'Running hot' - British forces stretched to the limit

'Can we cope?" The new head of the British Army asked himself that question in an interview published last Monday, a day when three of his men died. "I pause," admitted General Sir Richard Dannatt. "I say, just." As his words were being read in Preston, Lancashire, a 20-year-old man from the town was being blown up in Iraq.

Gunner Stephen Wright had wanted to be in the Army since he was a boy. He died at a time when the armed forces are being tested more severely than they have since the Second World War - and not only by the enemy. Failing equipment, demanding missions, lack of supplies and the unwillingness of allies to provide reinforcements to the fiercest fighting are stretching them to the limit. "We are running hot," said General Dannatt, comparing his forces to a straining engine. "Certainly running hot."

Gnr Wright was on his first tour of duty with the Royal Artillery, helping to rebuild the small town of Ad Dayr, when a bomb exploded by the roadside. The Land Rover's rear cabin was blown away. The "snatch vehicle", as soldiers call it, was good for rattling rioters on the streets of Belfast but woefully under-protected against the sophisticated new bombs used in Iraq. The ageing Land Rovers have also been recorded as breaking down a thousand times since the invasion. Twenty troops have died in them, including Gnr Wright.

That day, a 24-year-old private was blown up by a suicide bomber in Kabul, where the visiting Foreign Office minister Kim Howells was calling on other Nato countries to send more troops. But he insisted commanders had not complained to him about their resources. "I don't think the British army is overstretched."

Soldiers don't complain, as a rule. The British armed forces have made global reputation out of saying, "Yes sir, we can do that" - so it is significant that squaddies and commanders alike are suggesting that more equipment, medical supplies and reinforcements are needed.

British commitments have increased dramatically since Labour came to power in 1997, from Kosovo and Sierra Leone to Afghanistan and Iraq. But in the same period the number of men and women trained and ready for duty has fallen from 206,000 to 183,000. The RAF has suffered most, losing 16 per cent of personnel at the same time as the MoD spent £2.5bn on 49 new Eurofighter jets at £50m a piece.

Elsewhere, budget cuts and reorganisation have seen a reduction in the number of infantry batallions and the axing or absorption of famous regiments. Military planners did not expect to face such fierce opposition from the Taliban at this stage. But they also expected the people of Iraq to shower invasion forces with kisses.

MPs who visited Iraq in June were impressed by the courage and determination of troops but "disturbed by the deficiencies in equipment". These included vulnerable Land Rovers, a shortage of helicopters and a lack of air conditioning in main bases, leading to heat exhaustion. Other reports from the frontline suggest some besieged troops have run out of food, water and other supplies as convoys cannot get through overland. Support aircraft have suffered mechanical failure because of over-work in extreme heat, and the sand that also jams guns.

"The MoD's confidence that UK armed forces are not overstretched contrasts with what we are hearing on the ground," the all-party defence committee said. The shadow defence secretary, Liam Fox, said only 2.2 per cent of the national income was being spent on defence - the lowest since 1930.

In February the retiring First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, warned that the Navy could not do all that was being asked of it, as the number of ships was reduced. "The security and wealth of the country depends on the sea and the Navy," he said. "If you let things run too far down you put that security in jeopardy."

But it is the Army that is suffering most. UK Land Command must make cuts of £40m over the next eight months to bring its budget into line, according to a leaked MoD document. As a result, funding for a new rocket system is to be frozen, stockpiling of ammunition lowered and some bases closed. Repair budgets for tanks and howitzers will be cut and overseas training reduced, leading to a "severe impediment to the delivery of operational capability", the report warns.

The Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, has said steps are being taken to address problems with equipment. More helicopters will be found in the long term and new armoured vehicles sent to combat zones before the end of the year. The kit issued to soldiers has improved since the invasion of Iraq, when some had to wear the wrong kind of camouflage and boots that fell apart. But half of all troops still buy their own extra equipment, including scarves, jackets and extra trousers.

Brigadier Robbie Scott-Bowden, the Army's director of infantry, said last year that new equipment made an eight-man infantry section four times more potent than it was in the Second World War. The new technology includes night and laser sights and a grenade launcher that can be fitted under the barrel of an SA80 rifle. "We are better equipped than in the past, without doubt, and the blokes feel very confident with the weapons they now have."

For some units body armour is still in short supply, however, as it was in April 2003 when Sgt Steve Roberts was ordered to give his up. Days later the 33-year-old from West Yorkshire was hit by "friendly fire" during a checkpoint riot. His pistol had jammed. The machine gun that killed him was inaccurate over such a short distance, but the gunners had not been told this. Body armour would have saved him.

Last month, the Army Board of Inquiry finally concluded what his family already knew: that if he had been properly equipped, as every soldier on the frontline has the right to expect, he would not have died. "These events are not technical," said his widow, Samantha. "They involve the loss of my husband, the loss of a son, the loss of a beloved family member."

THE STRATEGY: How 'ink spots' create stability

The "ink spot" strategy which Nato forces are seeking to carry out in southern Afghanistan is nothing new: it dates back to the "fortified village" concept used by Britain to help defeat the insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s and 1960s.

By creating zones of stability and economic activity - the "ink spots" - the authorities hope to deny the insurgents support and win over the local population. Success allows the spots to grow and overlap into a single large blot, further weakening opposition.

In southern Afghanistan, the plan calls for one "ink spot", or "Afghan development zone", to spread outwards from the triangle formed in Helmand by the provincial capital, Lashkargar, the town of Grishk and the main British base, Camp Bastion. This would merge with another spreading out from Kandahar, the main city in the south, and Nato's regional HQ at the nearby air base.

The immediate benefit for British forces would be securing Highway 1, Afghanistan's main trunk road, so Helmand can get supplies from Kandahar without a heavy military escort, or having to use scarce and expensive aircraft.

Further zones are supposed to spread from Tarin Kowt and Qalat, the capitals of Uruzgan and Zabol provinces. Another spotmight then be put on Spin Boldak, the main frontier town between south-east Afghanistan and Pakistan. But all this depends on a decisive victory in the present offensive against a resurgent enemy in the south.

Tom Coghlan and Raymond Whitaker