UK's Libya mission could be a one-off, MPs warn

Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter UK planes bombed Gaddafi regime positions

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The government faces "difficult decisions" on deploying its military resources if it wants to launch another mission on the same scale as the operation in Libya, MPs have warned.

The defence committee says recent cuts raise questions over whether the success in aiding the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi was a "one-off".

It also calls for clarity over the size of engagements the military can handle.

But the government said it was still able to "project power" abroad.

UK forces were part of Nato-led operations targeting Gaddafi regime positions in order to protect Libyan civilians. This helped rebel forces to overthrow the dictator last September.

'Risk-taking'

But the committee says this was before the full impact of the coalition's plans to cut defence spending by 8% over four years, announced in October 2010, was felt.

These savings included scrapping Harrier jump jets, the Navy's flagship HMS Ark Royal and Nimrod spy planes, as well as 42,000 Ministry of Defence and armed forces jobs.

Start Quote

The government needs to review our capacity to respond to concurrent threats”

End Quote James Arbuthnot MP Defence committee chairman

The defence committee's report predicts "some difficult decisions on prioritisation if it embarks on a future mission similar to the Libya operation now that the Strategic Defence and Security (SDSR) is taking effect".

The MPs congratulate the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force for their combat and evacuation roles during the conflict.

They add: "However, at times, the Royal Navy was not able to carry out important tasks such as the Fleet Ready Escort and counter drugs operations owing to meeting the Libya commitment.

"Given the high levels of standing maritime commitments it is likely that this type of risk-taking will occur more frequently as the outcomes of the SDSR are implemented. This will be a significant challenge for the Royal Navy and the MoD and the committee call on them to outline their plans to meet this challenge in response to their report."

The report also raises concerns over the level of "clarity" shown by ministers.

It notes that the defence review promised a "clear strategic aim... and a viable exit strategy" for UK forces.

'Matter of urgency'

But it adds that there is a "disconnect" between this and an "admission" by armed forces minister Nick Harvey that "there is a limit to the number of engagements that can be undertaken where the exit strategy is known with complete clarity".

The committee's chairman, Conservative MP James Arbuthnot, said: "We consider that the Libya operation raises important questions as to the extent of the United Kingdom's national contingent capability.

"The government needs to review our capacity to respond to concurrent threats. This work should be conducted as a matter of urgency before the next Strategic Defence and Security Review."

The committee says Nato missions in the near future will require a heavy reliance on the US and might not even be possible if Washington is "not willing or able" to provide assistance.

'Limited ambition'

The report goes on: "It should be a priority for Nato to examine this over-reliance on US capabilities and assets. This challenge will be heightened by the US-stated intention to shift its military, geographic and strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region."

For Labour, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said the Libya mission had "succeeded in spite of decisions made in the government's defence review".

He added: "The government's limited national ambition combined with flawed defence decision-making are downgrading Britain's military flexibility, reach and global standing.

"As global uncertainty grows daily threats are becoming harder to tackle and Britain may no longer be able to perform such a leading military role in the world."

But Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said: "The Libyan campaign shows that we retain the contingent capability to conduct operations in addition to our commitments in Afghanistan, counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, Gulf security and standing tasks such as the Falklands and defence of the UK.

"Conducted against the backdrop of a multibillion-pound black hole in the defence budget, the SDSR required tough decisions whose underpinning logic the committee has previously agreed with.

"We retain the capability to project power abroad and meet our Nato obligations, supported by what is the world's fourth largest defence budget."

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