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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 June 2005, 07:06 GMT 08:06 UK
Overstretch: Modern Army's weakness
By Dr Andrew Dorman
Senior lecturer in defence studies, King's College London

Britain's armed forces are currently confronted by a whole series of challenges which they are struggling to meet.

A soldier with an SA-80 rifle
The SA-80 rifle was believed to have reliability problems

With the end of the Cold War, successive UK governments have reduced the relative level of defence spending from 5% of gross domestic product in the 1980s to less than 2.5%.

As spending on health, education and social security have risen, defence spending in real terms steadily fell throughout the 1990s.

Only since the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the US has this relative decline begun to stop and the defence budget stabilised in real terms.

This has led to a significant reduction in the overall size of Britain's armed forces as successive governments have sought to balance the need to maintain force numbers and force quality.

This has been exacerbated by the challenge posed by the cost of much of the new equipment that the armed forces would like to buy.

The overall result has been armed forces that in many ways are viewed as the model of modernity by many of our European partners.

Overseas deployments

However, complaints about the SA-80 rifle, lack of spares for equipment and even tales of British soldiers begging or trading equipment in the run up to the war in Iraq have abounded.

Britain's armed forces are struggling to maintain comparability and more importantly interoperability (the ability to safely work together) with their American counterparts.

The overall result has been armed forces that in many ways are viewed as the model of modernity by many of our European partners

At the same time the level of operational deployments overseas has risen sharply.

Britain has sent military personnel on operations in such diverse areas as East Timor, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, the Balkans and most recently, Iraq.

Sustaining this deployment rate has been a challenge for the services.

For example, during Operation Telic, the invasion of Iraq, the British army had almost 60% of its personnel engaged in, or preparing for, operations.

And the average Royal Navy destroyer or frigate spends more time at sea now than its World War II counterpart.

Partly offsetting this has been the end of the requirement to counter the Soviet threat.

This means that the much reduced German-based garrison now focuses on preparing for other missions, such as Iraq.

In addition, there has been a significant reduction in the requirement to support the civilian authorities in Northern Ireland following on from the Good Friday Accord.

Very real challenge

However, adding to the problem has been the need to engage in ever more complex and diverse operations.

These have included providing cover for firefighters at home, humanitarian support in Bosnia, peacekeeping in Cyprus, peace enforcement in Kosovo, nation-building and evacuation operations in Sierra Leone.

And, of course, traditional war fighting and counter-insurgency in Iraq and countering international terrorism from the likes of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

British soldiers on patrol in Iraq
The government is hoping the Iraq situation calms down

This requires a more diverse set of capabilities and skills than were required in the past.

The result has been a shift in force requirements away from infantry units.

This explains the regiment reforms announced in December, in favour of medics, intelligence specialists, engineers and logisticians.

Nevertheless, as the recent National Audit Report on military overstretch makes clear, the challenge remains very real.

Over the last few years Britain's military forces have consistently had to sustain deployment rates higher than the Ministry of Defence has planned for.

This means that, while the present situation can be maintained, any further defence deployments of any size will only be able to be made at considerable risk either to that mission or to one of the other ongoing missions.

A return to the troubles in Northern Ireland, a strike by firefighters, or another conflict could have dangerous repercussions.

Stark alternatives

So what are the options? The simplest would appear to be increasing the defence budget to provide appropriately sized and equipped armed forces.

Over the last few years Britain's military forces have consistently had to sustain deployment rates higher than the Ministry of Defence has planned for
However, no politician or commentator appears to believe this to be realistic. The alternatives are equally stark.

Firstly, the current level of operations could be drastically downsized. But which do you abandon - and with what results?

Secondly, the government could simply delay or cut back on the acquisition of new equipment and shift the investment to increasing personnel numbers.

Areas that could go might include the new aircraft carriers, the Joint Strike Fighter programme, the Future Rapid Effect System or nuclear deterrent.

The problem with this solution is that it will leave the services with less capable armed forces and it will also have significant industrial implications.

It is therefore understandable that the option currently being pursued by government is to try to re-orientate the armed forces and reduce frontline forces in some areas.

At the same time, ministers are hoping that the situation in Iraq and elsewhere improves sufficiently that the levels of overstretch diminish, and no major operations occur over the next few years.

Only time will tell.


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