10 Aug 06. The Scotsman reported that 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 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 th