Military chiefs were accused of a disgraceful cover-up last night as it was revealed that figures for troop shortages have been quietly reclassified as secret.
With the army in particular maintaining a demanding tempo of battle in Afghanistan, several specialist trades such as medics have had to cope with a shortfall in their numbers. Yet the Ministry of Defence said last night that the public would no longer be privy to just how low numbers in certain regiments are.
Figures obtained last year revealed serious shortfalls in countless trades, most notably among bomb disposal experts who are now so vital in Helmand. Statistics revealed a 42.5 per cent shortfall in Royal Logistic Corps Ammunition Technician corporals to staff sergeants and a 16.7 per cent shortfall in Royal Engineer explosive ordnance disposal troops of the same rank.
Intensive care nurses were down by 71.1 per cent, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who keep vehicles going on the front line were 37.2 per cent down at corporal rank, while Merlin pilots were 36 per cent short. Infantry privates and lance corporals, the bulk of the frontline fighting force, were 10.7 per cent below strength.
But recent requests for up-to-date information have been turned down. Yesterday, the former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, who had previously asked for information on the number of medics in the forces, at a time when injuries in Helmand continue to escalate because of the increasing use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), was told there was, he said, a "deeply disturbing" shortage.
As he revealed that the Defence Medical Services only had 476 medical officers out of a required trained strength of 818, defence minister Kevan Jones added that future data highlighting potential "pinch points", or shortages, in the armed forces would no longer be published as it would prejudice security.
A similar request by Tory MP Gerald Howarth in December was blocked by Armed Forces minister Bill Rammell, who said: "Information detailing pinch-point trades has been reclassified. I am withholding the information as its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces."