Navy forced to drop warship patrols in Caribbean through lack of funds
Withdrawal is first time defence chiefs have had to abandon an existing overseas mission because of the budget squeeze
Monday 7 February 2011
The navy’s Caribbean patrol was originally set up to guard British dependencies in the West Indies, but has more recently been used to counter drug runners and help with humanitarian disasters. Photograph: Rex Features
Britain is to abandon its warship patrols of the Caribbean for the first time since the second world war because of the navy's funding crisis, the Guardian has learned.
The withdrawal means the navy will no longer provide a warship for anti-narcotic operations in the region, and will have to reduce its role in disaster relief work.
The decision to stop the patrols, which is expected to be confirmed on Tuesday, comes at an embarrassing time for the Ministry of Defence – a documentary series on operations undertaken by the destroyer HMS Manchester in the Caribbean is due to start tonight. The programme on Channel Five follows the ship and crew throughout its seven month deployment last year.
The first episode, called Bad Guys Dead Ahead, focuses on drug smuggling off the coast of Montserrat.
All three services are under severe pressure because of the cuts announced in last year's strategic defence and security review. Under the review, the services will lose personnel and equipment, with the navy surface fleet of destroyers and frigates being reduced from 23 to 19. This, however, is the first time defence chiefs have had to abandon an existing overseas mission because of the budget squeeze.
Gisela Stuart, a Labour member of the commons defence committee, condemned the move. "My view is that where we have a national interest, and a historic responsibility and where we can make a difference, we should act.
"Countering drugs smuggling in an area which covers British territories falls into that category. As an island we rely on our navy to ensure national security. It seems to me to be a short term decision that is simply wrong."
The navy's Caribbean patrol was originally set up to guard British dependencies in the West Indies. In recent years, it has taken up a joint role countering drug runners and coping with humanitarian disasters during the June-October hurricane season.
The navy operates with ships from other countries, including the US, the Netherlands and France. Its patrols in the area have made a significant impact on drug trafficking.
Two years ago, the Royal Navy seized its biggest haul of cocaine, with an estimated street value at £240m.
The frigate HMS Iron Duke intercepted a boat carrying more than five and a half tons of the drug in an operation off the coast of South America.
The navy won high praise from the then armed forces minister, Bill Rammell, who said: "Again, the Royal Navy has successfully damaged the trade in this vile substance, which only serves to poison our communities. The crew rightly deserve our praise and thanks for the work they do on our behalf." Prince William also served on Iron Duke when it seized cocaine worth pounds £45million in the Caribbean.Although the Navy can no longer afford to send a destroyer to the Caribbean, it stressed it would not withdraw completely from the region. It will retain a Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ship with a Lynx helicopter and a detachment of sailors on board.
An MoD spokesman said: "The Royal Navy will continue to provide a permanent presence in the Caribbean, able to respond to the full range of potential events including humanitarian disaster relief operations. During 2011 this will be provided by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, enhanced with a naval party and helicopter during the core hurricane season."
The withdrawal of the Caribbean patrols is unlikely to be the only victim of the squeeze to the defence budget outlined in the SDSR.
The government now admits that those cuts — including a last-minute decision to axe Britain's entire fleet of Harrier jumpjets and the carrier, Ark Royal — has still left a gap between commitments and available expenditure.
That gap, estimated to amount to at least £1bn a year, has to be bridged by the beginning of the coming spending round. The decisions on any further cuts will have to be made before the end of March.