LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s military, already heavily committed in Afghanistan and weakened by deep defence cuts, will be stretched by a lengthy campaign in Libya.
Britain, together with France, led the push for a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent attacks on civilians by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces that was agreed as part of a United Nations Security Council resolution on Thursday.
But deep cuts in equipment and personnel announced five months ago raise questions over whether Britain is capable of conducting another major operation when it has 10,000 soldiers fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
“If this (the Libya operation) were to go on for say six months we would see strains. It would mean two major military operations at the same time,” defence analyst Charles Heyman told Reuters.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would deploy Tornado and Typhoon warplanes as well as air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft to help enforce a no-fly zone.
The Arab world crisis erupted soon after the 10-month-old coalition scrapped Britain’s only fully operational aircraft carrier and Harrier fast jets as part of the defence cuts needed to rein in a big budget deficit.
New Nimrod MRA4 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, costing around 3.6 billion pounds ($5.81 billion), were chopped to pieces. Ironically, HMS Cumberland, a Navy frigate that helped evacuate Britons from Libya, is due to be axed soon.
The government said this month it would make about 11,000 members of the armed forces redundant.
Former military chiefs said last month that the defence cuts meant Britain can no longer carry out crucial operations without putting the lives of soldiers at risk.
The opposition Labour Party has said the defence review which preceded the cuts already looks outdated in view of the North Africa turmoil and should be reopened.
The government has ruled out rethinking the review and some analysts say even deeper defence cuts may be needed to meet its target on defence spending.
The need for electronic intelligence on Libya has forced the Royal Air Force to deploy one of its two remaining Nimrod R1 reconnaissance aircraft to the Mediterranean, two weeks before the planes were due to be withdrawn from service under a decision taken in 2008, Jane’s Defence Weekly said.
It quoted RAF sources as saying the plane could be kept in service for 90 days longer than planned.
Cameron said that despite the cuts, Britain will still have the world’s fourth-largest defence budget. He also said he had been assured by military chiefs that the Libya operation would not affect the British mission in Afghanistan.
Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute thinktank, said Britain had enough fighter and ground-attack aircraft available for a short-term no-fly zone.
“The key issue is the enablers — the AWACs aircraft, refuelling aircraft, intelligence assets and special forces units acting as potential forward air controllers.
“These are the assets that are in short supply and any long-term commitment would have an impact on the availability of these in two theatres of operations simultaneously,” he said, referring to Libya and Afghanistan.
Military experts say Libya’s position close to Europe’s southern border means that an aircraft carrier is not essential.
British planes could take off from Cyprus or Italy, which has given permission for its bases to be used. British navy ships could also be used for missile strikes if necessary.
“We (Britain) currently have two frigates off the coast of Libya with a support ship,” Christian Le Miere, research fellow for naval forces at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies thinktank, said this week.
“There have been discussions about having some kind of six-ship flotilla off the coast of Libya should the requirement arise, including a helicopter carrier, so there are assets to be deployed and that are currently available,” he said.
Mike Gapes, an opposition Labour Party politician and former chairman of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said Britain no longer had the option of using an aircraft carrier.
Given Libya’s location, “I’m not sure you would need that,” he said, pointing out that Britain was acting as part of a coalition and that French or Italian bases could be used.
A military operation in a region further from Europe would pose a more difficult challenge for Britain, he said.
Additional reporting by Olesya Dmitracova, Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Louise Ireland