British armed forces in Iraq are overstretched and face "serious problems" with their equipment, a highly critical report has warned today.
The Commons defence committee praises the work that UK troops are doing but expresses alarm that a lack of resources is hampering their operational capabilities.
Defence secretary Des Browne said action was being taken to deal with dated vehicles and a shortage of helicopters, but rejected outright claims that the armed forces were overstretched. He insisted only that they were "stretched".
About 20 per cent were on active deployment in March this year, and the MPs raise this problem as a key hazard in the UK's deployments to Iraq.
On a visit to Basra in June this year, they noticed the large number of reservists serving in Iraq, while in today's report they also express concern that so many people in the armed forces are not being given enough time to recuperate between deployments.
"The MoD's confidence that the UK armed forces are not overstretched contrasts with what we are hearing from service personnel on the ground," the report warns.
"We are concerned that the 'can-do' attitude of which our services are rightly proud may be leading service commanders to underplay the pressure on service personnel and their families..This is a matter of crucial importance."
However, Mr Browne refused to accept this, saying: "We all acknowledge we are asking a lot of them, and that we need to take steps to manage the impact - on them, on their training and recuperation, and their families.
"But as they themselves are the first to recognise, the work they are doing, in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the world, is absolutely vital - and I pay tribute again to their outstanding efforts in carrying it out."
In today's report, the MPs say they are "disturbed" by the deterioration in the security situation in Basra, where most UK soldiers are based, saying it prevents a "significantly higher threat" than in the period immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But they are most concerned by the "capability gaps", for example in the shortage of helicopters. This presents operational problems and means there is insufficient airlift to take soldiers out of the combat zone to go home, something the MPs say is "unacceptable".
The committee also highlights the dangers of using Snatch Land Rovers for patrols - although they are fast and easily maneuverable, it warns they often break down and are vulnerable to attacks by improvised explosives.
Responding, Mr Browne said the MoD had a long-term programme to increase the availability of helicopters and was looking at ways to meet short-term needs. Last week, he announced the purchase of a new 5th C-17 Globemaster to help with airlifts.
The MoD has now completed a review into the use of Snatch Land Rovers, and last month Mr Browne announced a package of armoured vehicles that he promised would become available in Iraq before the end of this year.
"Sourcing and buying new vehicles, adapting them with additional armour and protective counter-measures, and delivering them to theatre all in a matter of months is no mean feat - as I said at the time, I commend all those who worked to make this happen," he added.
But while the Warrior vehicles used by many armed forces are better protected, the MPs raise another problem - the heat. They warn that with temperatures reaching more than 60 degrees Celsius, an urgent investigation is needed into how they can be cooled down.