The head of the Royal Navy sparked questions about how Britain will cope with a prolonged conflict in Libya after warning cuts would be needed elsewhere if it lasted beyond six months.
In comments that immediately reopened controversy over the Government’s deep defence cuts, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope also said elements of the operation would have been cheaper and ‘much more reactive’ if the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal had not been scrapped.
But he insisted he was not calling for the decision to axe the vessel and its Harrier jump jets - part of wide-ranging cuts to the armed forces announced last year - to be reopened.
Critics of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) have seized on the lack of an aircraft carrier for the mission against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces to back their case.
Responding to the Admiral’s comments, Defence Secretary Liam Fox said in a statement that the UK’s leading role in the intervention had shown it remained a ‘leading military power’ and had the resources necessary to take part.
Admiral Stanhope told a media briefing the UK was ‘comfortable’ with the present Nato mission - which was extended earlier this month by 90 days to the end of September.
But he added: ‘Beyond that, we might have to request the Government to make some challenging decisions about priorities.
‘If we do it longer than six months we will have to reprioritise forces. That is being addressed now. It could be from around home waters. I will not prejudge what that decision will be.’
Harrier jets could have been deployed in 20 minutes rather than the 90 minutes taken to send Tornado and Typhoon aircraft from the Italian air base at Gioia del Colle, he pointed out.
However he noted that they would not have been able to use Brimstone missiles carried by the other aircraft and insisted he was not ‘bitter’ about the scrapping of Ark Royal.
‘We have to look forward and go for what is in the pipeline which I have already indicated is challenging enough. There is far too much about what could have been as opposed to what is.’
Admiral Stanhope also denied Britain was running out of submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles but said it did have ‘to take action to replace those weapons to bring stockpiles back up to where they were.’
Dr Fox said: ‘The SDSR is not being reopened. The Harrier has served with great distinction over a long period and in a number of theatres, but we are not bringing them back into service.
‘Our planning assumptions remain valid and we have been able to effectively conduct missions over Libya. We are now progressing with the disposal of the Harrier force.’
Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: ‘This is yet another convincing argument in favour of reopening the defence review, which has not survived its first contact with world events.
‘The country will be dismayed to hear that the operation in Libya could have been conducted more cheaply and more effectively had the Government taken a different approach.
‘I hope the straight talking by the First Sea Lord will be met with some straight answers from Ministers. In particular, it is vital that Ministers tell us now how they intend to equip the mission in Libya should it go beyond the six month mark.’
The latest row over the cuts to the armed forces came as Libya rebels - aided by a week of intensified Nato airstrikes on regime targets - began to push towards the capital Tripoli.
They were reported to have fought their way west from Misrata to within six miles of the next town along the Mediterranean coast Zlitan - which they hope to take today.
That would put them within 65 miles of Tripoli.