Liam Fox yesterday claimed that concerns about the Libyan mission expressed by "off message" military commanders were putting lives at risk.
The charge came as the Defence Secretary introduced a programme overhauling the Ministry of Defence, which is likely to see a number of senior officers lose their job. As part of the changes the heads of the three services will lose their positions in the MoD's most powerful decision-making body, the defence board, while Dr Fox will become the first government minister to take a place in the organisation. The chiefs of the Army, Navy and the RAF will be represented in future by Britain's head of the military, General Sir David Richards.
The proposed changes come in a report from the Defence Reform Unit (DFU), produced by a team led by Lord Levene, chairman of Lloyd's of London. It promised the slashing of "overly bureaucratic management structures" where ministers were "kept in the dark" and strategic decision-making was allowed to "drift".
But the continuing tensions between the Government and the military, which had led to David Cameron saying, "You do the fighting, I'll do the talking", surfaced as the Defence Secretary went on to criticise service chiefs for not being "on message".
He said: "We must be very careful, those of us who have authority in defence, when discussing the sustainability of a mission. People's lives are at stake and there can only be one message that goes out on Libya and that is we have the military capability, we have the political resolve, we have the legal authority and we have the political cohesion in the alliance to see through what we started. We may have to reprioritise bits of our assets but... we are going to continue until our mission succeeds and Col Gaddafi must get no other signal than that."
Dr Fox's comments came after 100 days of bombing of Libya by Nato which has, so far, cost the UK £260m and is due to rise to £500m with the UN mandate for military intervention due to be extended today for another three months. Muammar Gaddafi, meanwhile, controls only fractionally less of the country than he did before the air strikes began.
Dr Fox insisted senior officers were happy with the changes – describing it as a "harmonious process". Labour Defence spokesman, Jim Murphy, said last year's Strategic Security and Defence Review needed to be revisited to take into account the challenges posed by Libya and the "Arab Spring".