The Falkland Islands are to be left without the protection of a British warship for the first time since the war with Argentina because the Royal Navy no longer has enough ships to meet all its commitments.
The frigate HMS Northumberland, which is armed with guided missiles, torpedoes and a Lynx helicopter, was due to be sent on patrol to the islands this month. But it will now be replaced by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessel not equipped for offensive combat operations.
The controversial decision was forced on senior naval commanders by the increasing problem of overstretch facing the Royal Navy.
Cuts to the size of the fleet over the last 10-years – the Royal Navy has just 22 frigates and destroyers compared to 65 in 1982 – has left the service with too few ships to meet its responsibilities.
The Royal Navy is likely to face more cuts in the near future while major projects such as the £3.9bn new carrier programme could be delayed. Ageing vessels such as Type 23 frigates, which were commissioned in the late 1980s, will have their service life extended by up to 20-years.
The last time the British government reduced its naval presence in the South Atlantic was in 1982 when the ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance was withdrawn from patrolling the area around the Falkland Islands. The move prompted an invasion by the Argentine military and led to the Falklands War.
HMS Northumberland was due to begin a six-month voyage in the South Atlantic but has been diverted to take part in the European Union counter-piracy mission off the coast of east Africa.
In its place, RFA Largs Bay, a landing ship which is crewed by civilian sailors, will arrive in the South Atlantic this week to begin its mission of protecting the islands from the potential threat posed by Argentina, which still claims sovereignty of the islands.
The vessel will be equipped with a Lynx Mark 8 helicopter and Sea Skua anti ship missiles for self-defence. The landing ship has a small number of Royal Navy sailors who are responsible for manning a helicopter flight deck as well as a boarding party made up of lightly-armed Royal Marines but Royal Navy sources have said that the ship would be able to do little more than protect itself in the event of an emergency.
The size of the military force on the Falklands has been dramatically reduced since the end of the war in 1982. The islands are garrisoned by just 50 soldiers, composed of infantry, engineers and signallers. The RAF has four Tornado F3 air defence aircraft and crews to maintain them while the naval component consists of just one ship.
The Royal Navy has some 22 frigates and destroyers in the fleet, however only a third are available for operations at any one time and the seven currently available for operational service are already taking part in deployments.
One senior naval source said that successive cuts by the government had left the Royal Navy vulnerable and unable to properly defend its interests overseas.
He said: "The Royal Navy has been pared to the bone. The fleet is now so small that the Royal Navy can't even send a proper warship to guard the Falklands. By the time the Royal Navy has met all of its operational obligations there is nothing left and that is why a civilian-crewed Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship has been sent to the Falklands.
"In any shooting war with a serious enemy the Royal Navy would cease to exist within a few weeks. Rock bottom is an appropriate description of where the Royal Navy now is."
A Ministry of Defence document leaked last year revealed that the Royal Navy would struggle to fight a war against a "technologically capable adversary". The report also stated that the Royal Navy was an "under-resourced" fleet composed of "ageing and operationally defective ships".
Admiral Sir Alan West, a former Chief of the Naval Staff, and who is a security minister in the Lords, has previously warned that the reduction in the fighting capability of the Royal navy could cost lives and gave warning that Britain would end up with a "tinpot" Navy if more money were not spent on defence.
Liam Fox, the shadow Tory defence spokesman, said: "The Government needs to explain how this won’t impact on the security of the Falklands. What on earth are we doing putting EU flag waving ahead of our own security priorities?
"It is outrageous that the British Government would ever diminish the protection of our strategic interests in order to pay homage to the politics of the EU."
A spokesman for the MoD, said: "The government is fully committed to the defence of the Falkland Islands. There is a whole package of assets – air, sea and land assigned to the region, not simply one ship. The Royal Navy maintains the flexibility to redeploy its ships to where they will have maximum effect."
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