The Royal Navy will be stretched and faces challenging decisions brought about because of the prolonged conflict in Libya, Britain’s top Admiral has warned.
First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope said in coming months the navy will be forced to make some ‘challenging decisions’ because of government cuts.
He said: ‘How long can we go on as we are in Libya? If we do it longer than six months we will have to reprioritise forces. That is being addressed now.
‘Certainly in terms of Nato’s current time limit that has been extended to 90 days, we are comfortable with that.
‘Beyond that, we might have to request the government to make some challenging decisions about priorities.’
And he’s been backed in his assessment of the current situation.
Admiral Sir Jock Slater, the First Sea Lord during the 1998 defence review, said: ‘The position the First Sea Lord and the chief of staffs is very difficult indeed because if you want to retain the confidence of ministers you should not speak directly to the press about your concerns. But the fact remains that the navy is in a very bad way. The loss of Ark Royal and the Harriers was the worst decision by a government for many, many years.
‘I think what Mark Stanhope has done is to state the obvious. You can’t carry on doing more with less.’
Critics of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) have suggested the Libya mission highlighted the importance to the Navy of an aircraft carrier.
HMS Ark Royal, the navy’s former flagship and aircraft carrier, was decommissioned in March.
Leading defence thinker, Professor Andrew Lambert of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said: ‘I think what the First Sea Lord has said in a very quiet and polite way is what everyone else has been saying in a very loud and aggressive way for a considerable period of time. The government has committed themselves to doing something when we have not got the equipment to do the job.
‘The problem is the government has not got the political courage to admit they have made a mistake and as a result we are spending vast amounts of money doing things inefficiently and ineffectively.
‘We’re getting laughed at by the French for not having a carrier off Libya. It’s hard enough when they beat us at rugby or football but when they beat us at carrier aviation it is unacceptable.’
Prof Lambert called on the government to reopen last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.
He said: ‘It’s not the business of government to make perfect decisions all the time. It’s their business to run the country and respond to events. They have held their hands up when they got things wrong with the NHS reforms and sentencing but they seem unable to do the same with defence.
‘It’s gone beyond a joke really. I know governments will stick to their own rhetoric but this is costing us too much and may even end up costing lives and that’s why the First Sea Lord was right to speak out because the situation is unacceptable.’
Defence Secretary Liam Fox defended the government cuts and said the UK’s leading role in the intervention had shown it remained a serious military force and had the resources necessary to take part.
He said: ‘Operations in Libya are showing how capable we are post-SDSR as a leading military power with the fourth largest defence budget in the world.
‘We continue to have the resources necessary to carry out the operations we are undertaking and have spare capacity with the Royal Navy Cougar Taskforce which is currently on exercise in the Gulf.
‘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.’