Cash-starved Navy forced to keep fleet in port

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Britannia no longer rules the waves. Only three warships will be patrolling the high seas this Christmas. Unprecedented cost-cutting has brought almost every ship in the fleet into dock to save money.

Britannia no longer rules the waves. Only three warships will be patrolling the high seas this Christmas. Unprecedented cost-cutting has brought almost every ship in the fleet into dock to save money.

Senior Admiralty sources have told the Independent on Sunday that the Navy is facing a £500m budget deficit which has crippled the fleet's operational capabilities.

The Navy's drug-enforcement patrols in the West Indies have been cancelled and all ships have been withdrawn from the Pacific and Mediterranean.

Senior sources also claim Captains of the Navy's 20 remaining frigates have been ordered to sale at 15 knots to save fuel. Maximum speed for a frigate is 30 knots.

John Spellar, the Armed Forces minister, has confirmed that 14 ships have been withdrawn from exercise. An antisubmarine exercise scheduled for January has also been cancelled.

Money is so short that the Navy has been forced to tow the decommissioned destroyer HMS Birmingham to a dock in Plymouth to strip it for spare parts in order to keep its remaining 11 Type 42 destroyers going.

Senior Ministry of Defence sources claim the measures are a hurried attempt to keep the fleet from busting its budget.

An MoD official explained: "There is just no flexibility in the budget. Clearly operations must come first. There's a finite budget. We've already overspent it and therefore the fleet has to remain in dock to conserve fuel in case there is something to which we have to respond."

This Christmas the only ships we will have at sea will be HMS Somerset which will be making a goodwill visit to South Africa, HMS Dumbarton Castle, which is on a two-year tour of the Falklands, and HMS Exeter, on Armilla Patrol in the Gulf.

Last night Ian Duncan Smith, shadow defence minister, said: "This is Labour's hidden disaster for our Armed Forces. They have taken £954m out of the defence budget on the premise of making savings. But savings haven't been made and the Treasury is still taking the money."

"The defence budget is now in crisis and most of it is self-inflicted," he added.

Mike Critchley, author of British Warships and Auxiliaries, published next week, said: "The Navy is overcommitted, undermanned and underfunded."

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