DEFENCE cuts and the war in Libya have left the Royal Navy without a ship on emergency stand-by in British waters for the past four weeks, The News can reveal.
A frigate or destroyer is usually tasked to be in the UK at high readiness to respond to an emergency at home or abroad at a moment’s notice.
But the slashed navy has become so stretched that admirals have been left without a ship ready enough to fulfil the Fleet Ready Escort (FRE) role since the start of October. The last ship in the key role was HMS Portland, which left the position to take part in a fortnight of war games off the coast of Scotland on October 3 and is now having a rest period in Plymouth.
The navy sought to play down the gap, with a spokesman calling the FRE role a ‘luxury’.
But former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Alan West, said: ‘I would hardly say it is a luxury. If there was a terrorism incident in UK waters, this would historically be the ship sent in to deal with it.
‘It’s a big problem. If we haven’t got a ship ready to do this role then it’s worrying. It’s a very unsatisfactory position to be in.’
The shortage comes after the government cut the navy’s surface fleet to 19 frigates and destroyers in last year’s defence review.
Critics warned the cuts would leave the navy overstretched. Having had 10 frigates and destroyers deployed to Libya since February, there are now none left to be the FRE.
The MoD would not confirm the last time Britain did not have an FRE, but it is believed that was probably in 1982 after every available ship left for the Falklands War.
Lord West said: ‘What it shows is that the number of frigates and destroyers we’ve got now is insufficient. We need more ships as a matter of urgency.’
The navy denied British waters were unprotected and said ‘other assets’ were available. But it is understood these ships would take longer than an FRE to respond in an emergency because they are either undergoing maintenance, on sea trials preparing for operations, or are in a rest period having recently returned from sea.
The navy confirmed the lack of an FRE comes as a direct result of Britain’s role in Nato’s Libya operations, which officially ended at 9.59pm last night.
A spokesman said: ‘Due to the successful deployment of Royal Navy units to the Libya campaign, it has been necessary to reprofile the commitments of some ships.
‘Should a Fleet Ready Escort activation be required, a Royal Navy ship would be allocated.’
Asked why there has not been an FRE since HMS Portland, the navy spokesman said: ‘We do not need one currently. We’ve got ships off Libya and they are returning now. That’s the situation. We’ve had to look after our priorities and be flexible. We are doing the best with what we have got.’
First Sea Lord warned war would stretch navy
THE First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope was given a dressing-down by Prime Minister David Cameron in June when he warned the Royal Navy would become stretched if operations in Libya went on beyond September.
Now it appears Sir Mark’s controversial comments were an accurate appraisal of the state of the navy.
The deployment of 10 warships to Libya since February has left the service without a single ship in home waters at the level of high readiness required to be designated as the Fleet Ready Escort .
The FRE role demands a frigate or destroyer to be on a war footing to go anywhere she is needed in an emergency situation, whether it is in home waters or abroad.
The navy says it has to be flexible in these times of austerity and the role could be filled at short notice.
But military experts have expressed fears the navy fleet has shrunk to unsustainable levels and today’s revelation that Britain has not had an FRE since the start of October is likely to reignite a debate that has dogged the government ever since it cut 10 navy ships in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review to plug a £38bn black hole in the MoD’s budget.