Leading article: Overstretched and underfunded


As government finances are increasingly squeezed, the air is filled with special pleading. But in the case of our armed services, they seem to plead with a particular urgency. Only a day after a coroner blamed the "chaotic" military supply chain for the death of Fusilier Gordon Gentle in Iraq, a group of former senior commanders and politicians yesterday issued a public plea for more funds for our armed services. British forces, argued the newly formed UK National Defence Association, are overstretched, undermanned and underfunded. It cannot go on. Either the funds will have to be increased, the strategy re-evaluated, or they will face breaking point.

Some of this can be put down to the usual complaints of interest groups. There is also a real danger that the cause of the armed services could be diluted rather than promoted by the sheer number of pressure groups that now represent them. The new National Defence Association joins several dozen such groups urging the Government to give more funds to the services.

But on the basic analysis there can be little dispute. It has always been the nature of Britain's foreign ventures that we undertake them reluctantly, and usually accidentally, and then deprive the forces of the funds needed for the job. And in the present case, the soldiers, airmen and seamen and women of the British forces have special reason to feel aggrieved. The country's leaders have committed them to a succession of ventures abroad, but the Ministry of Defence has singularly failed to provide them with the basic equipment, supplies and above all protection they have required. The soldiers in the field have been constantly constrained by communications systems that don't operate, guns that don't fire and vehicles that break down. Belatedly, and under pressure, the Government has started to rectify this with increased funds. But there is still the feeling among the services that it is too little, too late.

Of course, one could ask whether the Government should cut its commitments rather than double the resources going to such ventures as Afghanistan. One might well ask also whether the Prime Minister is wise to commit himself to an expensive replacement for Trident rather than concentrate his resources on our overstretched conventional forces.

Yet, regardless of these valid questions, the central disgraceful fact remains that while our politicians proclaim their support for "the brave men and women of our forces", they are loading them up with ever increasing obligations and without the necessary equipment to do the job. It's time for a rethink of both the objectives and the means.

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