Troops for emergencies 'almost non-existent' says general

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Burdens in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the Army with almost no spare troops to deal with unexpected emergencies, Britain's senior soldier warned in a leaked memo published today.

The head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said under-manning meant that almost all units were now committed to operations, training for war in Iraq or Afghanistan or on leave.

Only one battalion of 500 troops - the Spearhead Lead Element - was immediately available to deal with emergencies such as a terrorist attack, suggested the document, obtained by the Daily Telegraph.

Britain's second back-up unit, the Airborne Task Force, formed around the Parachute Regiment, was unable to deploy fully "due to shortages in manpower, equipment and stocks".

"We now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected," wrote Gen Dannatt, the Chief of General Staff, in his memo to other defence leaders.

Reinforcements for emergencies or operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were "now almost non-existent", he added.

The emergence of the memo comes shortly after Defence Secretary Des Browne's announcement on Thursday of a cut of 500 UK troops in Iraq this winter, which will leave 5,000 personnel on the ground.

But it comes at a time when additional soldiers are thought to be needed to deal with a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

Mr Browne this week gave his backing to an MPs' report calling on Britain's Nato allies to supply more troops.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said the lack of reserves was a "damning indictment" of the Government's stewardship of the Armed Forces.

"They are being asked to carry out tasks for which they are neither funded nor equipped," he said.

"There is an urgent need to review our strategic approach because we cannot continue over-stretching our forces."

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We have made no secret of the fact that the Armed Forces are working hard. The situation in respect of current operations remains manageable.

"We have already stated publicly that if the current tempo of operations continues at this pace, we will have to revisit our planning assumptions.

"In recent months, we have drawn down our force levels in a number of operations. The Armed Forces' mission in Northern Ireland will end on July 31, we withdrew the bulk of our forces from Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier this year, and only yesterday we announced that we will reduce further our force levels in Iraq by 500.

"We are certainly not complacent about the longer-term implications, which we are acutely aware of and are addressing."