Army chiefs have been hit by more than 9000 cases of soldiers going absent without leave since 2004 and 1100 are still on the run at a time when the military is being stretched by its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Defence denied yesterday that the incidents - the equivalent of almost 10% of the entire force - were connected to the current conflicts but admitted that there were almost 1300 cases of soldiers having gone missing in the first six months of this year alone.

Some of the soldiers have been Awol since 1997 but no special effort has been made to find or arrest them, despite the growing shortage of frontline troops.

Around 60 soldiers a month are found to be suffering from mental health problems in Iraq but Bob Ainsworth, the Armed Forces Minister, said: "There is no evidence to suggest that operational commitments or any other factors are causing a significant increase.

"There are a number of reasons why personnel may go Awol but anecdotal evidence suggests that most incidents are caused by domestic circumstances, such as family problems, rather than any wish to avoid military service."

An MoD spokesman added: "There is no rise in the number going Awol. This does not mean we are not concerned and we are certainly not complacent. The failure of a serviceman or woman who goes Awol is more serious than someone who does not show up for work, as we are built on smaller teams and we rely on one another." Figures seen by The Herald show that 3030 soldiers, 185 sailors and 55 RAF servicemen went absent in 2004, 2715, 195 and 35 respectively in 2005, 2330, 155 and 10 in 2006 and 1275, 55 and 15 to the end of June this year.

It brings the total for the Army to 9350 in a force which numbers just over 98,000 including untrained recruits.

An MoD source added: "Some of those who appear in the statistics have gone Awol more than once, so it would be unfair to say there are more than 9000 deserters." However, he conceded that it was impossible to quantify the number of repeat offenders.

Almost 7000 men and women are believed to have deserted from the US army since the invasion of Iraq.

Earlier this month, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, warned the UK presence in Iraq was "exacerbating" security problems and could "break" the British Army. He told senior commanders that reinforcements for emergencies or for operations in Iraq or Afghanistan are "now almost non-existent" and in a memo to fellow defence leaders confessed that "we now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected".

The MoD has meanwhile announced its intention to buy two more C17 Globemaster long-haul transport aircraft to ease the strain on the RAF's overworked fleet of ageing TriStars and VC10s.

As The Herald revealed earlier this week, up to one-third of the RAF's Transport Command aircraft are more than 40 years old and subject to increasing breakdowns caused by wear and tear.