Army chief signals new niche roles for UK troops

Never again will British troops be deployed in the kind of operations that have bogged them down over the past decade in Afghanistan. There is neither the political appetite, nor the money.

Instead, they will be involved in more limited counter-terrorism operations, in cooperation with intelligence agencies and indigenous forces.

This is the picture sketched out by Sir Peter Wall, the head of the army, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London on Tuesday.

It was a rare public speech by the naturally extrovert general. He agreed with his host, Alex Nicoll, an IISS director, that it had been a period of introspection. The army, he said, was at a cross roads, and its generals had needed time to think.

The army has suffered much more than the navy and the RAF over the recent spate of cuts in the armed forces for the simple reason that the Ministry of Defence (which still suffers from an acute budget crisis) has committed itself to hugely expensive projects for the navy and the airforce - two large aircraft carriers and Trident nuclear weapons submarines and new fast jets and transport planes. The army will end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and it is looking for a role.

General Wall shared glimpses of it in his IISS speech. In future, the emphasis will be on what he called "precision in the application of military force" with "very close integration with other organs of state as well as international agencies" - in other words, special forces, MI6, and MI5, as well as the UN and humanitarian agencies.

The emphasis will be on intelligence-gathering, rather than firepower. Lengthy deployments would take the form of "stabilisation operations rather than a perpetual fight", as Wall put it. He mentioned potential operations with indigenous forces, in Somalia, for example, and what he called "counter genocide operations".

He said the British army should still be psychologically prepared for and able to cope with last minute uncertainty and rapid deployments... "probably in a place where our grandparents have fought with unpronounceable names". But such military operations would be on a small scale, and low profile, he suggested.

At home, Wall made clear, the army must be prepared to work with the police, MI5, and the emergency services, in counter terrorist operations (as it is over the Olympics).

It will be a very different army - and one of Wall's biggest battles now will be to keep up morale. He should be up to it.