THE GURKHAS, mountain tribesmen from Nepal famous for their ferocious fighting skills, have begun to wage a rearguard action to retain a future with the British Army, which they have served for 174 years. The Defence Ministry in London has announced that the strength of the Brigade of Gurkhas is likely to be halved to 4,000 men over the next few years. But champions of the warriors, whose average height is 5 ft., 2 in., are arguing that they still have a military future, possibly as United Nations peacekeepers.
For some years suitable tasks in the British Army for the Gurkhas, whose weapons include 13-inch-long, razor-sharp kukri daggers, have been running out. Twenty years ago they were used to defend Malaysia against Indonesia. Today, most of the brigade serves in Hong Kong, providing internal security.
In 1997, however, the colony will revert to China, and the Gurkhas will have to leave. But unless the British authorities radically rethink the Gurkhas' military role, there are few obvious tasks left for them to perform, besides temporary assignment to the Sultanate of Brunei, southwest of Singapore.
Britain first encountered the Gurkhas - as enemies - in early 19th-century India, when there were clashes between British units and the tough soldiers from the ``roof of the world.'' Impressed by their fighting ablities, British officers started recruiting Gurkhas to their own side in 1815. Their subsequent exploits in the Indian subcontinent, and later in two world wars, earned them fame as tough guerrilla fighters able, if necessary, to live off the land.
Their specialty is hand-to-hand fighting. The Gurkhas' last serious battle action was in the Falklands campaign eight years ago, after Argentina had invaded the islands and Britain sent a task force to liberate them. Argentine troops were terrified by the tough fighters from Nepal.
Fighting under their motto ``Better to die than to live a coward,'' Gurkhas have won 26 Victoria Crosses (the highest award for bravery in Britain's armed forces).
They are as much a legend as the French Foreign Legion. Even so, it seems likely that their numbers will decrease to some extent over the next decade. One proposal is that they could be used in Northern Ireland, but some fear they could become special targets for the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
Maj. Gen. Garry Johnson, commander of the Brigade of Gurkhas, says future manpower shortages in the British Army may force them to retain the Gurkhas at close to their current strength of around 8,000. The Gurkhas were - and still are - recruited in Nepal, and the $40 million to $50 million they send back each year to their families is a mainstay of the mountain kingdom's economy.
Field Marshall Sir Edwin Bramall, president of the Gurkha Brigade Association, says the arrangement between Britain and Nepal that has kept the Gurkhas intact as a fighting force benefits both countries. He wants the force to be maintained, ready as needed ``for the inevitably unexpected emergencies with which Britain's history has always been punctuated.''
In about 1992 the Defence Ministry will begin to station the Gurkhas in the Black Mountains of Wales - ideal training country. The ministry is working on a plan to turn the Gurkhas into a specialist unit, trained primarily as mountain troops, but available for other work as well.
But one problem is that the Gurkhas are ``low-tech'' soldiers in a ``high-tech'' era. If they are to have a future they will need to learn new skills - and work harder at their English, which in most cases is basic.
There have been calls in the news media to offer the Gurkha brigade an opportunity to serve the United Nations as peacekeepers. One place they might be used is Cambodia, if and when a peace agreement is reached. The Gurkhas might also be able to don the UN's blue berets in the Middle East.
There would be one special requirement, however.
The Gurkhas have traditionally taken their orders from British officers. To remain an effective formation, the Gurkhas would have to continue to answer to this specially constituted British officer corps.