British soldiers banned from using live bullets to save money Michael Smith RECOMMEND? (24) British soldiers are being forced to train with blanks rather than live rounds to save money. The entire Territorial Army (TA) and a number of nonfrontline regular army units will be affected by the ban on the use of real bullets in personal weapons, according to defence sources. Soldiers bound for Afghanistan will be spared the restrictions, but even they will start training with live rounds only in the last three months before departure. Those learning to shoot as part of basic training will also be allowed to use real bullets. Patrick Mercer, the Tory MP and a former infantry commanding officer, said: “The idea that our frontline reserves should not be able to use live rounds is quite extraordinary. “We can’t have a popgun army. The next thing you know we’ll be reduced to Dad’s Army-style training, shouting ‘bang bang’.” News of the ban emerged as Gordon Brown returned from a surprise visit to Afghanistan to bolster support for the war. Yesterday a Royal Marine was killed on foot patrol when a Taliban bomb exploded near Gereshk in southern Afghanistan. He was the 208th British serviceman to die in the conflict. The bullet ban is the result of a £700m cut in the money available to run the army in the UK. Soldiers are required to maintain basic standards of proficiency in the use of their weapons; the SA80 is the standard issue service rifle, while officers use a Browning 9mm pistol. They must pass an annual test, demonstrating their ability to clean their weapons, fire at a target to calibrate or “zero” the sights, and then achieve a specific score firing live rounds. They fire a minimum of 100 live rounds, with the average noninfantry soldier firing about 300 a year. The cost of a single SA80 live round is approximately 30p, compared with 10p for a blank. The Ministry of Defence conceded that tank and artillery units had also seen a sharp cut in the number of rounds they were allowed to fire on training exercises. The number of artillery rounds fired in training fell from 20,000 in 2003-2004 to half that figure last year and is even fewer this year. Computer simulation is being used as an alternative, but it cannot reproduce the experience of live firing. This weekend one officer said: “We’ve been told we cannot fire live rounds unless we are going to Afghanistan. How on earth is a professional soldier supposed to be able to keep up his skills like that? “But the situation is so desperate that Land Command [which runs the army in Britain] is already overspent by £50m. It is absolutely wretched. It is a total farce.” The MoD said it “did not recognise” the £50m figure, but senior sources confirmed it was the rough size of the overspend. The MoD said: “The top priority is to train those about to deploy to Afghanistan, but the training of others continues. The ever-improving quality of simulation technology has reduced the need to rely on live-fire exercises, although they still play an important role.” It was unable to say which regular army units were affected by the ban. The revelation that soldiers are firing blanks follows an admission to MPs earlier this month that British troops had fired more than 12m rounds between April 2006, when they first went into southern Afghanistan, and April this year. Most of the rounds were from small arms, with about 6m fired from SA80 rifles and 5m from machineguns. Although the government claims the full cost of operations abroad is funded separately from the defence budget, the Treasury reduces the figure by about half to take into account costs that are not incurred in the UK because the troops are in Afghanistan. The TA has also been ordered to cut in half the training for its soldiers, with funding for “man-training-days” for reservists cut from 90 a year to 50 for some and 30 for others. Last week a mother of a soldier serving in Afghanistan revealed that she had spent £1,000 per tour sending her son kit because he was so poorly equipped. Lorna Daniel, 52, from Looe, Cornwall, has sent Paul, 29, a corporal with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, items including a high-quality sleeping bag, vests, gloves and torches.