Britain's war machine came close to seizing up when it was conducting simultaneous operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the former head of the Army told the Iraq war inquiry yesterday.
General Sir Richard Dannatt's comments throw light on how overstretched senior officers feared they had become as Tony Blair committed them to peacekeeping operations in half a dozen places around the world.
General Dannatt, who has been advising the Conservatives on defence since retiring a year ago, disclosed that he had written to the then Defence Secretary, Des Browne, in 2006, warning him how "fragile" morale in the Army had become.
He told the inquiry: "You can run hot when you are in balance and there is enough oil sloshing around the engine to keep it going. When the oil is thin, or not in sufficient quantity, the engine runs the risk of seizing up. I think we were getting quite close to a seizing-up moment in 2006."
Tony Blair had committed troops to Helmand province in Afghanistan at the same time that they faced a major insurgency in southern Iraq. General Dannatt said: "We could see that perfect storm coming to fruition in about the middle of 2006 and I would contend that it did."
He added: "My biggest concern was that that fragility could be turned into a sharp rise in exits from our trained manpower akin to going over a cliff edge. Once your manning has begun to plummet we would have been in all kinds of trouble trying to man two operations with units that were not fully manned. That would have spiralled into something of a nightmare."
He also criticised the decision by the former Labour government not to provide more funding for helicopters. "It has been a definitive negative and we are paying to some extent the price for that in Afghanistan. You can't catch up just like that," he said.
General Dannatt also strongly criticised the failure to find a replacement for the lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers which proved highly vulnerable in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It remains unsatisfactory that it is only now that we have closed with the issue," he said. "We worked round the problem, we didn't actually confront the problem."
He said that a programme to acquire a new family of armoured vehicles known as the Future Rapid Effects System (Fres) had fallen victim to "internal machinations" within the Ministry of Defence, with the money going to the Royal Navy's two new aircraft carriers.
He added that the Army had "no desire" to go to war in Iraq in 2003 because it was already stretched by operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
"There may have been a little bit of professional feeling that we should be doing this. But there was no desire to do it, there was no 'we would be happy to do it', and there was certainly a large element of 'we are very busy anyway so this will be difficult if we have to do it'."
But General Dannatt's predecessor as Chief of General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, suggested that, on the contrary, the Army would not have wanted to be excluded from the Iraq operation if the Navy and RAF had been involved.
He told the inquiry: "What would have been the Army's sense had the operation gone ahead on the original British offer of a maritime and air component, but without a land component? I think the Army would have been, to put it mildly, rather disappointed."