Is the British Military Overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq?

For the British military, it's a long-established rule: serving officers don't criticize their political masters—at least in public. But circumstances test the oldest conventions. With soldiers heavily committed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders fear the armed forces are dangerously close to the breaking point, and these days they're starting to speak out. Last week the chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, told journalists in London: "We are simply not geared up for two operations on this scale." According to the country's senior officer, the military was "stretched beyond the capabilities we have."

If the language remains civil, the message to the politicians is clear. Over the past 11 years, Labour governments have been ready enough to send troops into combat. As prime minister, Tony Blair authorized deployments in the Balkans and Sierra Leone, as well as the Middle East and Afghanistan. But the government has failed to match those additional roles with extra spending. As a fraction of GDP, the £32 billion defense budget now stands at just 2.5 percent—less than half the level reached at the height of the cold war. Spending is still far higher than most other European nations. NATO members spend an average of 1.8 percent of GDP; France comes close to the British figure but has stayed away from Iraq and has thus far taken little active role in the fighting in Afghanistan. But in Britain, an Army of 155,000 in 1989 has shrunk to an official strength of 102,000 today, and its leaders say an effective military needs more resources—and soon.

The lack of resources is due in large part to a failure to imagine the kind of military needs Britain would have in the current era. The last major review of defense policy back in 1998, the basis for today's armed forces, foresaw occasional lengthy overseas missions but not large-scale simultaneous indefinite deployments. "What was never envisaged were two cases of regime change where Britain has a moral responsibility to stay for as long as it's needed," says Michael Codner of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. Today there are 4,000 British troops in Iraq, and the number in Afghanistan—the largest single NATO contingent after the United States—will soon top 8,000.

What particularly irks the military are not the extra tasks; it's the failure to meet the new financial realities. Some government departments—notably health and education—have seen their budgets increase by more than 150 percent over the past decade of Labour rule. By contrast, defense has seen an equivalent rise of just 10 percent in real terms, according to the United Kingdom National Defence Association (UKNDA), formed in 2005 to press for higher military spending. "Every politician says, 'Defense is our first priority'—and then immediately disproves it," says John Muxworthy of the defense association, which includes three former chiefs of the Defense Staff among its patrons, as well as senior politicians from outside government. According to the association, a budget hike of up to 40 percent is needed. Rises that merely keep close to the inflation rate are of little use when the cost of equipment continues to climb at 8 percent or more annually.

The first victims of underfunding are on the front line, where overstretched manpower means extra duty for the troops and a strain on morale. "The government is trading on the sheer professionalism and good will of the average soldier," says Patrick Mercer, a Conservative M.P. and former Army officer. Soldiers returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan may find themselves back in combat zones in barely more than a year, rather than the recommended two. Inevitably, family life suffers, putting soldiers under pressure to quit. Recruitment remains strong—the chance of seeing action serves as a useful spur—but more junior officers and NCOs are choosing to leave the Army rather than re-enlist. Officially, the Army is now at least 4 percent under strength in terms of troop levels, although critics claim the figure for combat-ready troops may be far higher. It's no secret that many of the 36 infantry battalions are especially hard hit.

Equipment shortages heighten the sense of grievance. Despite recent improvements, commanders complain that the Army badly needs more helicopters to support ground forces in Afghanistan, as well as a fleet of vehicles better suited to today's counterinsurgency operations. Four soldiers who were killed in June by a Taliban land mine were traveling in a lightly armored Land Rover of a type originally used for patrolling in Northern Ireland. Whatever the government's position, many M.P.s are sympathetic. A poll for the UKNDA found that more than half—including 90 percent of Conservatives—agreed that spending on defense should rise.

The woes extend to everyday issues at home. In June the Army's commander, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, publicly criticized pay levels for junior soldiers, claiming some received less than traffic wardens. Others have complained that the government is in breach of "the Military Covenant," the unwritten agreement that promises generous treatment of servicemen and their families in return for their willingness to sacrifice their lives. The largest of the service charities, the Royal British Legion, last year launched its Honor the Covenant campaign, calling for higher compensation for the wounded and better treatment for veterans and their families.

The plain truth may be that cash-strapped Britain can no longer afford its self-appointed mission. At the very start of his time in Downing Street, Tony Blair proclaimed his belief that Britain's best hope of exerting influence on the world stage lay in working alongside America as a military power, a position restated in a lecture delivered in his final months in office. "There are two types of nation similar to ours: those who do war fighting and peacekeeping and those who have effectively, except in the most exceptional circumstances, retreated to the peacekeeping alone. Britain does both. We should stay that way."

But it's his successor, Gordon Brown, who must now pick up the tab as the financial outlook darkens. Finding extra money for the military will mean robbing another department such as education or health—hardly a vote-winning strategy for a government sinking fast in the polls. Instead, further cuts look very tempting. In June, the government drastically scaled back plans to provide the Navy with a fleet of new destroyers at more than £500 million a piece. Even the Conservatives, historically champions of stronger defense, are refusing to promise extra funds ahead of an election.

With hindsight the origins of today's problems may lie with the early and swift successes of Blair's interventionist line. Back in 2000, for instance, it took only a few months for British troops to help restore some form of order in Sierra Leone. By contrast, they've been fighting in Iraq for five years, and counting. "Blair had an easy ride in Kosovo and Sierra Leone," says Charles Heyman, editor of the authoritative book "The Armed Forces of the United Kingdom." "But there are limits to the application of military force, and before Iraq he never came up against them." As any good general knows, those limits aren't only on the battlefield; they're in the Treasury, too.