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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Is forces chief right to worry?
By Dr Kenneth Payne
BBC Defence Analyst

UK jeep in the Gulf
Action in Iraq meant lots of wear and tear on equipment

Outspoken comments by the government's top military adviser, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, have raised doubts about the capability of UK forces following the war in Iraq.

The Chief of Defence Staff ruffled feathers around Whitehall when he suggested that Britain should avoid another war until at least 2005, or suffer "severe pain".

Sir Michael, who is set to retire on Friday, argued that forces needed time to recover from the Iraq campaign and avoid overstretch.

But is he right to sound such a warning note? BBC News Online looks at the key issues.

Cost of war

The invasion of Iraq required around 45,000 British servicemen and women.

Admiral Sir Michael Boyce
Forces chief warns over new action

Of these around 26,000 were ground forces, which amounts to around a quarter of total Army strength.

The 7th Armoured Brigade - the Desert Rats - played a key role in the fighting for Basra, but are one of only three heavy armoured brigades.

Their 120 Challenger 2 tanks - the Army's main battle tank - are about one third of the total available.

In terms of numbers, however, the Army would be able to mount another Iraq-type operation at relatively short notice.

The real problem lies with the Royal Navy and RAF, both of whom employed a fair proportion of their available resources in the Iraq war, especially bombs and missiles.

This was a good war for the RAF, which used its newly acquired 'smart' weapons to great effect.

Details of bombs used are not publicly available, but clearly it will take time to replenish stocks of these bombs and the Navy's cruise missiles.

Another big problem is the wear and tear on equipment and people.

The harsh conditions in the Iraqi desert and the intensity of fighting a war both mean that equipment wears out faster than in peacetime.

Tanks will need deep servicing, and personnel will take time off with families before resuming training.

Spread too thin?

Overstretch is another serious concern for the UK military.

UK forces
Armed forces total: 206,930
Iraq: 45,000
Germany: 25,000
Northern Ireland: 13,500
Cyprus: 3,230
Bosnia and Croatia: 1,249
Falklands: 1,240
Macedonia and Kosovo: 789
Other UN missions: 442
Gibraltar: 420
Afghanistan: 349
Italy: 7

The UK already has peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

The numbers involved are small, but the commitments are lengthy and require regular replacements.

The Army is also deployed in Northern Ireland, although their numbers there may soon be reduced if the stuttering peace process there allows, from 13,000 to, perhaps, 5,000.

In Iraq, the UK will reduce the size of its ground force, to about one third of wartime levels, but these troops will still require regular rotation.

New weapons

Part of any recuperation period will be used to assess what sort of weapons and systems the military needs to buy.

The Iraq war demonstrated the effectiveness of precise laser and satellite guided bombs, and the military will surely acquire more of these.

The need for the expensive Eurofighter aircraft is less obvious, and the RAF is likely to get fewer than the 232 that the government is committed to - even though cutting the order will be controversial in Europe.

But the two planned aircraft carriers will stay, as they are a vital part of the government's plans for 'expeditionary' forces with a global reach.

Where next after Iraq?

North Korea, Syria and Iran have all been mentioned as possible targets for further US military action.

But the political mood in the UK means that the British military is unlikely to be involved.

The UK may use its special forces as part of the ongoing 'war on terror' and it will maintain its peacekeeping commitments around the world.

But short of a direct attack on the UK in the next 18 months, Boyce's understandable fears of another 'discretionary' war like Iraq are unlikely to be realised.


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