LONDON (Reuters) - Extending the Libya air war beyond six months would be a challenge for the nation’s armed forces, stretched by simultaneous operations in Libya and Afghanistan, military chiefs said on Wednesday.
Defence chiefs testifying to a parliamentary committee said an aircraft carrier and surveillance planes scrapped as part of defence cuts last year would have helped in the Libya campaign.
Their views are embarrassing for the year-old coalition government which ordered British forces to help strike Libya only months after ordering an eight percent real terms cut in defence spending over four years to rein in a budget deficit.
British aircraft and navy ships are playing a leading role in striking at Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Britain also has around 10,000 troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, the second most after the United States.
“There are phases of the operations where we have stretched the capabilities absolutely to the point where we would find it very difficult to do anything else,” Air Chief Marshal Stephen Dalton told parliament’s Defence Committee.
Asked about the implications for British forces if the Libya operation was extended, perhaps for humanitarian purposes, Navy chief Admiral Mark Stanhope said the navy could achieve a six-month deployment. Beyond that, it would be “challenged” to find more ships to rotate into the Libya operation while maintaining other overseas commitments, he said.
Army chief General Peter Wall said the army was “putting our individuals and their relationship with their families under intense pressure.”
After a defence review, the government last October ordered cuts in armed forces numbers and scrapped the Ark Royal aircraft carrier and its Harrier jets. Two new aircraft carriers are being built but it could be nearly a decade before Britain again has an aircraft carrier equipped with fast jets.
The opposition Labour Party has urged the government to reopen the defence review in light of the Libya conflict, but Defence Secretary Liam Fox has ruled it out.
Stanhope said he wished Britain, seen as having one of the most capable armed forces among European NATO allies, had been able to keep a carrier equipped with jets.
“If we had a carrier it would be there (in Libya),” he said.
Nimrod surveillance planes, scrapped in the defence cuts, would have been “very useful” off Libya, Dalton said.
Dalton said it was too late to bring the retired Harrier jets back into service because the aerospace industry that supports the planes had fired workers from the programme. Stanhope disagreed, saying there could still be time to bring the Harriers back if the money was available.
Editing by Peter Graff