TWO warships will be axed and Harrier air and ground crew face their second upheaval in a decade to pay for extra kit for war in Afghanistan.
Veteran survey ship HMS Roebuck and Sandown-class mine countermeasures vessel HMS Walney are to be decommissioned early in the new year.
Older versions of Navy Lynx plus Merlin Mk1s will also be retired early and all Sea Kings will be out of service by 2016, earlier than planned.
The changes were announced by Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth as part of a £900m package focusing on equipment for the war against the Taleban, including extra Chinooks, more night-vision goggles for the troops, more vehicles, more Raptor robot spy planes and kit to deal with roadside bombs which have inflicted so many casualties on British troops in 2009.
“Support for our operations in Afghanistan is our main effort,” Mr Ainsworth told fellow MPs.
“Our priorities in Afghanistan are to provide the best levels of personal equipment and protection to meet the fast-changing threat and to increase investment in key capabilities, including helicopter capability and our strategic air bridge.”
The minister told Parliament that the MOD had to cut its cloth elsewhere to help pay for the extra material.
To that end, he announced:
- A reduction in the personnel strength of the three Armed Forces by 2,500.
- One Harrier squadron will be decommissioned, as will RAF Cottesmore – home of the Naval Strike Wing – with all jump jets relocating to nearby RAF Wittering. Aircraft will also be withdrawn from service early, although the actual composition of the joint RAF-RN Harrier force won't be determined until next year's Defence Review.
- One survey ship and one minehunter will be paid off.
- All RAF Nimrod MR2 submarine reconnaissance aircraft will be paid off in March; the introduction of their replacements, the MR4, has now been delayed until 2012, nine years later than planned.
- Older variants of Fleet Air Arm Lynx and Merlin Mk1s will be retired ahead of schedule in favour of the newer Wildcat and Merlin Mk2s.
“These decisions have not been taken lightly, but these are tough times for everyone in defence and we must ensure we prioritise spending on operations to achieve success in Afghanistan,” Mr Ainsworth said.
First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope said the RN had to bear its share of the "tough choices" being made across defence. He promised no compulsory redundancies for personnel as a result of the reductions.
"It is good news for the Naval Service that there will be no impact on our major programme of investment in the capabilities we need for the future – the programmes to deliver the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, the Astute-class submarines, the Daring-class destroyers," he said.
"Although Afghanistan is our current top priority, our country's other security and defence interests have not gone away."
At the same time, Whitehall also announced a major shake-up of all its helicopter assets which will see some substantial changes for the Fleet Air Arm:
- All variants of the venerable Sea King – celebrating its 40th birthday this year – will be out of service two years earlier than planned in 2016.
- The ‘jungly’ Sea King role, carried out by the Yeovilton-based Commando Helicopter Force, will be performed instead by Merlin Mk3s, transferred from the RAF to the Fleet Air Arm (the RAF crews will re-train to fly Chinooks).
- The Airborne Surveillance and Control mission, performed by aplomb by Culdrose-based ‘Bagger’ Sea Kings currently deployed in Afghanistan, will be carried out by modified Merlin Mk1s.
- The Search and Rescue mission, carried out at HMS Gannet and by 771 NAS in Culdrose, will be carried out by a new helicopter under a PFI initiative between the MOD and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency which is looking to overhaul the country’s SAR organisation.
No decision has yet been taken on the future home of the CHF Merlin force, but all 62 Wildcats – and Whitehall is looking at buying eight more to replace the battlefield Lynx, due out of service in 2018 – will be based at RNAS Yeovilton.
Rear Admiral Simon Charlier, the head of the Fleet Air Arm, said the overhaul of helicopter forces was “a sensible, affordable proposal that consolidates existing fleets”.