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29 Apr 03. Britain’s overstretched armed forces could not undertake another operation on the scale of the Iraq war for at least a year without suffering “serious pain”, the government’s most senior military adviser warned yesterday. Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the outgoing chief of defence staff, said he suspected the Americans were “in the same boat”.

Sir Michael also signalled that the troubled Eurofighter Typhoon project was likely to suffer from the post-war review of Britain’s military capability, which will culminate in a white paper this autumn. The RAF’s order for 232 of the fighter jets could be cut back significantly.

The main modernisation thrust of the review – scrapping some systems and possibly manpower to free up funds to “digitise the battle space” – remained unchanged, Sir Michael said. But the strong performance in the war of some “old-fashioned” weapons systems, such as tanks, would affect some of its conclusions.

The war has also affected Britain’s logistical ability to take on any big new military operations in the coming months. Sir Michael warned that the armed forces were “absolutely” overstretched and would take a “long time to recuperate” from the effects of the war. It would be months before the depleted munitions stocks were fully replenished.His warning will reinforce Britain’s political reluctance to back America’s threats of possible military action against Syria and Iran.

The military advice to Tony Blair would be to avoid a “discretionary operation” – a war where Britain was not under direct attack – for at least a year unless there was a “pretty compelling reason” otherwise, Sir Michael said. “If you asked us to go into a large-scale operation in 2004, we couldn’t do it without serious pain. We must allow ourselves time to draw breath,” he warned.

The chief of the defence staff reflected British alarm that today’s defence “mini-summit” in Brussels could exacerbate transatlantic tensions over the potential divergence in military strategies. “We certainly don’t need duplicate structures. We don’t need to have things that cause friction between NATO members,” he said. The determination of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg to press ahead with a new Euroforce without the UK, Spain and Italy is a brave move without the main European military power, the UK. America’s reaction has been mute. The U.S. has for some time been pushing Europe foe a greater defence spend and it may welcome this initiative. However the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and if the French-led Euroforce chooses to go into action without the huge resources of the U.S. and NATO and suffers a defeat and body bags, this may trigger a massive rethink in French defence policy.

Sir Michael, who hands over to General Sir Michael Walker on Friday, dismissed suggestions that he had been forced out after only two years because his outspoken comments antagonised ministers. He said he had “very good working relationships” with Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary.

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