A failure to recruit more troops from ethnic minorities because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is adding to the "unacceptable" burden on Britain's frontline forces, warns a report to the Defence Secretary, Des Browne.
The conflicts are putting huge strains on the armed services, undermining morale and sparking an exodus of experienced personnel, says the report by a committee of MPs.
The performance of the forces was "deteriorating" after seven years in Afghanistan and nearly five in Iraq, and urgent steps must be taken to reduce the overstretch, according to the Defence Select Committee.
"We are deeply concerned that the armed forces have been operating at or above the level of concurrent operations they are resourced and structured to deliver for seven of the last eight years," said the MPs. One way of easing the strain would be to recruit more soldiers, sailors and airmen, but the MoD has admitted that it is failing to meet its recruitment targets among ethnic minorities. The MoD has admitted that this shortfall could be due to "prevalent views on current operations among ethnic minority communities and concerns about ethnic imbalances and racism in the armed forces in general".
The armed forces reported that the proportion of servicemen and women from ethnic minorities rose to 5.8 per cent, missing their target of 8 per cent. The figures would have been worse without the ethnic minority recruits from the Commonwealth, outside Britain, amounting to 60 per cent of the total. The RAF has the lowest level with only 1.6 per cent of its strength from ethnic minorities.
"We continued to be extremely disappointed and concerned to learn that all three services missed their targets for UK ethnic minority recruitment and that the RAF performed particularly poorly," said the defence committee.
The MPs also said it was unacceptable that the troops on the front line were still not being given sufficient rest time. Defence budgets are likely to be further squeezed by £500m cost overruns for Astute class submarines and Type 45 destroyers.
The committee chairman James Arbuthnot said: "The continuing pressure on our armed forces personnel is likely to have an impact on retention and there are some disturbing signs of an increase in early departure in the Army."
Defence minister Bob Ainsworth insisted the armed forces and the MoD were "delivering on our highest priority – success on operations".
He added: "To achieve success we have had to take some risks, but by drawing down our commitments in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Iraq." He also said performance on "harmony guidelines", which set standards for time off between deployments, will improve.