FEARS ARE growing that the Royal Engineers regiment may struggle to retain experienced engineers - just as it is called on to to play a greater role in the Kosovo conflict.
While the RE is among the most succesful regiments in recruiting new soldiers, the increasing demands of overseas tours is discouraging experienced engineers from staying in the Army.
Although there are no minimum intervals between overseas tours, the conventional army wisdom is that it should be around two years. However, an Army spokesman confirmed that engineer regiments, which make up around 11% of the Army, are currently averaging tour intervals of just eleven months.
Some regiments are in even greater demand. The Wiltshire-based 22 Regiment RE was recently allowed just five months between the end of its Northern Ireland tour and the start of six months in Bosnia.
'If you overwork an army, people leave,' explained Major Matthew Whitchurch, second in command of 22 Regiment. 'You can never have enough sappers.'
Recent events in Kosovo make it fairly certain that more NATO troops will be required in the area in the very near future. Already 500 Engineers from 21 Regiment and 350 from 28 Regiment are working in Macedonia. Engineers from 22 Regiment are already aware that they have been 'pencilled in' to start work in Kosovo in 12 months - just seven months after finishing in Bosnia.
The problem created by this reduced tour interval puts more pressure on soldiers' home lives as, unlike postings abroad, families cannot accompany operational tours.
'Wives and families accept that the job requires periods away from home,' said another senior engineer in Bosnia this week. 'But it gets very difficult if you are away for eight months each year.'
Pressure is also put on soldiers' training regimes. This now has to focus on combat engineering - their role in support of tanks and artillery in battle - leaving little time to practice general construction trades such as carpentry, bricklaying or plumbing. In Bosnia this week, one sapper, a trained carpenter, admitted that it was the first time in two years he had been able to use his trade.