LONDON Britain's ability to respond to future military conflicts will be hit by a shortage of suitable armoured vehicles lasting till at least 2025 unless defence spending is increased, a financial watchdog said on Friday.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said over-ambitious requirements and unstable financial planning meant the armed forces had received only a fraction of the armoured vehicles ordered though its standard procurement process.
As a result the armed forces faced a significant shortage of multi-role armoured vehicles until 2025 at least, hampering Britain's policy of retaining the capability to engage in a wide range of military operations, the NAO said in a report.
"Without both significant additional investment and a greater focus on maintaining the level of investment in armoured vehicles currently planned, the (defence ministry's) ability to carry out the range of tasks expected of it is likely to be reduced," the watchdog said.
Military chiefs say the armed forces are stretched by simultaneous operations in Libya and Afghanistan at a time when defence spending is being cut by eight percent in real terms over four years to help rein in a huge budget deficit.
So extra spending on armoured vehicles is unlikely.
The government has also been trying to bring order to a series of defence projects that have been plagued by cost overruns and delays.
The NAO said Britain had spent 2.8 billion pounds on urgently required armoured vehicles for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but these vehicles may be ill-suited to carry out a wider range of military tasks once operations in Afghanistan end.
"For example, the Mastiff (patrol) vehicle suffers from relatively poor off-road mobility, and its protection is optimised on defeating threats specific to current operations, such as roadside bombs," it said.
Another 718 million pounds had been spent since 1998 on cancelled or delayed armoured vehicle projects.
"Based on current resource plans ... there will be significant shortfalls in the equipment needed to undertake the full spectrum of potential future military conflicts," the NAO added.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox has ruled out revisiting a review of military spending announced last year which scrapped Britain's Ark Royal aircraft carrier and its Harrier jets.
Two new carriers are being built but it could be a decade before Britain again has a carrier equipped with fast jets.
"It would be lovely to ... sprinkle some fairy dust about the expectations that you can have for rises in budgets. Believe me, it's not going to happen," Fox told an audience in London on Thursday.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)