THE Royal Navy’s depleted fleet has become stretched because of the war in Libya, a government defence minister has admitted.
Armed Forces minister Nick Harvey acknowledged the navy is under strain as it tries to do more with less following last year’s cuts.
His comments come two weeks after First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope was slapped down by the government for warning ‘challenging decisions’ would need to be made about priorities if the Libyan effort continues beyond September.
Responding to a question in the House of Commons from former Labour defence minister Kevan Jones on the impact Libya is having on the Royal Navy, Mr Harvey said: ‘There is no denying that the pace and longevity of operations in Libya put a stress on the fleet. However, the Libyan operation is a high priority, and we will ensure that it has the necessary resources.’
The government has repeatedly said Britain will stay in Libya for ‘as long as it takes’. But there are fears the conflict will leave gaps in the navy’s major commitments elsewhere in the world.
One example is in the Caribbean, where the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) fuel tanker Wave Ruler is conducting drug-busting patrols traditionally done by a Royal Navy destroyer.
Top naval expert Professor Andrew Lambert, of King’s College, London, said: ‘We have standing commitments that we have to manage as best as we can. But when you’re using RFAs as patrol ships you know something has gone badly wrong.’
A total of 12 Royal Navy and RFA vessels have been decommissioned since May 2010. But Britain is now involved in one of the largest maritime combat operations for a generation – in support of a war which was almost inconceivable 12 months ago.
The international effort against Colonel Gaddafi has so far involved 11 Royal Navy and RFA ships since it began in February.
And the navy’s role recently escalated with the deployment of Apache attack helicopters from the amphibious helicopter carrier HMS Ocean.
The navy’s Commander-in-Chief-Fleet, Admiral Sir Trevor Soar, told The News that the helicopters – which are performing a carrier strike role in the absence of HMS Ark Royal and Harrier jump jets – are having a ‘significant impact’ in the warzone.
He said: ‘The Apaches are giving us a different capability and of course they have that ability to make better decisions on targeting.
‘They bring a strike capability from sea in a high-readiness role in support of the effort to safeguard the people of Libya and oppose Colonel Gaddafi’s real acts of war.’
Destroyer HMS Liverpool and minehunter HMS Bangor are also off Libya at the moment.
Mr Harvey said Liverpool, which has been battling against pro-Gaddafi forces since April, will soon be relieved by another ship. But he could not say which ship will go to Libya next for security reasons.