Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Military needs 'breathing space'

Defence Secretary John Hutton
Mr Hutton said success in Afghanistan was vital to the UK's security

The armed forces need "more breathing space" to equip them to face challenges other than Iraq and Afghanistan, Defence Secretary John Hutton has said.

Mr Hutton told MPs the armed forces were "palpably stretched" but that a significant reduction in troops in Iraq next year would relieve pressure.

Mr Hutton said he would not speculate on whether troops brought home from Iraq would be sent to Afghanistan.

The head of the UK armed forces has argued that this should not happen.

Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup warned on Sunday that the forces' commitment levels needed to be "rebalanced" and that a "one to one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan" next year was not feasible.

Redeployment?

There are currently 4,100 British troops in Iraq and 7,800 in Afghanistan.

Ministers plan to significantly reduce the number of personnel in Iraq some time early next year but are likely to come under pressure to transfer some of these personnel to Afghanistan.

US president-elect Barack Obama has called on other Nato members to take on more of the military burden in Afghanistan.

Appearing before the Commons defence select committee, Mr Hutton said he was committed to delivering "success" in Afghanistan and giving the armed forces the resources necessary to achieve that.

There will have to come a point in time, sooner or later, when there has to be a rebalancing
John Hutton

While the UK could sustain current troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, maintaining simultaneous commitments on such a scale indefinitely would have very "significant consequences" for resources and personnel, Mr Hutton said.

Troop reduction in Iraq should reduce the military's "operational tempo", he said, and enable it to consider contributing to other peacekeeping missions and focusing on future training needs.

"There will have to come a point in time, sooner or later, when there has to be a rebalancing," Mr Hutton said.

"I believe it will come next year and it will be welcome."

Data breaches

Mr Hutton defended the preparedness of troops currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, after recent criticism of equipment shortages and deficiencies, saying they were better equipped than for many years.

But he said the Ministry of Defence (MOD) must "do better" in ensuring value for money in equipment and other supply contracts.

He also called for a "change in culture" in how MOD officials and its contractors deal with sensitive data after a series of breaches of security in recent times.

A computer hard drive containing the personal details of about 100,000 members of the armed forces went missing last month during an audit carried out by IT contractor EDS.

"It is simply unacceptable for this kind of data to go walkabout when it jeopardises the financial and personal security of members of the armed forces," Mr Hutton said.

"They expect better of us and we have to do better."



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