UK Politics

MPs warn cuts will limit UK armed forces capability

Cuts to the UK's armed forces may leave them unable to fulfil required tasks after 2015, a report by MPs has warned.

The Commons defence committee rejected the prime minister's assurance of a "full spectrum" defence capability.

The committee warned that without firm commitments to improved funding in the very near future, politicians risked "failing" the country's military.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the idea that the military was not being funded for its role was "not true".

Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey told the BBC there would be some "capability gaps" and they were "the price we have to pay to get the defence budget in balance for the first time in over a decade".

'Wish list'

Last year's strategic defence and security review (SDSR) said Army numbers were to be reduced by 7,000, and the Royal Navy and RAF by 5,000 each.

And it saw the cancellation of equipment including Nimrod MRA4 reconnaissance planes and the early withdrawal of HMS Ark Royal and Harrier jump-jets.

The committee said the National Security Strategy, also unveiled last autumn, was in danger of becoming no more than a "wish list" unless the necessary money was committed to deliver the future armed forces envisaged for 2020 and beyond.

Last month it was announced that spending on equipment would increase by 1% above inflation each year after 2015, to pave the way for the so-called Future Force 2020.

However, the committee said it was "not convinced that, given the current financial climate and the drawdown of capabilities arising from the SDSR, UK armed forces will be able do what is asked of them after 2015".

It noted "mounting concern" that the military was falling below the minimum capacity needed to fulfil current commitments, let alone tasks it may face between 2015 and 2020.

And it said plans to increase funding after 2015 were merely "government aspiration, not government policy".

The committee urged the government to outline its plans to manage the gap left by the loss of certain capabilities, and lay out detailed plans for their regeneration.

Chairman James Arbuthnot said: "If the ambition of a real-term funding increase is not realised, we will have failed our armed forces."

He said the committee did not agree with the government that the UK could maintain its influence globally while cutting spending on both defence and the Foreign Office.

'Projecting power'

Mr Fox said it was untrue to suggest the government was asking the military to carry out tasks without proper funding.

"When we have asked the military to do more, for example in Libya, excess funding is available and we are able to take that from the Treasury Reserve," he said.

"That does not come from the core MoD budget."

Mr Harvey said there were "just no easy options" when trying to plan for the future in a "rather bleak financial context".

"But we have set ourselves the target by 2020 of rebuilding comprehensive forces and the Treasury has now committed some additional funding to ensure we can do that," he told the BBC.

He said the UK's involvement in Libya - while still engaged in Afghanistan and elsewhere - showed it was still capable of "projecting power" globally.

"We're punching way above our weight and will continue to be able to do so beyond 2015 and indeed 2020."

However, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said the report was "damning".

"The rushed defence review has been much criticised, but now those who were disappointed will be dismayed and the anxious will be angry," he said.

"The capability gaps and budgetary black hole left by the rushed defence review have limited Britain's reach in the world."

'Mismatch'

The UK's most senior military officer, Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, said "some tough decisions" had to be taken and the UK "will remain a formidable fighting force on the world stage".

"We are continually working with our international allies to share operational requirements," he said, which are "measures we rightly assessed in the SDSR could be relied upon to mitigate capability gaps".

But Colonel Stuart Tootal, a former commander of 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan, said the SDSR had been "driven by costs rather than strategy".

He said: "There is a real risk - and it is already happening now - that there is a mismatch between resources that the Armed Forces have now, will have after 2015, and the commitments and tasks they are going to have to meet and there are going to be gaps, quite serious capability gaps.

"[The Army] is going to struggle to meet its commitments even after the campaign in Afghanistan ends," he added.

Commodore Steven Jermy, who retired from the Royal Navy in 2010 and has written a book Strategy for Action: Using Force Wisely in the 21st century, told the BBC's 5 live programme the UK's capacity would inevitably be reduced.

"For example without the Nimrods, we cannot patrol our exclusive economic zone, that's the waters out to 200 miles from the UK coast, and without the carriers we could not do another Sierra Leone and we could not retake the Falklands," he said.

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