By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
Telegraph.co.uk, July 21, 2007
The head of the Army has issued a dire warning that Britain has almost run out of troops to defend the country or fight abroad, a secret document obtained by the Daily Telegraph has revealed.
Gen Sir Richard Dannatt has told senior commanders that reinforcements for emergencies or for operations in Iraq or Afghanistan are "now almost non-existent".
In the memorandum to fellow defence leaders, the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) confessed that "we now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected". The "undermanned" Army now has all its units committed to either training for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, on leave or on operations.
There is just one battalion of 500 troops, called the Spearhead Lead Element, available to be used in an emergency, such as a major domestic terrorist attack or a rapid deployment overseas.
Gen Dannatt's comments will come as the first serious test of Gordon Brown's policy on defence.
The new Prime Minister has already faced anger over the decision to give Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, the additional part-time role of Scottish Secretary with Tories labelling the move "an insult to our Armed Forces."
Military leaders have privately suggested that a defence review is essential to examine if more money, equipment and troops are needed.
With Britain's military reserve locker virtually empty, further pressure will mount on President George W Bush to review US troop levels in Iraq after fellow Republicans suggesting significant withdrawals.
It also comes at a time when more forces are needed to combat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, said the lack of reserves was "an appalling situation and damning indictment" of the way the Government handled the Services.
"They are being asked to carry out tasks for which they are neither funded or equipped for. There is an urgent need to review our strategic approach because we cannot continue over-stretching our Forces."
The document said that Britain's second back-up unit, called the Airborne Task Force formed around the Parachute Regiment, was unavailable. It was unable to fully deploy "due to shortages in manpower, equipment and stocks".
Most of the Paras' vehicles and weapons have stayed in Afghanistan with other units using them in intense battles against the Taliban.
Parachute Regiment officers are deeply concerned that with nearly all their equipment abroad they are unable to train properly for future operations.
The Paras also no longer have the ability to parachute as a 600-strong battalion because no RAF planes were available to drop then en-masse, the document said. The situation was unlikely to be resolved until late August.
With the Army significantly under-strength by 3,500 troops – many disillusioned with being constantly on dangerous operations and away from their families – it is now struggling to plug the gaps on the frontline.
"The enduring nature and scale of current operations continues to stretch people," Gen Dannatt wrote.
The Army now needed to "augment" 2,500 troops from other units onto operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring up the total force to 13,000 required. This remained "far higher than we ever assumed," the CGS said.
"When this is combined with the effects of under-manning (principally in the infantry and Royal Artillery) and the pace of training support needed to prepare units for operations, the tempo of life in the Field Army is intense."
The Army has also been forced to call up almost 1,000 Territorial Army soldiers for overseas operations. The general's concerns came after three RAF personnel were killed in a mortar or rocket attack on the main British headquarters five miles outside Basra bringing the total dead in Iraq to 162.
With the main force pulling out of Basra city to the air station in the coming months there is concern of increased attacks on the large base where some troops are forced to live in tented accommodation.
A lack of vehicles meant that "training is significantly constrained".
Gen Dannatt was also "concerned" that some equipment, particularly Scimitar light tanks that are vital to fighting in Afghanistan but are 40 years old, "may be at the edge of their sustainability".
More needed to be done on housing and pay in order to retained troops because "people are more likely to stay if we look after them properly".
The pressure on numbers was partially being alleviated by bringing in civilian firms to train soldiers and guard bases and by "adopting a pragmatic approach to risk where possible".
While the current situation was "manageable" Gen Dannatt was "very concerned about the longer term implications of the impact of this level of operations on our people, equipment and future operational capability".
It is not the first time Gen Dannatt has raised concerns on Britain's fighting ability. A few weeks into his job last year, Sir Richard said the military was "running hot" and urged for a national debate on defence.
The plain-speaking officer later suggested that the British presence in Iraq was "exacerbating the security problems" and warned that the Army would "break" if it was kept there too long.
Gen Dannatt, who said manning was "critical" in the Army, called for extra infantry units earlier this month following the devastating cuts inflicted by his predecessor Gen Sir Mike Jackson which saw four battalions axed.
"General Dannatt's appraisal means that we are unable to intervene if there is an emergency in Britain or elsewhere, that's self-evident," a senior officer said.
"But this is a direct result of the decision to go into Afghanistan on the assumption that Iraq would diminish simultaneously. We are now reaping the reward of that assumption."