Ministers will have to make large cuts in the defence programme at a
time when the armed forces are already coming under unacceptable pressure
because of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, MPs warn in a highly critical
report released today.

The report, by the Commons defence committee, says the cost of
ambitious weapons projects continues to rise, while Britain’s soldiers and
pilots are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the demands placed
on them.

It says the MoD must be "realistic" about what weapons systems it can
afford. The problems are compounded by expensive delays in developing Nimrod
reconnaissance aircraft, and in the Astute submarines and Type 45 destroyer
programmes, which are already estimated to cost more than £2bn more than
originally forecast, the report notes.
The choice facing ministers is limited since they have said that
decisions to build a new four-boat Trident nuclear missile submarine fleet
and two new aircraft carriers will not be overturned.

The MPs say the ability of the armed forces to carry out the tasks
officially demanded of them by the government causes them "deep concern".
There is an overall shortage of manpower, more experienced personnel are
leaving the forces early, and the continuing failure to meet "harmony
guidelines" – the period that should be allowed for rest and training
between operations – is "unacceptable", the MPs say.

The defence minister, Bob Ainsworth, said last night he recognised
that "we are currently asking a lot of [the armed forces] in difficult and
challenging circumstances".

He added: "To achieve success we have had to take some risks, but by
drawing down our commitments in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Iraq, we can
expect to see an improvement in meeting our harmony guidelines."

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