The Risks We Take in Asking Too Much of Our Forces; AN ANALYSIS OF OUR FIGHTING COMMENTARY

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Byline: SIR PETER DE LA BILLIERE

THE destructive war of words within Nato continues, and no doubt President Milosevic is delighted. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, stressed that the beefed-up forces to be deployed on the borders of Kosovo might eventually push their way into that unhappy province as 'more than just a peacekeeping force'.

In sharp contrast, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State, immediately reaffirmed her government's position that ground troops would only be deployed in a 'permissive' environment.

But amid the confusion, one thing at least is agreed.

However they are to be used, another 22,000 allied troops will shortly be sent to Macedonia to reinforce the 28,000 troops already hovering there.

They'll include a further 3,000 British paratroopers, marines and infantry, who will join the 7,000-plus UK service people already deployed ready to move into Kosovo.

For this country, with its proud military tradition, to commit 10,000 troops to a major operation may sound modest. But it is not.

'Permissive' or otherwise, the occupation and reconstruction of Kosovo will be an expensive, long-term commitment, probably lasting several years.

It will demand heavily armed, well-trained, experienced and balanced forces, prepared in the last resort to fight to defend themselves or to protect the Albanian Koso-vars who are supposed to return in their wake.

It is a military rule of thumb that for every soldier seeing active service on the ground, you need one undergoing training and one unwinding in some less demanding environment.

In other words, to fulfil our planned commitment to Kosovo, we will need up to 30,000 troops. And if things go wrong - as they have a historic habit of doing in the Balkans - we may need to increase that number suddenly and sharply.

Consider now our other commitments. We have about 16,000 service people in Northern Ireland and heaven knows how many more we might need if the peace process really does break down. There are 2,000 in the Falkland Islands, 20,000 in Germany, 4,000 in Bosnia and 4,500 in Cyprus.

In my judgment, these figures demonstrate that our armed forces are already dangerously and unacceptably overstretched.

Our service men and women are completing longer terms of duty overseas and having shorter breaks at home. The old rule that you served six months abroad and then 18 months at home has collapsed under the ever increasing burden of commitments.

The strains this imposes are becoming apparent. I know that it is still easy to recruit to the armed forces. Indeed in recent months recruitment figures are, I understand, better than they have ever been in peacetime. …