No warships to catch Caribbean drug smugglers

INTERCEPTION: HMS Manchester defeats Caribbean drugs-runners in October last year
INTERCEPTION: HMS Manchester defeats Caribbean drugs-runners in October last year
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THE Royal Navy will have no warships on patrol to catch drug smugglers in the Caribbean as the effects of the defence cuts hit home.

The service announced it will police the critically-important area without any frigates or destroyers this year. It comes after the surface fleet was slashed to just 19 ships in the government’s defence review.

The decision – announced the morning after the start of a new television series following HMS Manchester’s recent Caribbean operations – will leave just one civilian-manned Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship in the region performing a mainly humanitarian role.

The navy’s Caribbean patrol was originally set up to guard British dependencies in the West Indies. In recent years, it has taken up a joint counter-drugs role with US special forces.

Lord West, who was head of the navy from 2002 to 2006, described the move as a ‘huge devolution’.

He said: ‘We’ve got dependencies to look after and not having a warship there is embarrassing.’

In October last year, HMS Manchester secured a £67m cocaine bust. The year before, HMS Iron Duke seized £240m of cocaine – the navy’s biggest ever drugs haul.

Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South and a member of the Commons’ defence select committee, said: ‘The drugs trade has not got smaller, it’s getting bigger. To take the ship away is a big mistake and I urge them to reconsider it.’

Penny Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth North and also a defence committee member, said: ‘It’s a very worrying announcement. If we’re supposed to be tackling the drugs problem on our streets we need to be dealing with supply and that’s something we should want our armed forces to do.’

There is currently no warship on patrol in the Caribbean. Leading naval expert Professor Eric Grove said: ‘It’s the navy’s showcase piece, it’s on television as what the navy does best in the world. It’s a very sad sign that this showcase commitment is being downgraded.

‘This clearly demonstrates the strain the Royal Navy is under and it is a disturbing trend.’

A Royal Navy spokeswoman said: ‘The Royal Navy will continue to provide a permanent presence in the Caribbean, with the capability to respond to the full range of foreseeable contingencies. Specifically, in the event of humanitarian disaster relief operations, it will deliver initial military assistance. During 2011 this will be provided by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, enhanced with a naval party and helicopter during the core hurricane season.’

Prof Grove said: ‘It’s good that there will be a RFA there but it’s clearly not the same as having a warship with a big gun on it.’