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UK parliament committee warns of army overstretch

By Staff
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LONDON, Apr 20 (Reuters) Britain's military faces shortages of medics, pilots, intelligence officers and other trained specialists because of its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, a parliamentary committee said today.

Fears of overstretch of the British military have risen in recent months after London announced a major new mission to Afghanistan without announcing any big withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

The government says it has the manpower for both missions, although officials acknowledge some troops are getting less rest between deployments than guidelines normally require.

In its report on the Ministry of Defence's annual accounts, parliament's defence committee said it would closely monitor manpower problems that might arise from the Afghan mission. The ministry has called the issue ''manageable'', it said.

''We are concerned that there are critical shortages in various specialist trades, in all three services, including air crew and medical personel,'' the committee's report said. It also cited intelligence officers and bomb disposal experts as areas where staffing was falling short.

It said the army, navy and air force had all experienced breaches of ''harmony guidelines'' -- normal rules for allowing rest between deployments. The problem was worst in the army which had born the brunt of missions to Iraq and Afghanistan.

''Members of the Armed Forces need time for training as well as for recuperation after operations and they need time with their families,'' it said.

The navy, meanwhile, was experiencing the biggest shortfall in total staffing, falling nearly five per cent below its target strength, though it said this was expected to improve.

Defence Secretary John Reid said the report ''rightly points to the pressure on our people. I acknowledge the debt we owe them in sustaining the high level of activity in recent years.'' As Washington's only major battlefield ally in Iraq, Britain sent 45,000 troops to the Gulf for the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the largest British deployment since the Korean War 50 years ago.

London has nearly 8,000 troops in Iraq and its new Afghan mission is due to peak at about 5,200 troops later this year.

REUTERS SC PM0445

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