LONDON - The head of the Royal Navy says retaining Britain's carrier strike capability would have been top of his "wish list" if the recent strategic defense and security review were to be rewritten.
First Sea Lord Adm. Sir Mark Stanhope told the parliamentary defense committee that if Britain still had a carrier available, it would be deployed off the coast of Libya helping to enforce U.N. Resolution 1973.
Giving evidence alongside the heads of the Army and Air Force on the impact of last year's defense review, Stanhope said that retaining HMS Ark Royal and its fleet of Harrier strike aircraft would have been his top priority if the government's strategic defense review and associated four-year defense spending plan could be revisited.
Britain's Navy was hard hit by the latest round of defense cuts with frigates, destroyers, an aircraft carrier and support ships all being pensioned off. The other two services also suffered heavy cuts, particularly the Royal Air Force.
Later in his evidence, Stanhope pointed to the impact the cuts were already having, saying the Royal Navy would find it "significantly challenging" to maintain the deployment of a frigate and a mine countermeasures vessel off the coast of Libya for much more than six months without crippling other standing commitments.
The British government axed the Royal Navy's remaining aircraft carrier and the Harrier aircraft that fly from its deck as part of a strategic defense and security review that saw surveillance aircraft, warships, tanks and other equipment eliminated to help meet swinging cuts to the defense budget over the four years ending 2014.
Withdrawing Ark Royal and the Harriers earlier this year was by far the most controversial element of the defense spending cuts. Stanhope later indicated he would not oppose resurrecting the Harrier force if possible and if money was made available to support the aircraft.
Stanhope and Air Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, the chief of the Air Staff, were asked by a defense committee member whether returning the Harrier force to service had gone beyond the point of no return.
Dalton said it had. But Stanhope responded that while Dalton's statement was correct, he would "like to think that should a decision [be made to reassess the Harrier force, we could], look again. It all comes down to money."
Stanhope said the Royal Navy is faced with the task of regenerating the carrier force in the latter half of the decade as a new aircraft carrier and the F-35C fighter become available. Rebuilding an aircraft carrier force around 2019 could only be done with the assistance of allied carrier operators France and the U.S., he said. Such a program is now being developed, Stanhope said.
Three Fleet Air Arm pilots are already flying F/A-18s with the U.S. military to help maintain British capabilities. A fourth is due to move to the U.S. soon, he said.
Britain is building two 65,000-ton carriers, with the first entering service around 2017 and the second scheduled to be ready around 2019.
The defense cuts saw the government commit to only operating the second of the warships as an aircraft carrier.
Stanhope said Britain would have to operate two carriers unless it wanted to follow the example of France, which could only get its single carrier, the nuclear powered Charles de Gaulle, operational for five years in every eight. The remainder of the time is devoted to maintenance and workup, he said.
The Harriers were operated jointly by the Royal Navy and Air Force, and the plan is to do the same with the F-35s. In his evidence, Dalton denied the RAF had any ambitions to take over the role of the Fleet Air Arm on the Navy carriers, and said a 60-40 split in favor of the Air Force had already been agreed to between the two services.
Dalton said the carrier would start operating with a single squadron of F-35s and eventually work up to three squadrons.