Paras without planes: RAF running out of Hercules because of strain of Iraq war | Mail Online Last updated at 1:51 AM on 27th June 2009 The RAF is so short of warplanes that Paratroopers do not have enough aircraft to jump from while they complete their training. The Ministry of Defence has been forced to hire civilian planes to try to clear the backlog of hundreds of soldiers unable to train or qualify. The crisis stems from a lack of Hercules transport aircraft, ideal for dropping Paratroopers.When the Iraq war began in 2003 the Armed Forces had 51 Hercules available, but four have been shot down or destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan and at least nine have had to be retired due to the intense workload. The remaining fleet is working flat out to support operations abroad. In some units barely half the Paras are certified to jump - with hundreds unable to earn their wings or maintain their skills once qualified. Recruits must complete a course of at least six jumps - culminating in a massed low-level jump from a Hercules at night, wearing full kit - plus two more with their unit to gain their coveted 'wings' badge and become fully-fledged Paras. After that they cease to be operationally deployable unless they can jump twice a year. Many have already lost their entitlement to specialist pay of £5 pay per day because they have failed to jump at all for two years. Recent figures have shown just 55 per cent of soldiers in the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment are certified to jump. With senior officers in uproar, the MoD has finally admitted the scale of the problem and agreed to hire a fleet of much smaller civilian Skyvan aircraft - normally used for amateur skydiving flights. Critics claimed the stop-gap measure was shocking evidence of Government penny-pinching, which had left the Armed Forces increasingly unable to carry out realistic training for war. MoD officials confirmed a commercial contract was being prepared, and said Paras would be jumping from Skyvans instead of Hercules by the end of the summer. A recent National Audit Office report warned of a crisis in military transport from 2010 as more Hercules planes become unusable. The situation has infuriated commanders, especially as it provides ammunition for critics who claim parachuting is largely irrelevant in modern military operations. It is understood that senior Army generals considered downgrading parachute training on cost grounds, giving new recruits their wings after fewer jumps while maintaining a much smaller cadre of fully-trained Paras. But the 'Para hierarchy' have won the day - for now - and the MoD has found the cash to hire a number of Skyvan twin-propeller aircraft to try to catch up with the growing training backlog. One serving Para officer said: 'It's far from ideal. 'The Skyvan is not much like the real thing - you jump off the rear ramp in small groups, instead of 80 or more blokes going out of the side doors of a Hercules.' Tory defence spokesman Liam Fox said: 'Our troops are expected to train like they fight, but now our proud Paras are being forced to jump from civilian airplanes flown by civilian pilots, when neither would be a wartime possibility.' But an MoD spokesman said: 'This is an efficient way to fill the gap in Hercules capacity. 'The standard required to qualify as a Paratrooper will not change.'