Analysis: Drawn-out Libya fight would test UK defence cuts

LONDON Sun Mar 20, 2011 3:29pm GMT

An RAF Tornado GR4 aircraft flies alongside an air-to-air refuelling aircraft during raids on Libya, in this photograph dated March 19, 2011 and received in London on March 20, 2011. British warplanes targeted Libya's air defence systems in overnight raids concentrated mainly around the capital, Tripoli, the defence ministry said on Sunday. REUTERS/Crown Copyright/Handout

An RAF Tornado GR4 aircraft flies alongside an air-to-air refuelling aircraft during raids on Libya, in this photograph dated March 19, 2011 and received in London on March 20, 2011. British warplanes targeted Libya's air defence systems in overnight raids concentrated mainly around the capital, Tripoli, the defence ministry said on Sunday.

Credit: Reuters/Crown Copyright/Handout

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's military is capable of taking part in a swift campaign against Libya, but prolonged fighting could stretch its armed forces and raise pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to rethink deep defence cuts.

Despite its role in Afghanistan and severe financial pressures, senior British ministers and military chiefs say they can comfortably help to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya.

However, if the operation grows or drags on for months, it could strain areas such as the support crews that arm and refuel planes and perform airborne reconnaissance.

Britain's involvement in the first stage of the strikes against Libya appeared to be relatively limited, with planes flying from one UK airbase and one submarine firing Tomahawk missiles, analysts noted.

"The real question is whether we are going to be able to play a role in a wider campaign," said defence analyst Tim Ripley. "It will be a real test of whether the defence review has gone too far.

"So far, Britain's military contribution appears to have been a submarine firing an unspecified number of cruise missiles, probably less than 10 and no more than 20, which is all it can carry. Also, an unspecified number of Tornadoes."

DEFENCE CUTS

Britain's coalition government, seeking to cut a record budget deficit, said in a defence review last year it would cut thousands of military jobs, scrap the flagship Ark Royal aircraft carrier, ground Harrier jump-jets and end a contract for new Nimrod spy planes.

Former army chief General Sir Richard Dannatt said the lack of a British aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean would probably not undermine its role in Libya. However, he said the government and Ministry of Defence must still review the cuts, given the growing tension in the Middle East and North Africa.

"In any changing dynamic set of circumstances, it is right for the government of the day to review its past decisions," he told Sky News.

"If it looks as if the world has changed and is less secure, then, although our financial position nationally is difficult, (they must) consider whether we ought to be spending a bit more on defence. It is a fair question to be asked."

With military budgets squeezed as part of a wider clampdown on public spending, the coalition government may face a hard political task in persuading taxpayers to fund an extended mission in Libya, analysts said.

"If you are doing six-hour missions, that is 200,000 pounds per aircraft per day," defence analyst Francis Tusa told Sky News. "Suddenly, you're looking at 10 to 15 million pounds each week. It adds up pretty quickly."

Former British naval officer Rear Admiral Chris Parry said he supported a review of the cuts and warned that British forces could be involved in Libya for a long time.

"I am one of the people that thinks the SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review) should be reviewed in light of not only current circumstances, but also what is likely to happen in the future," he told the BBC. "I am concerned about the time it will take to move operations forward from here, such that we wrest the initiative away from Colonel Gaddafi."

Chancellor George Osborne repeated in an interview on Sunday that he would not reopen the defence review and said the campaign in Libya "does not in any way diminish what we are doing in Afghanistan."

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