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Korean crisis shows scrapping aircraft carriers is ‘short-sighted’

The crisis between North and South Korea exposes the Government’s “short-sighted” decision to leave Britain without jets to fly from its aircraft carrier during the next decade, a former naval chief warns today.

The comments by Admiral Lord West of Spithead in a letter to The Times came the day after four Harrier GR9 jets took off from the Royal Navy’s outgoing flagship for the last time before they are scrapped in the most controversial outcome of last month’s defence review.

Jim Murphy, the Shadow Defence Secretary, agreed that Tuesday’s artillery exchange between North and South Korea — the most serious provocation since the Korean War in the 1950s — demonstrated the unpredictable nature of world events.

“This proves that the Government must be much clearer why they alone believe we should have aircraft carriers with no aircraft for a decade,” he said. “I have written to ministers urging them to think again, but have yet to receive a response.”

In an unprecedented move that reflected the gravity of the row, the five most senior members of the Armed Forces wrote a joint letter to this newspaper this month defending the decision to scrap the 80-strong Harrier fleet and decommission HMS Ark Royal.

Britain must wait until 2019 before a new carrier equipped with aircraft comes into service, reviving the country’s ability to launch jets from the sea anywhere in the world.

The military chiefs’ united front was in response to a barrage of criticism from a group of former naval commanders, including Lord West, who have urged the Government to think again.

Reinforcing his argument, Lord West says today that it is unclear what, if any, Britain’s commitments would be if hostilities break out again in the Korean peninsula, where the United States yesterday dispatched one of its aircraft carriers.

“What is certain is that to fail to stand by the USA, when they have supported us in Europe over some 70 years, would be a mistake,” the former First Sea Lord, who was Security Minister in the last Government, says.

“The dispatch of a carrier, its small air wing and a Tactom-armed nuclear submarine, should any such crisis escalate, is just the sort of commitment an ally such as the United States requires. Nothing else in our military inventory has similar flexibility and adaptability.

“What will be the next strategic shock? I cannot predict it — nor can the Government. To lose our maritime strike capability in such dangerous times is short-sighted.”

Professor Gwyn Prins, of the London School of Economics, said that Britain needed an aircraft carrier equipped with functioning fast-jets to respond adequately to the unexpected.

“At the moment we possess such a capability and it would be extremely wise to go on possessing it. If it’s not South Korea today, it’s going to be somewhere else tomorrow. To take a ten-year view that this country can be safe without that capacity is a huge gamble,” he added.

Lord West and 15 other retired commanders and academics have signed a petition, entitled “Saving the Harrier, that calls on David Cameron to reconsider his position on the future of the fleet. They believe that ditching the jump-jets in favour of Britain’s larger and more expensive Tornado fleet, which cannot operate from carriers, makes no financial sense and leaves the Falkland Islands vulnerable to an Argentine attack.

But Ministry of Defence sources said that the previous Government’s decision to reduce the size of the Harrier fleet meant that ministers were left with no choice but to retain the Tornado fighter-bombers.

They added that there were insufficient Harrier jets to maintain the tempo of Britain’s commitment to air operations in Afghanistan. One source said that even if the Harrier fleet was retained, Britain would be able to send only ten jets to a conflict zone by ship.

Ark Royal is likely to be scrapped. The Harriers will be mothballed, scrapped or offered for sale.

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