Ex-Soviet ships bail out the Royal Navy

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The Independent Online
Britain's merchant navy fleet is so run down that the Ministry of Defence has been forced to hire vessels from the former Soviet Union for use during Nato exercises, it emerged yesterday. Other ships are rented from land-locked countries and "flag of convenience" nations in the Third World.

Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister, has admitted that only one of the 143 vessels chartered for Nato exercises and operations over the past five years was British. Six times as many ships came from the former Soviet republic of the Ukraine.

According to a written parliamentary reply from Mr Soames, the total bill for hiring vessels from Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas, Poland, Malta and more than a dozen other countries was almost pounds 44m. The MoD even chartered four ships registered in Switzerland.

Glenda Jackson, the Shadow Shipping Minister, who asked the parliamentary question, said: "What are things coming to when Britain, an island nation with a proud maritime tradition, is forced to tout round foreign ship- owners if we wish to mount military operations or exercises?

"At the same time ministers are warning about the dangers of instability in countries such as the former Soviet Union, they are placing those countries at the heart of our military strategy."

The Commons Defence Select Committee last year warned that Britain no longer has enough ships "to mount an operation of any significant size". In the Gulf War, only five of the 162 ships chartered to support British forces were UK-flagged vessels, but the MPs said the Government could not count on such arrangements working satisfactorily again.

Britain's merchant fleet has declined from 1,272 ships in 1980 to just 253 in 1995. In the same period, the number of British merchant seamen fell by two-thirds to 10,000.

As Ms Jackson asked: "The next time our defence chiefs wish to mount an operation on the scale of the Falklands or the Gulf, who are they supposed to consult, the Prime Minister of Britain or the President of the Ukraine?"