MoD: war on two fronts leaves Army 'critically weakened'

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The British Army suffers from "critical weaknesses" to the point that, it is "almost impossible" to fulfil commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a Ministry of Defence briefing document obtained by The Independent on Sunday.

The Army is so stretched from having to fight on two fronts that 40 per cent of army divisions report they are suffering from "serious or critical" problems. Manning shortages mean that soldiers are having to go on to tours of duty before they are properly rested or trained. And there are such serious problems recruiting for key military professions that colleagues in the field are having to forgo leave and extend their tours.

The official memo, given to MPs on the House of Commons defence committee, details the extent of pressure the military is under. MPs say it is threatening its ability to fight insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The document reveals that the Army's ability to reach levels of "peacetime readiness" and "immediate readiness" have declined sharply in the past year. Forty per cent of units now say they are having serious problems getting to a state of "immediate readiness" for war and have reported "serious or critical weaknesses".

According to the MoD, forces with critical weaknesses would find it "almost impossible" to fulfil immediate commitments in the field while forces with serious weaknesses would find it "difficult but not impossible". The memo says: "The proportion of force elements reporting no critical or serious weaknesses against their peacetime readiness levels has declined from 81 per cent in September to December 2005 to 69 per cent in April June 2006."

It paints a bleak picture of military medical provision, saying that "a significant manning shortfall in overall nursing numbers and in medical specialists will remain". The briefing paper shows that 15 per cent of army personnel are breaching the Army's own guidelines on rest and recuperation and are having to return to active service without adequate time off.

The document has provoked a fierce debate between MPs on the defence committee and the Ministry of Defence about whether the military has "overstretched" its capacity. The MoD insists that the military is simply "stretched" and still able to fulfil its orders. "The Chief of the Defence Staff has made it clear that the forces are stretched not overstretched. We are able to do what we are committed to do," said an MoD spokesman.

The issue will be argued this week when the House of Commons debates the Government's handling of Iraq. Ministers will be forced to defend the Government's record in supporting the US invasion. Mark Lancaster, Tory MP for North East Milton Keynes and a major in the Territorial Army who has just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, said: "My view is that British forces are having to cobble units together. The current level of operation is unsustainable."