Britain's armed forces would suffer "serious pain" if they had to fight another war on the scale of the Iraq conflict before 2005, the Chief of Defence Staff has warned.
Admiral Boyce was knighted in 1995
Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the government's most senior military adviser, said the forces needed time to "draw breath" after operations against Saddam Hussein.
Sir Michael, who retires on Friday, also warned that any political breakthrough in Northern Ireland must not become an excuse for further cuts to the Army.
And he urged France, Germany, Belgium and
Luxembourg, who all opposed the Iraq war, not to use a joint defence meeting on Tuesday to undermine Nato.
Sir Michael also said he was "neutral" on the issue of whether UK forces should have a victory parade, adding: "We don't want to seem arrogant or patronising about the Iraqi people."
Sir Michael said the use of 45,000 British personnel in the Iraq war had stretched the armed forces, and time was needed for units to recover and munition stocks to be replenished.
"If you asked us to go into a large-scale operation in 2004, we couldn't do it without serious pain. We must allow ourselves time to draw breath," he said.
"If it was to be something of the scale that we have done this time, it would have to be something that the government is convinced is pretty important
because I would tell them it would take a while to recuperate."
Sir Michael said the US army was probably "in the same boat" and would also struggle if another large scale operation was launched in the near future.
Turning to Northern Ireland, Sir Michael said that a political breakthrough must not mean a reduction in army numbers - even if fewer troops were needed in the province.
About 45,000 UK personnel were in the Gulf
"What we have got to avoid is this being seen as a great peace dividend by the Treasury," he said.
"I suspect there would be a great temptation from our
good friends in the Treasury to capitalise on that."
Sir Michael, who has headed the armed forces for two years, also used his speech to question the future of planned new weapons systems.
He said that technological advances could help the forces, although he stressed the importance of bringing them up to full strength and ensuring they were fully manned.
But he also suggested it might be decided that some new equipment was not needed - including the full complement of 232 Eurofighters currently on order for the RAF.
He said: "I think we must look at it. Do we need to have 232 fighters in the modern
Ahead of the defence conference between France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, Sir Michael warned against any attempt to create a European equivalent of Nato's Article 5.
The clause means that an armed attack against one member is treated as an attack against all.
"What we don't need to see is an Article 5-type clause written into European defence policy," Sir Michael said.
"We certainly don't need duplicate structures."
Responding to Sir Michael's comments, shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin said: "Once again, Sir Michael Boyce tells the truth about the sorry state of the British armed forces.
"The fact is that it is only our armed forces' supreme professionalism that
makes up for all the shortcomings in training, manpower and equipment.
"Mr Blair cannot go on taking our armed forces for granted in this way."