More than 150 years ago, a lone British regiment, the 93rd Regiment (Sutherland Highlanders), was all that stood between the unprepared British camp in the Crimea and charging Russian cavalry. Formed by their commander into two lines, the British infantry faced down many times their number, saving the day. William Russell, the London Times correspondent on the scene, described the Highlander’s stand as the “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel.” This phrase was readily simplified into the expression “a thin red line” denoting outnumbered defenders holding the line against a superior adversary. From Omdurman and Rorke’s Drift to Dunkirk, Tobruk and the Falklands, the thin red line has brought honor to the British Army, served Great Britain well and helped to preserve the Free World.
The thin red line may now be fit only for history books and the occasional movie title. Recent budget cuts have forced reductions to all parts of the British military, but particularly to the Army. The most recent round of cuts saw 17 major Army units eliminated. The British Army of the near-future will be significantly smaller than the U.S. Marine Corps.
The thin red line has become so threadbare that it will take years for the Army to recover from its latest deployment — to support the London Olympics. The British Army’s chief planner told Reuters that it will take his institution two years to recover from the unplanned deployment to provide additional security for the Olympic Games. The need to shift some 18,000 uniform personnel from their normal duties to the Games so disrupted their planned training and deployment cycles that it has impacted British and NATO’s security. And this is before the Army undergoes planned reductions from 102,000 to 82,000.
The thin red line may need to be relabeled the “canary in the coal mine.” At some point it is impossible for any military establishment to do the same with less. The British military has passed this point. They are the canary in the coal mine for the U.S. military. We cannot continue to reduce defense spending and shrink the size of our military and expect not to face an Olympic moment of our own.
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