The Big Question: Are Britain's armed forces overstretched and undersupported?

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Indy Politics

Why are we asking this now?

Complaints are piling up that the armed forces, now operating in 28 countries from Bosnia to Sudan, are so overstretched that they are suffering serious problems in holding on to recruits.

The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, gave a grim assessment of the pressure faced by his troops in Iraq. He warned that Ministers were in danger of breaking the "covenant" between a nation and its army, which was now "stretched to capacity".

His predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, was even more blunt as he delivered the Dimbleby lecture last week, protesting that Ministers were asking too much of its forces and therefore threatening their fundamental "ethos" - their crucial can-do spirit. The concerns of the top brass have been echoed by the National Audit Office, which warned that the armed forces are 5,170 below strength as more personnel quit early. And the Commons Defence Select Committee concluded that the services were operating "in insufficient numbers and without all the equipment they need" with a knock-on effect on their morale, training and readiness to deploy on new missions.

How many are in the forces?

Army strength stood at 100,010 last month, but has almost certainly now fallen below the 100,000 mark for the first time since Queen Victoria was its commander-in-chief. The Royal Air Force has 45,210 personnel and the Royal Navy 35,470. A total of 7,200 are in southern Iraq, mainly trying to keep order in and around Basra, which has growing levels of violence.

Another 5,800 are stationed in Afghanistan, where they were originally dispatched to help rebuild its crumbling infrastructure. They are now engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Taliban, the most intensive fighting the Army has faced since the Korean war, and speculation is growing that yet more might have to be sent as reinforcements. Nine hundred are helping to keep the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, while 300 are taking part in UN missions in such countries as Sierra Leone, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia and Georgia.

Twenty-three years after the end of the Falklands war, 1,200 troops are stationed on the islands. Long-standing commitments mean that 8,500 troops are in Northern Ireland - a number likely to be significantly scaled down next year - as well as 3,000 in Cyprus and 560 in Gibraltar.

How stretched are they?

Overall the armed forces are nearly 3 per cent below their estimated full strength, with the army 1.8 per cent, the RAF 4.5 per cent and the Royal Navy 3.6 per cent understaffed.

Beneath the relatively undramatic headline figures, some alarming problems are developing in several specialist skills. There are severe shortages of Army bomb disposal experts, engineers on Trident submarines and specialist RAF weapons system operators. And reservists are being called up to fill the majority of vacant posts.

The manning pressures do not only translate, however, into unfilled jobs, but to growing demands on serving soldiers. All three services - including one in six of army personnel - are breaching guidelines on rest and recuperation and are having to return to active service without adequate time off. With tours of duty coming round with greater regularity, training exercises are having to be scrapped, with 14 per cent cancelled in 2005-06.

MPs on the defence select committee who visited Iraq this year observed: "The Ministry of Defence's confidence that the UK armed forces are not overstretched contrasts with what we are hearing from Service personnel on the ground."

What is the impact on recruitment?

Despite the damaging publicity about bullying at Deepcut barracks and worries over the fitness of today's teenagers, recruitment levels appear relatively healthy with numbers signing up this year increasing by 10 per cent. The bigger headache for MoD is retention of personnel.

Some 9,200 left last year before their period of engagement was up, typically blaming the relentless round of deployments and the effect on family life.

How is morale?

There are distinct rumblings from the front-line, with serving soldiers inundating websites to support General Dannatt. When Tony Blair flew into Camp Bastion, in Afghanistan's Helmand province, last month he experienced at first hand the disgruntlement among troops.

Many complained about low levels of pay, telling him bluntly that a basic Marine starts work on £11,000 - just over half what he would be paid on day one with the fire service. Morale will not have been helped by claims that some troops on extended tours will lose cash under changes in forces' allowances. Others protest that operations are hampered by equipment shortages, such as the lack of battlefield helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are also complaints that British soldiers have died because they have been issued with low-quality body protection or were travelling in insufficiently armoured Land Rovers. An MoD survey this year found one in five soldiers wanted to quit the Army "at the earliest opportunity", and that more than half "often think about quitting". Almost 40 per cent blamed "operational commitment and overstretch" for their disillusionment.

How does the Government respond?

The Government, which officially does not accept there is "overstretch", but admits there is "stretch", hopes the pressures will ease in the Spring, when it anticipates handing Basra's security to Iraqi forces. In volatile Iraq there is no guarantee of that happening - and even if it does, it might simply mean staying in Iraq in large numbers on standby to intervene if the violence worsens.

Are the services under strain?

Yes...

* The combination of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan has pushed the services to breaking-point

* Serious problems are developing in specialist skill areas

* Growing numbers of troops are leaving the job early, citing increasing tours of duty and family pressures.

No...

* The Ministry of Defence has so far been able to meet its commitments around the world

* Numbers serving could be cut in Northern Ireland shortly, easing the strain on the forces

* Recruitment levels look relatively healthy, increasing last year

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