Rishi Sunak has said he will not “second guess” military commanders on planned British Army cuts.
The Prime Minister declined to say what size he thought the Army should be when asked about the plans at the London Defence Conference on Tuesday, and said it was up to senior officers to decide what they spent the defence budget on.
But Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey told the same conference it was “perverse” to cut troop numbers at a time of rising insecurity and blamed Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, for failing to secure enough funding for more troops.
In the past decade, the Army has shrunk from 97,000 full-time, trained soldiers to 76,000, and the Future Soldier programme will see it reduced further to 73,000 regulars while increasing the size of the Army Reserve.
Mr Sunak said: “The Army will have a total force capacity of 100,000, split between regulars and reserves.
“Now the Defence Secretary is currently in the process of reviewing that. There will be a defence command paper issued shortly which will talk through all that.
“But ultimately my job is not to second guess the decision that our military chiefs are making. What I can say, what we’ve delivered as a Government, is record defence uplifts.”
He added: “How that is best spent to deal with the threats that we face is a question that our military chiefs will make.”
Later on Tuesday, Mr Healey urged the Government to abandon the planned cuts, describing them as “the wrong plan at the wrong time”.
He said: “When Nato is increasing, to take the lesson from Ukraine, its high readiness force to 300,000, it is perverse that Britain at the same time is looking to and planning to cut the strength of our full-time forces further.
“It seems to me that this is driven by costs, not threats, and it seems to me that this is, sad to say, a result of the Defence Secretary’s failure to win new money from the MoD (Ministry of Defence) for those needed to deal with the threats that we face.”
That money is largely earmarked for the nuclear deterrent and replenishing the UK’s stockpiles after donating equipment to Ukraine.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP when economic and fiscal conditions allow.
He said the UK was one of a “minuscule” number of countries that had consistently met the Nato standard of spending 2% of GDP on defence.
Mr Sunak also denied that the UK is declining as a global power.
He pointed to achievements in the past six months including the Windsor Framework on post-Brexit Northern Ireland trading arrangements, the UK’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trading bloc, and the Aukus defence partnership with Australia and the US.
But while Mr Healey said Labour supported Aukus and acknowledged the importance of the Indo-Pacific, he warned against devoting too many military resources to the region.
He said: “At a time when our forces are stretched, I think they are badly served by leaders who pretend they can do everything everywhere in the world.
“The support we can give to allies, the contribution we can make to the strategic security balance in the Indo-Pacific is powerful in ways other than straightforward military deployments.”
The conference, hosted by King’s College London, also heard from Polish president Andrzej Duda, who used his speech to call for all Nato members to increase defence spending.
He said: “Let me stress, all allies. We must bear in mind that Nato forces are not just the US troops. It’s our joint potential contributed by each and every member of the alliance.
“Let me recall that if we want article five to provide iron-clad security guarantees, then the provisions of article three have to be strictly followed, and article three stipulates that every one of us, each Nato member, has to individually maintain and develop the capacity to resist armed attack.”