UK army ‘at breaking point’

Personnel shortages in the British army are so pronounced that its reserves are “now almost non-existent”, the chief of the general staff has admitted.

General Sir Richard Dannatt said in a leaked document that the strain of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan meant the army now had “almost no capability to react to the unexpected”.

The head of the UK army also claimed that much of the armed forces’ equipment was at the “edge of sustainability”.

In the memo to fellow army chiefs, leaked to the Daily Telegraph ahead of a government spending review, Gen Dannatt warned that the “undermanned” army had virtually all its units either mobilised or preparing for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on leave.

The only available battalion in the event of a crisis at home or abroad is the 500-strong Spearhead Lead Element, he revealed.

The June 11-dated memo states that the impact of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan upon army resources has been “far higher than we ever assumed”, while Gen Dannatt notes that the “tempo of life in the field army is intense”.

As the UK and its American and Nato allies continue to combat insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, more than 2,500 troops from other units and hundreds of Territorial Army soldiers have been incorporated into battalions deployed in the two countries.

Since the conflicts began in Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan (2001) the UK army has seen 162 and 64 service personnel killed in the warzones respectively.

Gen Dannatt admits in the memo that he is “very concerned” at the “impact of this level of operations on our people, equipment and future operational capability.”

He concluded: “The enduring nature and scale of current operations continues to stretch people.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) meanwhile emphasised the memo’s statement that the army’s current level of operations was “manageable”

But she added the MoD had “made no secret of the fact that the armed forces are working hard”.

“We have already stated publicly that if the current tempo of operations continues at this pace, we will have to revisit our planning assumptions.

“In recent months, we have drawn down our force levels in a number of operations. The armed forces’ mission in Northern Ireland will end on July 31st, we withdrew the bulk of our forces from Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier this year and only yesterday we announced that we will reduce further our force levels in Iraq by 500.”

Commenting on the leaked memo, shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said British soldiers were being asked to carry out tasks that they are “neither funded or equipped for”.

“There is an urgent need to review our strategic approach because we cannot continue over-stretching our forces,” the Conservative MP added.