Sending extra British troops 'pushes Army to break point'

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The Independent Online

The British Army will be at breaking point when it sends thousands of extra troops to Iraq, military experts have warned.

Already at "considerable overstretch", the decision to bolster the British presence in the Gulf will mean almost half of the trained strength of the Army will be in use. An announcement is expected as early as tomorrow that around 1,200 soldiers will be deployed with a further 1,800 put on standby.

"The British Army cannot do any more than that," Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, said yesterday. And he predicted that a long-term commitment in Iraq, against the background of an over-extended Army, would adversely affect morale.

The pressure on Britain to back its American allies continues to increase as the French and German leaders have yet to give a clear indication that they will join an international force in Iraq.

Ahead of expected wrangling at the UN this week, France was keen not to again be seen as blocking international progress following the enormous damage to Franco-American relations caused by its decision to withhold its backing for military action against Saddam Hussein.

But President Jacques Chiraq is equally determined to sign nothing which seems to justify the American-led invasion of Iraq after the event. He insists the UN should not be just a rubber-stamp for American strategy.

France wants the US draft resolution amended to give the UN the primary, legal and political responsibility for the transition to Iraqi rule. France would accept the continuing presence of American military commanders and civilian administrators, so long as they report regularly and directly to the UN.

France is also demanding a clear and brief timetable for the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty and assurances that access to Iraqi oil and rebuilding contracts will be shared fairly among the international community.

But any failure to secure international agreement will leave the British armed forces exposed. Latest figures show that Britain is relying on attracting overseas recruits - from far-flung countries, including Fiji - as numbers decline and the trainee drop-out rate rises. The figures for July show overall armed forces numbers have dropped to 206,150, marking an overall fall of more than 10,000 since 1997.

Experts have repeatedly warned that the armed forces are overstretched. But the demands on British troops - 45,000 of whom are currently deployed - continue to increase.

As ever more soldiers serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Cyprus, Gibraltar and the Falklands, a recruitment crisis is looming.

The Army is already operating at 5 per cent below strength. But between April and July this year, only 5,290 new recruits were taken on to replace 6,010 people leaving the services. There is a high drop-out rate among trainees.

In 2002-03, 37 per cent of Army recruits dropped out before completing their training. In the armed forces as a whole, the overall drop-out rate was 32 per cent. As a response to the growing crisis in recruitment and retention of the armed forces, the Ministry of Defence has turned to other countries to find recruits.

In the past three years, the Royal Navy and the Army have sent selection teams to Commonwealth countries including Fiji, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines. It is also understood that recruits have been drawn from Australia and New Zealand.

The MoD has also been forced to call up more reserves. At 2 May, the number of reserves called up to take part in Operation Telic in Iraq had reached 8,706 with just over 5,000 being accepted into service. There are currently some 2,600 reservists in the Gulf, amounting to more than a quarter of the total British force.

Bernard Jenkin, shadow defence secretary, said last night: "The armed forces are desperately overstretched. The trouble is that while the armed forces are being used more and more, they have been getting smaller.

"We are expecting further manpower cuts in the autumn defence review. We can't afford to go on losing experienced personnel."