British forces 'at full stretch'

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN will have to halt cuts to the Army, especially the infantry, if it is to control the larger area expected to be allocated to British forces in Bosnia under the Vance-Owen peace plan, the Commons Defence Select Committee was told yesterday.

Britain has provided 1,000 frontline and 1,500 support troops for Bosnia. Frontline troops would have to be increased to a full brigade of 5,000. A force of 6,500 would be almost half the number deployed in Northern Ireland.

Britain was asked to provide ground forces for the Somalia relief effort last month, the MPs heard, but could not because the Army was fully stretched. And if another mechanised battalion was needed for Bosnia immediately, it could not be provided.

Under pressure, a senior civil servant admitted that an increase in the Bosnia force to a reinforced brigade would have 'pretty wide implications for planners and for the future structure of the Army'. Additional commitments in Bosnia would bring the Army to breaking point. It would mean rethinking the cuts being made under the Options for Change review.

The committee was examining Ministry of Defence officials about peace- keeping operations. Asked if Britain had been called on to contribute ground forces for Somalia, Major-General Alex Harley, Assistant Chief of Staff (Overseas), said: 'I think it might have been.' The RAF sent two transport aircraft.

Winston Churchill, Tory MP for Davyhulme, said the French, who have more forces in the former Yugoslavia than Britain, were able to send troops to Somalia. France has 10,000 troops involved in peace-keeping worldwide, with 4,400 in Yugoslavia - the largest component from an outside country.

Bruce George, Labour MP for Walsall South, asked about the Owen-Vance plan. He said that besides the current mission escorting aid, the plan would require the Army to police a larger area. The senior civil servant, Bill Reeves, MoD Assistant Under-Secretary (Commitments), said it would be 'improper to speculate' what troops would be needed.

'Let me speculate', said Mr George. It would require 'at least an enlarged brigade', he said. 'Is it true that it would require at least 5,000 troops?' Mr Reeves admitted that it would require a lot, and did not contest the figure.

A unanimous report from the 11- member committee, due for publication in two weeks, condemns the Army cuts as leading to 'chronic overstretch' and calls for a halt to the merging of


Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, is regarded by Tory MPs as more flexible than Tom King, his predecessor. But backbenchers on the committee do not expect Mr Rifkind to stop the mergers.

The committee will warn that morale among servicemen and their families is low, because they are required to carry out too many tours of duty, including Northern Ireland.

A commitment too far, page 2