By: James Blitz
Britain will face “significantly greater challenges” sustaining a military operation on the scale of last year’s mission over Libya because of continuing cuts to the UK defence budget, a prominent group of MPs has warned.
Seeking to learn the lessons of last year’s Libya conflict, the Commons defence select committee has said Nato’s overall operation over Libya can be judged a success.
But in a report into the operation released on Wednesday, MPs on the committee warn that the mission raises “important questions as to the extent of the United Kingdom’s national contingent capability”.
In particular, it urged the ministry of defence to review whether Britain’s armed forces could effectively respond in future if the UK were suddenly to face simultaneous threats in different environments.
The MoD was last year able to carry out the Libya operation and its other military tasks to a satisfactory standard, the committee said. However, it warned that the Libya operation came before the implementation of cuts in capability announced in the October 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
“We believe the government will face significantly greater challenges should an operation of similar size be necessary in the future and it will need to be prepared for some difficult decisions on prioritisation,” the report said.
The Libya operation exposed the MoD to pressures on a number of fronts, the MPs said. First, the MoD was forced to withdraw assets from other operations to a degree that exposed the UK to risks.
The committee noted that throughout the conflict, the Royal Navy had no frigate or destroyer on standby in UK maritime waters for deployment in an emergency at short notice. It also had no naval resources available for standard counter-drugs operations.
“Given the continued high levels of standing maritime commitments it is likely that this type of risk-taking will occur more frequently as the outcomes of the SDSR are implemented,” the MPs said.
Second, the committee highlighted evidence that, during the mission, the RAF ran short of munitions such as the new variant Brimstone missile. The MPs have told the MoD that they want a detailed explanation of how decisions on the use of munitions are made.
Third, they have raised concerns about whether the mission would have been more efficient if the UK had not decommissioned the Ark Royal aircraft carrier in October 2010.
David Cameron, prime minister, has repeatedly argued that the Libya mission did not expose the need to retain an aircraft carrier because the UK could fly Typhoon and Tornado aircraft from airbases in southern Europe.
However, senior military figures argue that deployment of Ark Royal would have considerably reduced flying times in an operation where a rapid response to the sudden movement of Gaddafi regime ground vehicles was essential.
Despite such criticisms, Philip Hammond, defence secretary, gave an upbeat response to the report. “The Libyan campaign shows that we retain the contingent capability to conduct operations in addition to our commitments in Afghanistan, counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, Gulf security and standing tasks such as the Falklands and defence of the UK,” he said.