'Serious weaknesses' in readiness levels of armed forces
Ministers were accused of putting the Armed Forces at "unacceptable" risk today as a report revealed "serious weaknesses" in their ability to go to war.
More than a third of the military would struggle to deploy on operations within the time set by defence chiefs, Whitehall's spending watchdog said.
The National Audit Office report comes as the Army is preparing for a major deployment next year to take over the lead in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.
Shadow defence secretary Michael Ancram said: "This Government is effectively sending our forces to war with one arm tied behind their back.
"The risk that the MoD is taking is utterly unacceptable and entirely driven by the Treasury's ambition to save funds by depleting the capability and the readiness of our Armed Forces."
Across the three services, 38 per cent of forces had "serious weaknesses" in their readiness levels - with two per cent being described as "critical", the NAO found.
The Royal Navy was particularly hard hit with, in the worst-case scenario, little more than half the Fleet able to deploy within the allotted time.
That was the result of the Ministry of Defence's decision to run down the readiness of the Navy in order to concentrate on bringing the Army up to the required state, the NAO found.
NAO director David Clarke said: "They are using the money they would normally have had to reach a particular state of readiness to put towards more pressing needs to do with operations.
"The cost is in terms of readiness of other things, it is in terms of longer-term training and it is in terms of people being stretched."
According to the MoD's "traffic light" system, the overall readiness of the forces for operations is now designated as "amber" - meaning that there are serious shortcomings - one step below "red" or "critical".
The NAO said that, unless the problem was addressed, it could affect the forces' ability to mount operations and lead to vital military skills and capabilities becoming "degraded".
"Looking separately at readiness for future tasks; this was assessed overall as being 'amber' - with serious weaknesses that would need to be addressed before forces could deploy," the report said.
"There are risks to the MoD's ability to take on additional operational commitments which are being managed against a background of a high current operational tempo."
The MoD operates a graduated system of force readiness, with those units on high readiness supposed to able to deploy on operations with between two and 30 days' notice.
Forces held at medium readiness are supposed to be able to go within 40 to 90 days, while those at low readiness have 180 days' notice or longer to move.
The NAO said the cause of problems ranged from shortages in key capabilities such as logistics experts and helicopters to the pressure caused by the continuing high level of operations.
Since 1999, operational activity had exceeded normal peacetime levels in every year but one. The MoD has said that it expects that situation to continue for the "foreseeable future".
Despite the concerns, Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram emphasised the NAO had found that the MoD had a good system in place for assessing and reporting readiness levels.
"No Armed Forces can be perfectly ready at all times for every contingency, but we must be able to manage effectively the risks to preparing forces for new operations," he said.
"This report underlines our commitment to achieving this complex but crucial task."
The MoD also stressed that since the NAO report was compiled no forces were now reporting "critical" weaknesses in their readiness levels.
Where there were "serious" weaknesses, the forces concerned could still be deployed, although more work would be needed to get them ready.
It was not surprising that some weaknesses were being reported, given the high levels of current operational activity, the Mod said.
The NAO had found that the department had an increasingly good understanding of risks to readiness and good plans in place to mitigate them, defence chiefs said.
While it said that it had been "sensible" to concentrate resources on the Army in the face of current operational demands, extra funds had now been made available to the Navy to ensure the worst-case scenario did not come to pass.
It described the "cannibalisation" of parts as a sensible practice that enabled it to respond more readily to need than would otherwise be the case.
And, while it acknowledged that delivery timescales on urgent operational requirements could be "tight", it said that they were an essential element of modern military operations.