Doubling the length of tours of duty for key British military personnel serving in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan would put increased pressures on families and troops at a time when the armed services are facing deep cuts, it was warned yesterday.
Labour accused the Government of acting out of "sheer desperation" in a bid to shore up the mission after The Independent revealed that the "spine" of brigades deployed to the region in the future could be required to serve for a year rather than the current six months.
Brigadier Ed Davis, commander of Task Force Helmand, raised the prospect of longer tours of duty for some UK contingents, particularly those involved in mentoring the Afghan forces that will be charged with maintaining security once combat operations end in 2014.
Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said the Government was sacrificing the welfare of British forces to push through its deficit reduction programme at a time when the military was stretched to the limit fighting on two fronts after the launch of operations in Libya.
He said: "People would be shocked if, at the time some servicemen and women are being made compulsorily redundant, their colleagues are asked to serve longer tours in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ministers have repeatedly said that their cuts programme will not impact on the front line in Afghanistan and the country will expect the Government to keep its promises."
Brigadier Davis, of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, said that the "constant churn" of key staff made it hard to maintain relationships on the ground necessitating longer periods in theatre. Most of those affected would be specialist troops involved in intelligence and mentoring activities, rather than soldiers on the front line, he said.
But Catherine Spencer of the Army Families Federation warned that extended tours of duty could came at a cost to the individuals and their close relations, especially children.
"We know from families who have had to endure year-long separations that they have found it significantly more difficult to adjust compared to colleagues serving six-month tours," she said. "The period of time it takes for that person to reintegrate with their family is clearly much longer. The spouse has had to get on with managing the family and if you have been doing that for a longer period of time it will take longer to readjust.
"Six months for a child to be without a parent is long enough but 12 months when they are missing from their lives is obviously much more difficult."
Supporters of longer tours have compared British troops' standard six month duties with those served by US military personnel which can last for up to 15 months. Campaigners however say that the Americans have a completely different culture of care for families which makes longer time in combat zones more bearable.
There are also concerns that year-long tours have in the past been offered to senior officers in exchange for promotion. It is feared that individual families faced with extended postings could miss out on the kind of welfare and psychological support offered at unit level.
Labour MP Dan Jarvis, a former Army major, said it was "neither reasonable nor sustainable" to extend the current tour length. "Anyone who has served on the front line in Afghanistan knows that after six months you are mentally and physically exhausted," he said. "If Dr Fox [Defence Secretary Liam Fox] was to enact this proposal it would be a measure of sheer desperation on the part of the MoD and it would be a decision being made by leaders who have not served on the front line in the Afghan desert."
Last month the Government confirmed the regular Army was being reduced to its smallest size since the Boer War. Reserve forces will be built up to bolster the number of full-time troops with the Territorial Army eventually accounting for around 30 per cent of a total force number of 120,000.
Case Study: 'It is terrible. You are constantly waiting for a phone call'
Lynda Holmes Her son Robert served tours of duty in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan with the Grenadier Guards.
The time they are there is never ending. You just wait for it to be over. I don't think 12 months would be a good idea because six months is a hard enough tour with the conditions that they are working in.
It is terrible because you are constantly waiting for a phone call and that doesn't get any better for families over time. How people handle it when they come back depends on the individual and on what sort of tour they had. Some handle it better than others. Some will talk about what they have gone through with their family and some won't. Some will only discuss it with the friends who have experienced what they have.
It is really hard for the families at home. I think that sometimes it is worse for them – I think they sometimes feel it more because out there they are busy most of the time.
It is just as bad in Afghanistan as it was in Iraq. And it is hard for any member of the family, whatever age they are, when you have a loved-one out there.Reuse content