-battalion regiments will have a single cap badge, seen by commanders as an important unifying factor in achieving a sense of identity for the new regiments.