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Navy grandees attack ‘perverse’ defence cuts

The decision to scrap a fleet of fast jets and Britain’s flagship aircraft carrier makes no financial sense and leaves the Falkland Islands vulnerable to a new attack by Argentina, a group of senior, retired commanders claim today.

The officers, including Lord West of Spithead and Sir Julian Oswald, Admiral of the Fleet, urge David Cameron to reverse the coalition Government’s cost-cutting measures, announced as part of last month’s defence review.

“We believe the Prime Minister has been badly advised to scrap the Harrier force and HMS Ark Royal and to rely entirely upon Tornado,” they say in a letter to The Times, referring to the RAF’s other ageing fleet of fast jets.

Calling the decision “strategically and financially perverse” — they believe that retaining Tornado over Harrier will cost seven times as much in maintenance during the next decade — the commanders say that it “should be rescinded in the overriding national interest before it is too late”.

Lord West said that he was thinking of writing personally to Mr Cameron to express his dismay. “I’m not convinced he had a full and proper briefing about the implications,” he told The Times.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review outlined plans to ditch the fleet of 80 Harrier jump jets — the only aircraft Britain owns that is able to take off and land from carriers — decommission Ark Royal and scrap a number of other ships to cut spending and refocus resources.

The signatories to the letter, who also include Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, Vice-Admiral John McAnally and Major-General Julian Thompson believe that the moves put British interests at risk.

They write: “In respect of the newly valuable Falklands and their oilfields, because of these and other cuts, for the next ten years at least, Argentina is practically invited to attempt to inflict on us a national humiliation on the scale of the loss of Singapore — one from which British prestige, let alone the Administration in power at the time, might never recover.”

Liam Fox defended the changes and said that the Falklands would remain well protected. Britain has four Typhoon fighters on the islands as well as a small unit of Marines.

A submarine is believed to be located in the area. “It is simply not the case that decommissioning the Harrier would impact upon our ability to defend territories in the South Atlantic,” the Defence Secretary said.

“We maintain a wide range of assets, not least a well-defended airfield to ensure the defence of the Falkland Islands. We have a far greater presence than previously, able to respond to any and all threats.”

The Government chose to go ahead with the construction of two new aircraft carriers but, because of the departure of the Harriers, Britain will lack the ability to fly jets off these vessels for at least a decade.

Dr Fox defended the move, which was taken after weeks of heated debate inside the Ministry of Defence, with the RAF keen to keep its larger Tornado fleet and the Royal Navy pushing for the carrier-friendly Harriers.

He insisted that there was never a choice because the previous Government had reduced the size of the Harrier fleet to such a level that it would not be able to fulfil Britain’s obligations in Afghanistan and at home.

“The Harrier force has made an impressive contribution to our nation’s security over the decades but difficult decisions had to be made . . . and I’m clear that rationalising our fast jet fleet makes both operational and economic common sense,” he told The Times.

The retired commanders claim that “the Government has, in effect, declared a new ‘ten-year rule’ that assumes Britain will have warning time to rebuild to face a threat. The last Treasury-driven ‘ten-year rule’ in the 1930s nearly cost us our freedom”.

Despite the fallout from the defence review, it may be too late to reverse the decision. Ark Royal set sail for a farewell tour yesterday, while a Harrier is due to take off from the carrier for the last time later this month.

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