Britain's armed forces are being forced to operate under strength because military planners had not foreseen the levels of commitment needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a report said yesterday.
A study by the National Audit Office (NAO) said the armed forces were currently 5,170 soldiers under strength. Even so, they were having to maintain more troops in the two war zones than the highest level envisaged in planning assumptions made two years ago.
The Whitehall spending watchdog found that in the 30 months to January, 14.5 per cent of army personnel had been sent on operations more frequently than they were supposed to be, under the services' "harmony guidelines".
In some "pinch-point" occupations, such as vehicle mechanics and armourers where the shortages are particularly acute, as many as 40 per cent had breached the guidelines.
The NAO reported: "The department (MoD) accepts that operating at this level can result in additional strains on its people."
The sectors affected by personnel shortages include accident and emergency and intensive therapy unit nurses, who are almost 70 per cent below strength, and have been forced to rely on reservists to plug the gaps.
The nuclear "watchkeepers" - the engineers who keep the Navy's fleet of nuclear submarines at sea - are 29 per cent under strength, which mean that some submarines are sent out without their full complement. The shortages have meant ships sailing with their crews, on average, 12 per cent below full strength. At the same time, the report said the numbers leaving service early were rising, with 9,200 going last year before their period of engagement was completed.
Among the reasons given by those leaving were the impact of service on family life (49 per cent of those questioned), and too many deployments (28 per cent).
Meanwhile, recruitment to the forces had been hit by the controversies over the Iraq war and bullying at Deepcut barracks, which made parents more reluctant to allow their sons and daughters to join up.
Overall, the figures showed that as of last July, the Army was 1.8 per cent below strength, with a total of 100,010 personnel, the Navy was 3.6 per cent under strength with 35,470 personnel, and Royal Air Force had a 4.5 per cent shortfall with 45,210.
One step taken by the Army to boost recruitment has been to relax the body mass index for male recruits from 28 to 32, when over 30 is normally deemed to be obese. This followed research highlighting that only 33 per cent of all 16-year-olds would pass the previous BMI test.
The Defence minister, Derek Twigg, denied the forces were "overstretched". But he acknowledged that the forces faced a "particularly high level of operational commitment".
"We do understand the impact that frequent operational tours have on serving personnel, their friends and families, and we have recently announced improvements in pay and benefits," he said.
Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which examines the work of the NAO, said "Given the ferocity of the challenges they face in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, this is intolerable.
"It must exhaust our servicemen and women and put immense strain on their personal lives. It comes as no surprise that in the past two years the number of people leaving has gone up. The MoD is trying to address this, but it doesn't have a convincing long-term strategic approach."
The shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said: "The gap between our commitments and our resources is growing and putting unacceptable pressures on our service personnel."