“Overstretched, underpaid and over there” might be an appropriate modern-day take on the infamous line of the Second World War, used in its original form to describe American GIs in Britain. With intense operations on two fronts, in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the cumulative effects of underinvestment by consecutive Conservative and Labour Governments, it is a phrase that pithily describes the modern predicament of our armed forces.

Our Armed Forces are a world-class fighting force, but they are not configured for sustained operations at the present rate. The situation has become so critical that the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said recently in a leaked secret memo: “We now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected.”, and he is right.

Despite the Labour Government recognising the dangers of continued overstretch in the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) of 1998, the most recent Armed Forces Pay Review Board Report of 7th February 2008 alarmingly confirmed continued major shortfalls in personnel number with further concerns that no manning balance will be achieved before April 2009.

With overstretch extending from full-time service personnel to reserves, medics and specialist trades, (as well as rather ironically the very recruiters who are meant to rectify this problem); our Armed Forces are in desperate need of constructive assistance to avoid an irrevocable crisis in our military capabilities. Furthermore, efforts must be made to check the equally alarming effect that overstretch has on the retention of skilled and experienced personnel that are currently serving; the very people who are vital to the Forces. All in all, these deficits will take years to rectify and it does not take a genius to work out that more commitments, fewer resources and fewer men do not bode well for swift success.

As the situation worsens in Afghanistan it is clear that the status quo is untenable. I am convinced that we cannot continue to ask so much of our armed forces without a clear commitment that in the future we will support them with the resources, equipment and man power they so urgently need to fulfil their operations. The military covenant must be more than just an abstract set of obligations, it should be firm entitlements for every serviceman and woman and their families. As a party we are well placed to champion this cause.

Nick Harvey is Lib Dem Shadow Defence Secretary

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  • Aside from scrapping Trident, there’s an easy way to yield more money for the Armed Forces; dispose of the vast layers of desk officers who gobble up cash whilst providing zero firepower. The Royal Navy, for example, has 46 admirals.

  • I think the fairly saving is trident – even if we were just to reduce the capacity of that programme rather than scrapping it outright the savings would run into the billions.

    Blaming it on quartermastery is a pretty poor excuse for a government which has cut spending on the armed forces yet expects them to conduct intense operations in Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously.

    Aside from logistical effects of overstretch – the lies and deceit behind the Iraq war has left many of the troops deployed their with poor morale and little idea of what they are fighting for (speak to some of the troops who have actually been deployed out there away from TV camera’s and you might get a real picture – instead of watching Ross Kemp)

    I notice you ignore the retention issue, which is not only down to poor pay and the rising mental health toll these campaigns are taking, but also due to experienced soldiers taking up positions with private contrators, who pay much better. The long term costs of both poor retention in the armed forces and mental heath care for society are huge and are being ignored by this government.

  • Sorry that should be the fairly big saving is trident – valued at £76 billion including annual maintanence costs.

    The current annual level of defence spending is 30 billion so that gives you some perspective on the government priorities – forget our troops and build more nukes.

  • @Chris Paul

    Yes, but the 46 admirals is just an example. There’s similar overstaffing right the way through the Armed Forces. A wider cut would yield enough money to patch up the infantry, who are relatively inexpensive themselves.

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