UK military power on a shrinking budget

Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft, Gioia Dell Colle, Italy
Image caption Many believe the UK's armed forces are being stretched again with little slack in the system

More British warplanes are being deployed to southern Italy - four extra Tornado GR4s - for the mission in the skies over Libya, but even as Britain's role in the conflict expands, the armed forces are shrinking back at home.

Barely a fortnight since the UK began its air operations over Libya, the cuts made in the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) last October - when few foresaw a new conflict so soon - have been thrown into sharp focus, as the Royal Navy and the Army revealed details of the first round of job cuts for those serving on land and at sea.

Defence analysts wonder if events in Libya and the wider Middle East mean the government will revisit some of the decisions made in the SDSR, even if only by quietly looking again at some of the planning assumptions.

An 8% cut to the defence budget - with no apparent down-sizing of the UK's global ambition - could never be implemented without pain.

However, questions do remain about Britain's ability to project military power on a shrinking budget and declining personnel numbers in these uncertain times.

Budget scrutiny

The US wish not to play a leading role in this latest operation has shifted much of the burden onto the countries who first called for the Libya mission - the UK and France.

The US may want to avoid other future engagements in which Europe is keener to get involved. If that is the case, Britain's coalition government may find itself having to look again at the budget for defence and how it is spent - and whether it goes far enough.

Although the RAF has shown no lack of firepower over Libya, aided by the use of Tomahawk missiles fired by HMS Triumph and now HMS Turbulent, as well as support from HMS Cumberland and HMS Westminster, critics say that having an aircraft carrier with working aircraft available would have given military planners more options and flexibility - and may have worked out cheaper.

While few expect that decision to be rescinded, others believe there should be other reprieves - for example, for the Sentinel R1 used for reconnaissance and targeting in Libya and Afghanistan, which is currently due to be retired early in 2015.

Stretched to limit

Many also believe the UK's armed forces are being stretched again, as they were when committed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with little or no slack in the system if another international crisis breaks out, for example in the Middle East.

In an interview with the Guardian - as the details of the Army and Royal Navy job cuts emerged - the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, made clear his service would need a real increase in cash in 2014-15 if it is to keep its current capabilities.

"On current planning we can continue in Afghanistan, the Falklands and Libya with what we have got," he said, but added: "It's a heck of a lot to be doing at one time".

Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the former First Sea Lord, has expressed his concern about the consequences of the cuts, unless the UK scales down its ambitions.

"I'd be the first to admit the government of the day can dictate the size of its navy, but for the navy you can afford to buy, you get a certain capability. And this navy is smaller than the one I was lucky enough to command, which I find - in today's uncertain world - worrying."

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