"Stretched" British military to continue Libya, Afghanistan missions

08:32, June 29, 2011      

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Britain's commitment to military intervention in Libya and the war in Afghanistan will remain, despite further costsaving cuts in military spending.

The cuts were pushed through despite public criticism of Britain's military capabilities by its senior armed forces commanders, which sparked a political row with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Commentators have been poring over Britain's armed forces since a review of military priorities, the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), was published in October last year.

It resulted in an 8 percent cut in military spending from 2011 to 2015, leading critics to point out that military ambitions were not backed by adequate financial support. Their argument was Britain was trying to do too much with too little.

Last week, senior military figures in Britain made headlines with fresh criticisms of government policy.

"What is becoming apparent is that Britain does not have a bottomless pit of resources. This goes back for at least a decade," Douglas Barrie, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Xinhua on Monday.

"What resources there are, are pretty much all used up," Barrie said, adding that if Britain was "to continue down this track, Libya and Afghanistan, then other areas will have to be slackened off to provide the resources to continue."

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the professional head of Britain's navy, sparked a political row when he said commitments in Libya stretched resources.

"We might have to request the government to make some challenging decisions about priorities," he said. "There are different ways of doing this. It's not simply about giving up standing commitments. We will have to re-balance."

Stanhope was later joined by Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant, a senior air force leader. "Two concurrent operations are placing a huge demand on equipment and personnel," Bryant said in a speech to members of parliament which was leaked to the press.

Stanhope warned that a continuing commitment to Libya would hit ability to handle future events, adding that spending cuts meant morale in the air force "remains fragile."

In response, Prime Minister David Cameron rebutted criticism of his policies. "There are moments when I wake up and think, 'You do the fighting, I'll do the talking'," he said.

Barrie did not think the government was going to provide extra money to the armed forces. "Additional funding is not going to be the solution in the near term. They are going to have to make do with what is on the table," he said.

"Things are manageable, but at a stretch," he added.

Against this background of public bickering between politicians and military leaders and a shrinking military budget and capacity for Britain, a government-commissioned report into the structure of the Ministry of Defense (MoD) made recommendations on Monday that will see senior military leaders lose their jobs as a way to save money and increase efficiency.

One of the key recommendations of the report is that leaders of the army, navy and air force no longer sit on the committee which makes decisions on how to spend the military budget.

The report's author, Lord Levene, criticised military bureaucracy. He said military spending continually went over budget because of "an inability to take tough, timely decisions in the defense interest, the political pain of taking such decisions, the 'conspiracy of optimism' between industry, the military, officials and ministers, and a lack of clarity over who is responsible for and accountable for taking decisions".

His recommendations for reform include making military chiefs accountable for their budgets, and cutting the number of officers.

Barrie expected Lord Levene's report to cause "a slimming down in the number of senior officials, with a greater focus on immediate delivery."

Britain, along with its fellow United Nations Security Council permanent member France, was a leading advocate of military intervention in Libya to prevent the North African state's leader Muammar Gaddafi from using his military forces against rebels.

The UN Security Council agreed to a resolution in mid-March backing military intervention on humanitarian grounds to protect civilians. At the time, the United States briefly and reluctantly assumed a leading military role. It quickly passed on that job to NATO, with Britain and France firmly in the front seat.

Currently, Britain's military forces are being pulled in several directions. The lengthy mission in Afghanistan continues with Britain contributing 10,000 troops, the highest number after the United States.

Key to overcoming the most difficult challenges facing the British military is the government's policy to tackle the large public spending deficit caused by the global financial crisis which saw government revenues fall as expenditures increased steeply.

At different times, there were suggestions to scrap Britain's nuclear weapons-carrying fleet of submarines, abolish the Royal Air Force and retire the heavy tank fleet.

In the end, the SDSR saw deep cuts in jet fighters, and the controversial scrapping of Britain's fleet of aircraft carriers, leaving a hole in military equipment that will not be filled for 10 years.

Barrie said that for the past two decades there has been a continuing series of cuts in British military spending, resulting in, for example, an air force that is half the size of what it was 20 years ago.

He said Britain's participation in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan had "cut completely against the grain of force reductions". The military missions lasted longer and were harder than anticipated, costing precious lives and breaking budgets.

Source: Xinhua
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