The Daily Telegraph
Weakened Navy ‘can now barely protect UK’
Swingeing defence cuts have left the service on its knees and unable to send ships to sea, say experts
THE Royal Navy can only send a quarter of its warships to sea due to spending cuts that have left the Armed Forces “struggling to protect Britain’s citizens”, The Daily Telegraph has learnt.
At present 13 of the Navy’s 19-strong fleet of Type 23 frigates and Type 45 destroyers are unable to go to sea because of a lack of manpower, fuel and supplies, senior military sources said.
The cuts to defence spending have also severely hampered Britain’s response to Hurricane Irma.
HMS Ocean, the amphibious assault ship that serves as the Royal Navy’s flagship, was sent to provide support to the British overseas territories in the Caribbean but suffered engine problems and has been delayed by a week.
A source said last night that Britain’s response had turned the Navy into a “laughing stock”.
They said: “The Armed Forces have now been reduced to a level where they struggle to protect British citizens. Our lacklustre response to Hurricane Irma makes Britain a laughing stock and is the direct result of the Government’s cuts to the defence budget.”
Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord, added: “What is happening, despite what the Defence Secretary says, is a hollowing-out of defence.”
The Navy’s manpower levels were reduced by 4,000 to about 30,000 as part of the Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, and naval experts say it has had a catastrophic impact on the service’s warfighting capabilities. Senior sources fear that despite spending being ringfenced at 2 per cent of GDP, there could be further cuts when the budget is announced in November and are preparing to challenge the Government.
The Navy has been particularly badly hit by the recent wave of defence cuts, and is now suffering severe manpower and equipment shortages.
Although it has a number of ships available for operations, they are unable to put to sea because of crew shortages. The Navy’s fuel reserves are also said to be so low that it limits how many vessels can to put to sea.
In normal circumstances about one third of the Navy’s fleet of surface combat ships – Type 23 frigates and Type 45 destroyers – are in dock for routine maintenance, leaving the rest of the fleet to fulfil operational requirements. However, defence cuts mean less than half of these ships are in operation, and has even resulted in HMS Dauntless, a £1 billion state-of-the-art destroyer, effectively being mothballed as a training ship because the Navy does not have the manpower available to crew it.
The Navy is particularly short of experienced and highly qualified engineers, who are crucial to maintaining its fleet of hi-tech combat ships.
Julian Lewis, chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: “The size of the Navy has been massively
reduced over the past 20 years – having one ship in the right place at the right time is creditable but not sufficient.
“Barely 2 per cent spent on defence is too low and defence is far too far down the scale of our national priorities. The fact we have allowed the size of our Armed Forces to be progressively cut to unsustainably low levels is bound to have an effect on our ability to react at scale to crises as they arise.”
Delays to Britain’s response to Hurricane Irma, which has caused devastation to a number of British overseas territories in the Caribbean, prompted widespread criticism in the region.
The arrival in the Caribbean of HMS Ocean has been delayed because of ongoing engine problems. It is not due to reach the region until the end of next week. The Navy’s ability to send a replacement ship is limited by the fact that it can only put five of its 19-strong fleet of Type 23 frigates and Type 45 destroyers to sea at any one time.
David Burt, the premier of Bermuda, which suffered heavily when 150mph winds and torrential winds swept through the territory last week, said
Britain’s response to the crisis was “not as urgent as it could have been”.
Aid officials described Britain as “flat-footed” compared with France and Holland, which sent aid and troops quickly to the scene of the disaster.
“Britain’s inadequate response to help the overseas territories hit by Hurricane Irma is the direct result of the Government’s cuts to the defence budget,” a senior military source said. “Cuts to the strength of the Royal Navy meant it had to rely on HMS Ocean, which has a long history of engine problems. And when Ocean ran into difficulties, no other ships were available because shortages and supplies.”
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has been sent to the Caribbean to assess the damage, and the RAF has flown small numbers of troops, Royal Engineers and police to the worst-affected areas as part of the relief effort.
A Navy spokesman said HMS Ocean had been subject to “working repairs” in Gibraltar which had not affected its operational readiness and, while declining to comment on the number of combat ships at sea, said it was able to meet its commitments.