Removing anti-ship missiles from British warships threatens vessels being sunk and sailors killed in the event of combat, a former head of the Royal Navy has warned.
Falklands veteran Lord West of Spithead spoke of his ‘despair’ as he gave a bleak assessment in the Lords of the current state of the Royal Navy fleet, including the retirement of the Harpoon missile in 2018 without a replacement.
However, his hard-hitting criticism drew a sharp rebuttal from defence minister Earl Howe, who argued the Labour peer ‘paints a false picture’ of the Navy.
Lord West, who served as First Sea Lord from 2002-2006, tackled the Government over the withdrawal of Harpoon missiles during question time in the House of Lords.
Peers also heard the decision was like ‘Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar getting rid of his cannon and relying on muskets’.
Lord Howe said the Royal Navy ‘continuously reviews the capabilities it requires’.
He added: ‘Inevitably, this means choices must be made on where to invest. Work is ongoing across the MoD to consider options for Harpoon replacement.’
But Lord West said the minister’s response “fills me with despair” as he raised a catalogue of concerns, including the number of naval vessels, which he branded ‘a national disgrace’.
He highlighted engine problems with the Type 45 destroyers and criticism over the lack of progress made in replacing ageing frigates that are due to be decommissioned.
Pointing to the removal of the Harpoon missile, Lord West, who was last man off the ship he commanded when it was sunk by Argentine aircraft in the Falklands in May 1982, said: ‘This is not an abstract issue.
‘For a number of years we will have ships deployed that might suddenly come across an opponent and have to fight - as happened to me and others.
‘We will have ships sunk and people - boys and girls, as mine were - killed. That is not a good thing.”
He questioned whether it would be possible to have some of the missiles kept on standby “ready to be pulled out very quickly should we need them for our ships”.
‘If not, we are standing into danger,’ he added.
But responding Lord Howe said: ‘He paints a false picture of the Royal Navy, which for the first time in a generation is growing. We need to be aware of that.”
The minister added: ‘The current batch of Harpoon missiles we carry has now reached its natural end of life. To replace it would require significant investment in a new missile stockpile. It was the Royal Navy’s judgment that that would be a less than optimal use of its budget for future investment.’
Pressed by Labour peer Lord Watts over ‘the long list of problems’ highlighted, Lord Howe said: ‘Lord West, painted a picture of a dysfunctional Royal Navy. I repudiate that picture entirely. It is a Royal Navy that can be proud of the investment that is being placed in it.’rd West
Lord Howe pointed out that in a conflict, navy ships were likely to be operating within a coalition task force, including submarines and helicopters, with a range of weapons available.