Libya conflict: UK forces should be proud, says Cameron

Royal Air Force Typhoon taking off for Libya The RAF is in action over Libya, enforcing a UN resolution to protect civilians from pro-Gaddafi forces

David Cameron has said UK forces should be "very proud" of what they achieved in Libya and said the US saw Britain as its "strongest and most staunch ally".

The prime minister said there were a lot of armchair critics, but Americans were "very impressed" by what UK and European forces had achieved.

But Michael Clarke, at the Royal United Services Institute, said the military had been forced to "improvise".

The Royal Navy and RAF continued their Nato operations in Libya on Thursday.

Maj Gen Nick Pope, spokesman for the Chief of the Defence Staff, said British planes destroyed a number of military targets and HMS Liverpool shelled positions at the city of Sirte overnight.

Speaking after co-hosting a summit on Libya with France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Cameron said the UK had played a significant military role in the Nato-led operation to protect Libyan civilians from Col Gaddafi's forces.

He said: "A lot of armchair generals who said you couldn't do it without an aircraft carrier, they were wrong.

"A lot of people who said Tripoli is completely different to Benghazi, the two don't get on, they were wrong. People who said this is all going to be an enormous swamp of Islamists and extremists, they were wrong. People who said we were going to run out of munitions, they were wrong.

"We should be proud of what our forces did."

'Right decision'

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Cameron insisted the UK had been "punching at our weight or even above our weight" in the conflict with the RAF carrying out around a fifth of all strike sorties against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

He added: "I really want to challenge this idea that somehow the Americans see us a weak ally, they don't - they see us as their strongest and most staunch ally."

The PM also defended decisions made in the defence review, and said that the UK "did not suffer" from not having an aircraft carrier during the military operation in Libya.

Start Quote

The prime minister sounded very comfortable on the Today programme this morning talking about Libya”

End Quote Nick Robinson BBC political editor

"We took the decision to keep the Tornado because it is such a capable aircraft, proved once again in Libya, and to go ahead with building the aircraft carrier but to accept that there was going to be a gap between now and then.

"I believe it's the right decision, and there was a lot of military evidence to say that was the right decision," he said.

He went on to say that in future the UK would have "one of the most capable aircraft carriers anywhere in the world".

But Michael Clarke, director of the defence and security think tank Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said that in Libya, the stock of Brimstone missiles, which were "extremely useful", was down to single figures.

"We were using systems that are due to be retired like Sentinel [surveillance aircraft] looking out for radar in the intelligence role. We even had Sea King helicopters on surveillance duties, a lot of equipment that might not be there in the latter part of this decade was being used and the military, I think, will want to think about that," he said.

"If it had gone on for too long I think it would have been much more seriously embarrassing. As it happens, it worked out well," he added.

Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that defence cuts meant it was highly unlikely similar operations would be able to go ahead in the next few years.

He told the BBC's World at One programme: "It is going to be that much more difficult and improbable that this kind of operation could be mounted if, as is the case at the moment in Afghanistan, we are in some other part of the world as well."

'Tougher approach'

Mr Cameron also told the BBC there were "many similarities" between Libya and Syria.

He said: "Like Libya you have got a dictator who is doing dreadful things to his people."

But he acknowledged there were "problems" in securing United Nations backing for adopting tougher sanctions against the Syrian state.

"The problem is there isn't the same backing in the Arab League, there isn't the same backing internationally.

"In fact we are having problems at the United Nations even getting a strong resolution that says tougher sanctions and travel bans and asset freezes, all the things that we in Europe are putting in place," he said.

Mr Cameron said the UK had been in the "vanguard of arguing for a tougher approach" and had called on President Bashar al-Assad to stand down.

He went on to say he had had "good conversations" with some members of the Arab League, and some were toughening their stance "because they realise that what he is doing is appalling".

"They realise that he had his chance to demonstrate he was in favour of reform and he has completely failed to do that," he said.

Thursday's 60-nation conference in Paris considered what assistance the international community could provide to the country after months of fighting and the overthrow of Col Gaddafi.

Those present included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as senior figures from Libya's interim political authority, the National Transitional Council.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said it was a "positive step" that the international community had been able to come together to support the new Libya in Paris.

"The next step for the new Libyan authority is about providing their people with security and the basics of life such as water, food, medicines and electricity," he said.

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