Defence secretary offers positive assessment of review after critics say it jeopardises UK's capacity to deal with emergenciesLiam Fox has moved to deflect calls to reopen the government's defence review in the wake of widespread criticism of the handling of the crisis in Libya.
The defence secretary has faced criticism that the decision to scrap a significant number of ships has jeopardised Britain's capacity to deal with emergencies threatening British interests and citizens.
HMS Cumberland, the frigate that has been evacuating Britons, Americans and other foreign nationals from Benghazi, is due to be decommissioned in a few weeks' time, a victim of the strategic defence and security review (SDSR). Critics say the Ark Royal and its Harrier jump jets, also scrapped following the review, would have been the kind of naval assets needed in such crises.
A group of former defence chiefs sharply criticised the review last week. In an article in the Sunday Telegraph, Fox suggested the two large new aircraft carriers planned for the navy – one of the most controversial decisions of the SDSR – could be used for a much wider range of operations than bombing raids or air defence.
"The navy's new Queen Elizabeth class carriers will have the ability to combine fast jet, helicopter, unmanned aerial vehicles and amphibious capabilities – a floating piece of sovereign British territory which we can use as a base worldwide whenever our needs require it," he wrote.
The government has previously indicated that one of the carriers will be mothballed, while the other will be equipped towards the end of the decade with about a dozen F35 US-made joint strike fighters.
Fox also referred in his article to the promise in the review that Britain's "internationally respected and battle-tested" special forces – active in the Libyan crisis as well as Iraq and Afghanistan – would benefit from "significantly enhanced capabilities". The SAS and the SBS, its naval equivalent, have taken on an increasing role, notably targeting Taliban commanders in southern Afghanistan. But the Ministry of Defence is still sticking to its policy of never officially revealing operations involving special forces.
The defence secretary added that the army will be remodelled into five new multirole brigades, and that Britain "could field a force of 30,000 including maritime and air assets" for a one-off intervention. The SDSR says that if Britain were to commit so many troops to an operation, it would have to forgo other missions.
Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, said: "We back any additional support for our forces, but the government has got to answer questions posed by senior military figures over whether a rushed defence review held prior to events in north Africa is still as relevant as they intended. It would be a sign of a confidant government to reopen the defence review and ask fresh questions in light of the new security landscape.
"The remarkable bravery shown by our forces provides the government with an opportunity to move on from the incompetence and complacency of last week."
Murphy said the defence review was based on "a series of assumptions which predated recent dramatic events".