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Navy Cuts - article in the Guardian 15 June 2011

Published: 16 Jun 2011

Navy chief takes the flak as row over Libya role rumbles on

Downing Street turns on the Ministry of Defence after First Sea Lord veered 'off message' during briefing.  From the Guardian by Richard Norton-Taylor and Nick Hopkins. 15 June 2011.

They are used to wearing tin-hats at the Ministry of Defence, but spare a thought for Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord, who is probably getting it from all sides following his remarks about Libya yesterday.

Which is unfortunate. He didn't say anything untrue or incorrect. He didn't even say anything that remarkable.

His admission that ministers would have to make "challenging decisions" once the current 90-day extension to the Nato operation ends in the summer was a statement of fact.

The navy cannot do everything, and its priority is not Libya. That is something that is obvious, especially to commanders tasked with reducing costs and cutting staff numbers.

But Downing Street doesn't want to have that debate in the open, or indeed at all. So Stanhope's modest admissions about the difficulties of juggling commitments infuriated No10, where officials have been trying to minimise the impact of the story since yesterday evening.

Stanhope is not the problem. He has actually been pretty measured on the impact of theStrategic Defence and Security Review since last Autumn, even though his service took quite a walloping.

He has not been, and doesn't appear to be by nature, a troublemaker. And he almost certainly didn't intend to cause a stir in the briefing yesterday at Admiralty House.

This was organised not to talk about Libya, but to discuss Anglo-American naval cooperation. Admiral Gary Roughead, the head of the US navy, was in London yesterday, and he was Stanhope's guest.

A small number of reporters from national papers, independent specialists and trade magazines were invited for an on the record discussion. The Guardian was among them.

Sitting at a 300-year-old oak desk, with a portrait of Lord Nelson bearing over them, Stanhope and Roughead managed to negotiate their way around a number of sensitive issues, including the criticisms made by the US defence secretary Robert Gates about Nato. It was all quite anodyne.

But when asked about how the navy would cope long term with Libya, Stanhope veered slightly off message.

"How long can we go on as we are in Libya? Certainly in terms of Nato's current time limit that has been extended to 90 days – we are comfortable with that. Beyond that we might have to request the government to make some challenging decisions about priorities. There are different ways of doing this. It's not simply about giving up standing commitments, we will have to rebalance."

He then returned to the matter later in the hour long discussion.

"If we do it longer than six months we will have to reprioritise forces. That is being addressed now. It could be from around home waters. I will not prejudge what that decision will be."

This was newsworthy - it is rare indeed these days to get someone so senior to talk about the stress on the military. If Stanhope thought he had made a slip up, he made no attempt to rectify the situation.

He seemed much more exasperated by questions about the decommissioning of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and the navy's sea harrier fleet - both decisions forced upon him by cuts to the defence budget.

He had to make that call on the eve of the SDSR, and according to insiders, it was not one he felt happy with at all. Yesterday he was asked if he felt bitter about the impact of SDSR. Stanhope denied he was, and said it was time to move on. But if looks could kill...

Similar glances have probably cast upon him by government officials since then. The Fleet Street organisations that were at the briefing - The Guardian, The Times and the Financial Times - wrote stories that were published yesterday afternoon, or this morning.

It was a decent story, but not one that was going to make the 'splash'. It was Stanhope's bad luck that two papers that weren't there - The Telegraph and The Daily Mail - picked up the tale overnight, and made it their lead, giving it added impetus.

By that stage, the defence secretary Liam Fox had tried to take the sting out of the story with a statement of his own, but it didn't address the main issue. Here is it.

"Operations in Libya are showing how capable we are post-SDSR as a leading military power with the fourth largest defence budget in the world. We continue to have the resources necessary to carry out the operations we are undertaking and have spare capacity with the Royal Navy COUGAR Taskforce which is currently on exercise in the Gulf.

"The SDSR is not being re-opened. The Harrier has served with great distinction over a long period and in a number of theatres, but we are not bringing them back into service. Our planning assumptions remain valid and we have been able to effectively conduct missions over Libya. We are now progressing with the disposal of the Harrier force."

The BBC did a curious thing with the story this morning. On the Today programme, presenter Justin Webb asked the former Admiral Chris Parry, about Stanhope's intervention - saying that the First Sea Lord had "suggested or appeared to suggest" that the Libyan operation was stretching the Navy to "breaking point".

Stanhope didn't suggest anything. He said categorically that challenging decisions had to be made by ministers. And Stanhope didn't say anything about breaking points.

He said that the navy, in essence, would have to shuffle its pack because it can't do everything. Still, the damage had been done. The PR damage that is.

Downing Street is furious with the MoD, though it was not the department's fault. Some within the MoD are furious with Stanhope, though it is not his fault either.

He spoke his mind. Don't expect him to do it again anytime soon.


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