Politics: More recruits for overstretched armed forces

George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, yesterday gave a clear signal that he will be recruiting more soldiers, sailors and airmen and women. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports.
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The "severe overstretch" of the armed forces and the need to recruit will be one of the key elements of the Government's strategic defence review.

The Secretary of State for Defence said that Britain's increased operational commitments since the end of the Cold War had demonstrated that many areas of Britain's defences were suffering from severe overstretch - a charge denied in the past by Tory defence ministers.

He said that undermanning, which affected morale, would be tackled with recruitment drives for the army, navy and RAF.

The Army was already tackling undermanning of about 5,000 personnel but he said he would give priority to recruiting more men and women to fill gaps in the Royal Navy which had undermanning of 1,500 personnel and the RAF of around 3,000 personnel.

The strategic defence review could lead to cuts in Britain's commitments, and Mr Robertson hinted that the ending of the Cold War could lead to a slimmer, more mobile, rapid deployment force in the future.

However, there are few signs that the defence review will release substantial savings to be spent on other public services, which will dismay some Labour MPs, who are calling for more money to be spent on hospital beds than bombs. Mr Robertson said Britain would keep the Trident nuclear force, although it might reduce the number of warheads.

He also stressed that Britain would face more varied threats from terrorism and regional conflicts.

"We need to retain a framework on which it would be possible to rebuild forces over the longer term to meet a greater threat than currently foreseen, should one begin to emerge," he said.

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