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By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners

28 Feb 11. Significant praise should once again be heaped on the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy this morning for the specific and demanding roles that both played out during this past week evacuating many hundreds of UK nationals and others from Libya. Slipping quietly into the desert south of Benghazi on Saturday two RAF C-130J Hercules aircraft rescued significant numbers of trapped British and other foreign nationals taking them to safety in Malta. Mission success was by no means assured but the brilliance of the RAF shone through just as it had in so many previous rescue missions in the past. No matter either that venerable RAF Hercules transport aircraft used and that are supposed to carry just 65 personnel each were carrying double that number of people no doubt squeezed in like sardines in a can. Those of you that like myself may have shared a personal experience flying inside this very fine aircraft to the point of enduring physical discomfort in full armoured protective kit and probably in the pitch black will know exactly what I mean albeit that most of us would surely say that the endurance of discomfort was always worth it!

For the Royal Navy too I offer absolutely nothing but praise to the captain and ships’ company of the Type 22 [Duke class] frigate HMS Cumberland (F-85) and which over the past week successfully removed literally hundreds of trapped British and other foreign nationals from Libya as the ship plied to and fro Benghazi and Malta. HMS Cumberland is indeed a very fine ship and one that I know fairly well. Laid down in 1984 at Yarrow Shipbuilders on the Clyde; launched in 1986 and commissioned only in June 1989 how much I and others regret that as a direct result of Strategic Defence & Security Review this fine and still relatively young ship will be stood down in exactly one months’ time followed by the other three Type 22 vessels in the coming weeks!

Events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya over recent weeks and which I might add had not been forecast by a single defence specialist, analyst, politician, diplomat or military tactician as being remotely imminent three months ago are now leading many of us to question whether our government is right to be making such huge structural cuts in defence. One danger that I have oft reminded in this now long sequence of defence papers is that not one single conflict within the past nineteen that UK forces have been involved over the past fifty years had been foreseen as even a remote possibility a year before they had began.
Yet again it seems that we have all been surprised to the point of being caught out by events that have unfolded in North Africa and parts of the Middle East. We must all learn from this ensuring that no matter what economic politics may determine that we must not take chances with the already much reduced level of retained defence capability that we have.

Notwithstanding events in Bahrain and Oman or that I myself do not have significant concern yet that aside from Yemen we should anticipate real escalation of new found political reform contagion spreading across the Gulf peninsular I believe that diplomatic events are of significant seriousness at this time that militarily we cannot afford to take any chances with our current level of defence capability. Thus I and others view that whilst we should of course continue the process of making defence more affordable and to achieve greater efficiency making deep cuts in either of the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force right now is just not appropriate.

I may hope that the Government will realise that despite both the need and defined intention to cut back defence expenditure, that despite the huge £17bn gap between what SDSR demands and what may at best be achievable, despite the ridiculous gap that has emerged in the PR11 budgeting process, des

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