Troops being stretched to the limit, says defence watchdog

Key quote "The armed forces can tolerate short-term pressure, but sustained breaches of harmony guidelines will damage the services' operational capability. This is a matter of crucial importance." - MPs' report

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BRITISH troops are being overstretched by repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, MPs have reported, warning that the excessive burden placed on soldiers, sailors and airmen is undermining the armed forces' fighting ability.

In a damning report, the all-party House of Commons defence committee said the British mission in Iraq was also dangerously short of crucial personnel, equipment and vehicles.

The Ministry of Defence has admitted major deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan mean many troops are not being given the two-year interval between front-line operations military chiefs say is needed.

Three years after the invasion of Iraq, Britain still has more than 7,000 troops there. Some units, particularly infantry and armoured regiments, have already served three "operational" tours in the country since 2003. Combined with the 5,000-strong deployment in Afghanistan that began earlier this year, senior commanders admit the armed forces are severely strained.

Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the chief of the defence staff, said last month the military was being "stretched" by the two missions.

Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, said the infringement of the "harmony guidelines" on tour intervals was not a serious problem. But the defence committee rubbished that claim and will launch an inquiry into military overstretch in the autumn.

The government's assurance about the pressure on troops "contrasts with what we are hearing from service personnel on the ground", said the MPs, who visited southern Iraq in June.

British troops' willingness to make the best of arduous circumstances might be leading commanders to "underplay the pressure on service personnel and their families", the committee said, warning that this "can-do" attitude should not obscure the very real risks to morale. "The armed forces can tolerate short-term pressure, but sustained breaches of harmony guidelines will damage the services' operational capability," the MPs said. "This is a matter of crucial importance."

Senior officers are privately concerned that repeated front-line tours put extreme strain on soldiers with families, making it increasingly difficult for the army to retain the older, more experienced men who are the backbone of effective units.

The MPs' investigation also raised grave concerns about the overuse of reserve troops: many Territorial Army soldiers have had to serve multiple tours in Iraq, and the TA has been hit by several thousand resignations since the 2003 invasion. "We are concerned that the MoD's reliance on reservists may not be sustainable," the MPs said.

During their inquiry into the Iraq deployment, the MPs also discovered alarming shortages of potentially life-saving equipment. The committee said troops urgently needed better-protected patrol vehicles to prevent more deaths from roadside bombs and more helicopters to provide vital air support.

James Arbuthnot, the Tory chairman of the committee, said the MPs were "disturbed" by the deficiencies in equipment faced by troops, and warned that long-term MoD plans to overhaul its procurement processes would be too slow.

"The MoD must address equipment shortages and capability gaps as a matter of urgency," he said. "Our forces cannot wait for long-term procurement projects to come to fruition; they need the kit now."

The MPs also demanded that explosive-suppressant foam be fitted to all Hercules transport aircraft, in the wake of a crash last year in which ten servicemen were killed.

The Hercules crashed after it was hit by ground fire which caused an explosion in the right wing fuel tank. Relatives have questioned whether the safety measure could have saved the crew.

"We are alarmed by the suggestion that the MoD might not be fitting protective systems because of the impact on other priorities," the MPs said.

Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, accused ministers of failing to support the armed forces at the level required to carry out British policies.

"The government's reckless decision to cut the size of the army is having obvious consequences," he said. "Increasing overstretch is threatening to undermine morale and operational capability.

"With major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reassessment of whether our capabilities are sufficient to meet our commitments is long overdue."

Liam Fox, the Conservatives' defence spokesman, said Tony Blair was letting British troops down. "We have a Prime Minister increasingly willing to send our troops abroad, putting them in harm's way, but not willing to provide them with the equipment they need, risking mission failure and greater danger to our forces," he said.

"The cavalier approach causes overstretch of our forces, putting our troops and foreign policy objectives at risk."

Mr Browne insisted last night British troops were not overstretched. "We all acknowledge we are asking a lot of them, and that we need to take steps to manage the impact - on them, on their training and recuperation, and their families," he said.

"But as they are the first to recognise, the work they are doing is absolutely vital."

• A British soldier died yesterday in a road traffic accident in Afghanistan. The MoD said he was a member of the Royal Logistics Corps and died at Camp Souter in the capital, Kabul. He had not been named last night.

Reid: 'Modify' freedoms to beat terrorism

BRITAIN must "modify" some of its basic freedoms to confront "unconstrained" terrorists who aim to destroy the country's values, the Home Secretary, John Reid, said yesterday.

In an address to a London think-tank, Mr Reid said the country was facing its "most sustained period of serious threat" since the end of the Second World War.

He warned that the security services and police alone could not guarantee 100 per cent success in combating terrorism. Effective security relied on the participation of a much wider range of actors, including government, public bodies, companies and ordinary people.

"While I am confident that the security services and police will guarantee 100 per cent effort and 100 per cent dedication, they cannot guarantee 100 per cent success. Our common security will only be assured by a common effort from all sections of society," he said.

The Home Secretary warned: "Sometimes we may have to modify some of our own freedoms in the short term, in order to prevent their misuse and abuse by those who oppose our fundamental values and would destroy all of our freedoms in the long term."

Despite success in tackling terrorism with at least four significant plots successfully disrupted since the July bombings last year, national security was put at risk by an inability to adapt the country's institutions and legal orthodoxy as fast as was needed.

He said that legal frameworks and international agreements, which focus on protecting the individual, developed in response to the threat of fascism and in the era of the Cold War. But the threat now came not from fascist states but from "fascist individuals who would misuse our basic right to freedom to create a society which would deny all the basic individual rights we now take for granted".

Mr Reid said while he believed in Britain's values, such as education, job opportunities, the chance to travel and women's rights, people needed to understand the magnitude of the threat posed to the British way of life. He said a "debate" was needed on what values were at stake and what the costs were of preserving freedom and ensuring the nation's security.



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