We took a punt on axing Ark Royal, admits Royal Navy boss

TALK The First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope making the keynote speech at The Navy is the Nation.  Picture: Steve Reid (121353-692)
TALK The First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope making the keynote speech at The Navy is the Nation. Picture: Steve Reid (121353-692)
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THE head of the navy has admitted the government took a ‘punt’ on Britain’s national security when it axed HMS Ark Royal and the navy’s fleet of Harrier jets in 2010.

At a conference of leading defence thinkers and historians held in Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope was challenged to explain the decision to leave the UK without any aircraft carriers until two new £5.2bn warships enter service in the 2020s.

HMS Ark Royal

HMS Ark Royal

He said: ‘It’s a punt. It’s a guess, recognising that if carrier strike was required we would have other nations to call upon to support us through those operations.’

The First Sea Lord added that such allied support was ‘notwithstanding the obvious exception’.

That was seen as a reference to the Falkland Islands, where Britain would most likely have to act alone if Argentina invaded again.

He said ministers and armed forces chiefs took a ‘predictable punt’ at the military challenges facing Britain in the next 10 years when they drew up the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010.

And he appeared to openly admit some their guesswork had been wide of the mark.

He said: ‘The decision was made to take this hiatus in carrier strike... then the following year Libya turned up, which was an unpredictable conflict.’

He added: ‘The reality is that in a perfect state we would have kept the carriers but we could not afford to.

‘That was the balance of judgement in terms of the risk that was taken.’

National Audit Office figures show that decommissioning Ark Royal and the Harriers saved the Treasury around £100m a year from the MoD’s £40bn annual budget.

The government has maintained it was a necessary part of the defence review to plug a £38bn black hole in the MoD’s finances and tackle the national deficit.

‘A nation that is weak economically is very weak in its security context,’ reasoned Adml Stanhope.

His comments came during questions following his keynote address to The Navy is The Nation, a conference at the National Museum of the Royal Navy yesterday.

Asked if Britain’s global ambitions had been blunted by the defence cuts, the First Sea Lord said: ‘As we argue and discuss and debate the shape of defence into the future, we can’t do that in a nation which can’t afford some of that aspiration that’s previously been put on the table as what was expected to be delivered.

‘Therefore, reshaping that national ambition in terms of what the nation can afford is fundamental.’

Fleet’s size is ‘barometer of national ambition’

THE First Sea Lord yesterday stated the case for a strong Royal Navy fleet.

Speaking to an audience of leading defence academics and historians in Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope argued Britain and the navy are ‘inextricably linked’.

He said: ‘Just as trains are to timetables and Wimbledon is to weather, the nation and the navy have long been forged together because this island nation has always depended on maritime power to underwrite its security and, importantly, its prosperity.’

Giving his keynote speech to The Navy is the Nation, a conference which ends today, Adml Stanhope said: ‘The Royal Navy is part of the face of the nation, an expression of our maritime nation’s character. Its outward-looking view of the world, its global ambitions and its competence are in many ways defined by the British maritime power invested in the Royal Navy’s capabilities.’

He added: ‘It could be said that the size and the capability of the navy is a barometer of national ambition.’