The Black Watch had the honour of lowering the Union flag for the last time in Hong Kong as the sun set on the British empire. Six years on, a dark cloud of uncertainty hangs over the regiment, with a Ministry of Defence white paper to be published before Christmas expected to propose the biggest shake-up of Britain's armed forces since the second world war. Speculation has grown over the past week that the Black Watch, which has served on the front line of every major British military engagement for more than 250 years, will be disbanded or merged with another regiment. A steady decline in the popularity of army careers has meant the Black Watch, like its fellow Scottish infantry regiments, has failed to attract recruits in sufficient numbers to remain at full strength. The fall in numbers to below the optimum of 650 fighting men has led to inefficiencies, including the need for other regiments to provide reinforcements on some operations. Despite Britain's ongoing troop commitment to the US-led occupation of Iraq, the white paper will make the case for a leaner fighting force that is more reliant on computer technology than on waves of foot soldiers. Northern Ireland, where Scottish infantry units have traditionally played an important role, is one area where cuts will be made as part of the so-called 'peace dividend' the British government expects to reap from the Good Friday agreement. Under the Northern Ireland peace process the number of troops deployed in the province is scheduled to fall from 14,500 to 5,000 by April 2005. The former divisional colonel of Scotland's six army regiments, Clive Fairweather, told The Herald in Glasgow that the white paper would pin much on Northern Ireland's changing political situation. 'The peace dividend is driving this review, along with the army being short of cash,' he said. 'A number of options are being looked at and this one is the most radical.' A ministry spokesman declined to elaborate on what he described as 'pure speculation' about particular regiments being disbanded or amalgamated. 'The white paper is about overall strategy, setting out a picture of our defence policy and the strategic environment we live in today,' he told the Sunday Morning Post. Anabelle Ewing, the Scottish National Party MP for Perth, the Black Watch's recruiting heartland, said now was no time to be scaling back infantry units. 'At a time when global insecurity is at its peak, it is nonsense for the MoD to be considering scrapping Scottish regiments,' she said. 'I have raised the issue of the future of the Black Watch in the House of Commons on several occasions and have been fobbed off by being told there is no basis for our concerns.' Hong Kong war veteran and campaigner Jack Edwards said: 'That is a pity because they are a wonderful regiment ... respected because of their history.' He recalled serving alongside the Black Watch in 1940. 'They cut down a number of battalions some time ago and did not touch the Black Watch because they knew there would be an outcry. I am certain there will be an outcry this time,' Mr Edwards said.