THE number of soldiers in the British Army has fallen by more than 1,500 in the past 12 months, despite a rise in the number of recruits.
High-profile television advertising drew in 11,460 new recruits in the 2005/06 financial year, a rise of 1,060, or 9.2 per cent. But over the same period, more than 13,000 personnel left the army, leaving a shortfall of around 1,500.
The news comes as the army deals with major deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular, recruitment was low for the infantry, which carries out the crucial but dangerous combat operations.
It needed to recruit 2,835 soldiers but fell short by 175. The Royal Artillery also failed to reach its target of 611 new recruits, by almost 200.
Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces Minister, welcomed the annual rise in recruitment but admitted that the army had to redouble its efforts to attract people to sign up for the infantry.
"Clearly with the level of qualifications that people are getting, there are other opportunities," he said.
Young people educated to a higher level were "very employable" in other sectors, but it was up to the MoD to point out the attractive careers available to them in the military, he added.
Mr Ingram marked the rise in recruits at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, Yorkshire, at a passing-out parade.
"Public support for our forces is vitally important. It is justifiably very high. Eighty per cent of the British public thinks our army is among the best in the world," he told the 600 graduates. But meanwhile, embarrassingly for the MoD, two trainees who were due to graduate at a parade in Brecon, Wales, vanished just days before.
The Iraqi men had been training with the British Army before they were due to head back to Baghdad next week, to take up posts with the beleaguered Iraqi force. But they were reported "missing" after a cultural away- day in Cardiff.
A high-profile TV advertising campaign, which critics said glamorises the army, had been instrumental in attracting new recruits, the MoD said. But opposition MPs pointed to the problems in retaining existing personnel.
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said the number of soldiers on the ground was the lowest since the Iraq war.
"The army is still facing its greatest deficits since reduced manpower requirements were implemented last August.
"The government needs to explain how the army is to cope with the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan with its forces so overstretched. Shortfalls in forces' medical staff also pose grave problems which must be urgently addressed if we are to send our servicemen and women into increasingly dangerous situations."
Mark Harper, the shadow defence minister, said it was the second-worst year for recruitment out of the last five.
"Retention is still poor with [thousands] leaving the army in the past year, outstripping the recruitment, leaving the army 1,500 soldiers smaller.
"With ever-increasing commitments and a shrinking army, the effects of overstretch are just going to get worse."
As well as Iraq and Afghanistan, British troops are also currently deployed in Kosovo and Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Germany, the Falkland Islands and Cyprus.
In particular, low morale and the war in Iraq have been blamed for the failure to reach and maintain manpower targets.
A recent survey of armed forces' personnel showed that more than one in five wanted to leave as soon as possible.