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Friday, June 4, 1999 Published at 22:55 GMT 23:55 UK


Can British forces take the strain?

Paratroopers in training before travelling to the Balkans

Military experts are warning that Britain's armed forces may not be able to take the strain of a prolonged peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.

Britain looks set to maintain a high profile in international efforts to resolve the crisis.

Approximately 8,500 British troops are already in the region, and another 12,000 are on standby to move out there.

Notice to move for three light battalions - already earmarked for the peacekeeping force - has already been given by Defence Secretary George Robertson.

But the armed forces already perform a balancing act of accommodating a decade of sustained government spending cuts whilst fulfilling obligations in other parts of the world.

Kosovo: Special Report
Details of the composition and deployment of a peacekeeping force for Kosovo are not yet known, but defence analysts say that Britain's involvement will stretch its armed forces to breaking point.

Paul Beaver, spokesman for Janes Defence Weekly, and a Balkans specialist, told BBC News Online: "Involvement in what will have to be a large peacekeeping operation will undoubtedly place a large strain on British armed forces.

[ image: Gruelling work: British troops training near Skopje, Macedonia]
Gruelling work: British troops training near Skopje, Macedonia
"The very minimum amount of time a peacekeeping force will be in place is three years."

His colleague, Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, says the timespan could be considerably longer.

He said: "If a peacekeeping force goes, it will be there for 20 years. I have just come back from Bosnia and I can tell you, if the peace-keeping force were to withdraw tomorrow the whole place would collapse."

A shortfall in military men and women may well lead to the territorial army being called upon, but that too has undergone fairly radical cuts over the past few years.

The Army claims an effictive fighting force of 103,000 men and women, but many are committed in other parts of the world.

Global commitments

Northern Ireland alone accounts for 15,000 postings, while approximately 5,000 servicemen and women are stationed in Bosnia.

Other commitments such as the Falklands and the Gulf are too unstable to be left "open".

The prospect of two peacekeeping operations running concurrently and indefinitely would leave little, if any, slack for emergency developments, for example in the Gulf.

Last year's Strategic Defence Review said the Army must be able to deploy two armoured brigades (of about 5,000 troops apiece), one indefinitely, on a peacekeeping mission, the other for a conflict lasting no more than six months - or to be capable of deploying a fighting division of 20,000 troops.

Concerns over morale

[ image: Despite the peace, Britain maintains 15,000 troops in Northern Ireland]
Despite the peace, Britain maintains 15,000 troops in Northern Ireland
Mr Beaver said that morale would be a major concern as the extra pressure on armed service personnel would force them to spend longer periods than normal away from their families - often in harsh weather conditions and poor accommodation.

The military's traditional approach is to "rotate" troops on tour, giving them time to recharge their batteries, settle back into family life and catch up with training.

The rule of thumb is to have 24 months between six month tours. This is just achieveable with the UK's present commitment of 20,000 troops.

"The problem in overstretching is that you go from one military operation to the next," said Mr Beaver.

"In this modern age, when we are not fighting for the realm, as it were, there is a strong and real possibility that soldiers will leave, and no-one else will join up."

[ image:  ]
The Ministry of Defence has an operational welfare package which accords benefits to troops on tour (see information box).

The MOD's Captain Nigel Vinson suggests one tactic for boosting British numbers would be a "shifting" of commitments.

"One idea, which is perhaps inevitable, would be to pull the British troops out of Bosnia and replace them with Canadians or Germans, so freeing up 5,000 of our men."

And he said that while the drain on resources is very real, there were valuable lessons to be learned from the Kosovo conflict.

"I think what we have probably reached after a decade of cuts is a plateau. If the government decides that, in the future, it wishes to continue this style of foreign policy it will have to stop the cuts.

"The armed forces beed a period of stability to implement the changes of the Strategic Defence Review and, in particular, increase recruitment."

Major Heyman fears that the year-on-year defence cuts may already have irredeemably depleted Britain's world standing.

He said: "As any boxer will tell you, you can only punch above your weight for so long."

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