Page last updated at 14:12 GMT, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

20% of foot soldiers unfit to fight, MoD figures show

9 Platoon, C Company, 3rd battalion, The Rifles in Northern Helmand on 9 January
More than 1,000 personnel suffered combat injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan

Almost 5,000 soldiers and officers - or 20% of army infantry personnel - are unfit for frontline combat duties, Ministry of Defence figures show.

Some are not fully deployable because of physical or mental injury or illness, or lack of fitness, others because of non-medical reasons.

The data from a Parliamentary written answer showed 19 battalions had fewer than 500 fully deployable soldiers.

The MoD said most classed as medically non-deployable could still contribute.

A small number include the under-18s and pregnant soldiers, or those unable to deploy on compassionate grounds.

'Difficult decisions'

Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, who obtained the information, told the BBC: "To have 20% of the infantry unfit for the duties they are primarily employed and trained for is quite a staggering figure.

"This reflects the long-term effect of sustained operations, and it's worth remembering the government may pay for extra ammunition and other costs of operations, but they don't fund the recruitment and training of personnel to replace those who are left unfit for combat."

Maj Gen Patrick Cordingley: 'The figures are alarming.'

More than 1,000 servicemen and women have suffered combat injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

Maj Gen Patrick Cordingley, who commanded the Desert Rats in the first Gulf War, says he is deeply concerned by the figures and warns that difficult decisions lie ahead.

"I think if this goes on much longer in Afghanistan, and the sad figure of soldiers who are wounded in such a way that they can't go back to frontline rises, it will undoubtedly become a problem unless you're allowed to recruit a lot more people, and take the strength of the Army above what it is now," he said.

The issue of how to deal with seriously injured personnel is a deeply sensitive one.

'Expensive options'

The Ministry of Defence has been studying whether some may have to be discharged on medical grounds, to ensure that the Army's fighting strength is kept up.

But it is well aware that the issue has to be handled with care, with many of the injured keen to remain within the armed forces, if necessary in non-combat roles.

"Sooner or later, we have to decide what to do, and we have got to either ask those people to leave and recruit more, or make the Army bigger and recruit more," said Maj Gen Cordingley.

"Both are very expensive options, and there isn't the money to go around."

Col Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said it was a situation that had been steadily deteriorating.

"We need to make more money available to increase the manpower. We need more infantry battalions," he said.

"Infantry battalions have been run down over a number of years. They've been raided for manpower, in effect. It's an easy target to make savings and that's what's happened."

Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute defence think tank, said the figures were to be expected because Afghanistan was an "infantry heavy" campaign.

He said the strategic defence review made 12 years ago needed to be updated.

"Nobody in the MoD or the armed forces anticipated that we'd deploy 10,000 troops for five years or more in a far away country conducting high-tempo military operations," he said.

British army combat troops include 25,000 infantry, 11,000 engineers, 8,500 artillery, 6,550 cavalry and Royal Armoured Corps, and 2,500 Army Air Corps.

Frontline troop numbers

The MoD insists it is committed to providing the best care for injured personnel.

An Army spokesman said: "The majority of those classed as medically non-deployable are fit enough to work in some capacity and therefore continue to make a contribution to the effectiveness of the armed forces."

In a Commons written answer last year, the government said the proportion of the military "fully fit for task" at the end of 2007/8 was 82.7% in the Army, 89.7% in the RAF, and 90.4% in the Royal Navy.

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