UK Politics

Libya: UK forces spread thin, says ex-defence chief

Lord Stirrup
Image caption Lord Stirrup stepped down as head of the armed forces last year

The UK is "spreading its forces very thin" and a political resolution in Libya must be found quickly, a former armed forces chief has told peers.

Lord Stirrup said that Afghanistan used up most military resources and what was left was being used in Libya.

There could be "severe consequences" if there was a crisis involving Iran, for example, he told a Lords debate.

The UK, France and US have carried out strikes on Col Gaddafi's forces in Libya, aimed at protecting civilians.

Nato has now taken command of aerial operations in Libya, which followed a UN resolution backing a no-fly zone and "all necessary measures" short of an occupying force to protect Libyan civilians, following violence after an uprising against Col Muammar Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

But several peers with military backgrounds used Friday's debate to raise concerns about the pressures on British forces, at a time of defence spending cuts.

Lord Stirrup, chief of the defence staff between 2006 and 2010, told peers that while it had been pushed off the front pages - Afghanistan continued to use up most British military resources.

He said: "What little we have had left in the locker over the past couple of years for dealing with other contingencies has consisted mainly of air and maritime capabilities, these have largely been consumed by the Libya operation, so that locker is now looking pretty bare and yet we still face huge risks."

'Finite resource'

He said there could be "severe consequences" in an area which British national interests were concerned" in a way they are not in Libya" - such as an Iranian "miscalculation in the Gulf".

Lord Stirrup said the armed forces were a "finite resource and ever more finite by the month".

He said the UK must see the Libya mission through but in view of risks elsewhere "and in view of the degree to which we have now drawn down on our military account" - placing the very highest degree of urgency for finding a political resolution to this crisis as soon as possible."

Lord Craig, another former chief of the defence staff, also warned about over committing the armed forces.

Due to action in Iraq, Afghanistan and cutbacks in last year's strategic defence review "our forces have reached levels of commitment which have to be reduced", he said. He said it was "fortuitous" that the UK contribution in Libya was mainly from the RAF and Royal Navy, which were "less committed" in Afghanistan.

He also warned against "loose talks of arming the rebels" which "smacks of mission creep" and could jeopardise support from Arab states.

"We are on a high wire without any safety net and in the hands of opinion formers who could so quickly turn to our disadvantage these developments - are we not very close to being accused of involvement and taking sides in a Libyan civil war?"

The strategic defence review announced last October will see defence spending cut by 8% over four years - it spelled the end for the UK's Harrier jump jets, Navy flagship HMS Ark Royal and planned Nimrod spy planes.

Former chief of naval staff and Labour peer Lord West said the government should look again at the defence review: "There's no doubt a carrier and air group would have been invaluable at all stages of the operation, particularly early on... [HMS] Invincible is being towed past Libya for scrap and Ark Royal is on eBay for sale - and I think that's something we need to ponder."

He also warned there would inevitably be some civilian casualties and the coalition would have to "harden our hearts to that" and explain there is no "moral equivalence" to what Col Gaddafi was doing, as it was bound to lead to more pressure from Arab states.

Labour peer, and former Nato secretary general, Lord Robertson said he supported the mission but criticised "undignified squabbling" between European members of Nato over the no-fly zone and said Europe had to "wake up" to the challenges.

He said Nato was "as powerful or feeble as its member states want it to be. And when nations put national interest and primitive rivalries before collective security and collective action, then Nato becomes a paper tiger in an increasingly complex and dangerous international jungle".