British troop morale at home risk to Afghan effort - Army chief

British soldiers walk to a Royal Air Force (RAF) Chinook helicopter for transport in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, February 7, 2010. REUTERS/Baris Atayman

LONDON (Reuters) - A lack of support for British soldiers between deployments is damaging morale and risks undermining the army’s ability to sustain its campaign in Afghanistan over the coming years, the head of the army said.

In a memo to the Defence Ministry published in the Sunday Times, General Sir David Richards said that while improvements had been made to operational resources, the treatment of soldiers on their return home could have a long term impact on retention.

“The deteriorating experience of soldiers and their families in the period between disaffecting attitudes, damaging morale and risks undermining our ability to sustain the campaign over the next years,” he said.

“We need our soldiers to be ready, mentally and physically, to endure repeated tours in Afghanistan in a harsh environment, with the real prospect of significant casualties each time.”

Rising British casualties in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan have brought criticism that Britain’s armed forces are poorly equipped and underfunded.

With an overhaul of defence strategy due after an election expected in May and severe public spending cuts needed to tackle a record budget deficit, many have warned of the risk of squeezing defence spending.

Richards’ gives a summary of the findings of his briefing team, who provide regular direct feedback on what the army is thinking and feeling, which had highlighted issues such as shortages of training equipment and poor housing.

The team spent four months visiting 44 army units in Britain, Germany, Northern Ireland and Cyprus, collecting the views of more than 5,000 soldiers and their families, he said.

“Investing in the deployed operation is only part of the requirement,” said Richards. “Support to our service personnel between deployments and to their families’ quality of life must become a fundamental tenet of sustaining the main effort.”

Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Angus MacSwan