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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 16:57 GMT
Forces chief issues strike warning
Armed forces
19,000 soldiers are on firefighting stand-by
A continuing strike by UK firefighters would seriously undermine any possible military action against Iraq, according to the country's most senior military chief.

In a blunt warning, Sir Michael Boyce said he was "extremely concerned" by the impact on military effectiveness of having 19,000 troops on stand-by for firefighting.

The armed forces should not cross picket lines

Sir Michael Boyce
Chief of the defence staff

The comments in a news conference came as it emerged there would be no talks between the firefighters' union and employers on Wednesday.

In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Tony Blair moved to play down the suggestion troops were too over-stretched.

Mr Blair stressed Sir Michael had also said the armed forces would still be able to respond to any military requirements from the government.

The defence chief was pointing out troops "perfectly obviously" could not be engaged in other duties if they were firefighting, said Mr Blair.

The executive of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has decided the employers have not come up with a significantly different offer and declined to meet them.

The employers said they would work through the night to try to improve the package on the table so talks could resume on Thursday, but warned there would be no more money.

Sir Michael Boyce
Sir Michael Boyce signalled differences with ministers
An eight-day stoppage is due to start on Friday.

Sir Michael insisted he would not send troops to strike break by crossing FBU picket lines but would expect the police to carry out that sort of operation.

"The armed forces should not cross picket lines," he said.

Downing Street later said troops would not cross picket lines to reach firefighting equipment, even under a police escort.

'Morale problem'

Standing alongside Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, Sir Michael said: "I am extremely concerned about the military effectiveness of our armed forces...

"I do not have a box of 19,000 standing by for such duties so they must come from operational duties.

"So they are not doing their task for training for whatever eventuality may come in the future."

Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary
Hoon: Air attacks will affect UN judgements

Sir Michael spoke of the "morale and motivation problem" of sending soldiers straight from operations in areas like Bosnia and straight into firefighting duties.

That meant they were not being allowed holidays with their families or to engage in other training for future military operations, such as against Saddam Hussein.

Mr Hoon was forced to explain, stressing the government had always said it was for civilian authorities to cross picket lines to get at red fire engines if there was a continuing strike.

The defence secretary also insisted the UK was prepared for a possible Iraq war and able to offer a "credible threat" of force against Saddam Hussein.

Sir Michael's comments, however, have suggested significant differences between the military and the government over the handling of a continuing strike.

Attacks on British planes

Ministers have previously signalled that soldiers would be used to cross picket lines but are now having to confirm that is not the case.

The Conservatives said Sir Michael had echoed their view that UK troops had long been over-stretched.

Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin said: "Labour has been running the Armed Forces on empty. There is nothing left in the kitty for the unexpected."

At the news conference, Mr Hoon also confirmed America had asked if the UK would provide troops for a possible Iraq war.

Recent attacks on UK planes patrolling no-fly zones would affect judgements on whether Saddam Hussein was keeping to UN resolutions, he said.

"It's clearly relevant that his forces should attack our forces carrying out humanitarian tasks in the no-fly zone," said Mr Hoon.

"And certainly I agree that it is important that we recognise that this is an aggressive, belligerent state as far as our aircraft are concerned.

"That will go to be part of the picture the Security Council discusses but it would be a matter for the Security Council to discuss once all the evidence had been amassed."

The BBC's Mark Mardell
"The chief of defence staff is clearly worried"
British soldier 'Darren'
"In the military you're trained to make the best of bad situations"
Menzies Campbell of the Liberal Democrats
"The armed forces do not like being dragged into political battles"

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20 Nov 02 | UK
20 Nov 02 | Middle East
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