(Updated) Fleet Ready Escort: 'We are doing the best with what we have got'

(Update 02 Nov: MoD response below). Various media have carried the story that apparently for the first time since the Falklands War in 1982, defence cuts have left the "stretched" Royal Navy unable to provide an emergency standby ship to protect British waters for a month. The Daily Telegraph reported that:

 The Navy normally provides a minimum coverage of a frigate or destroyer fulfilling the role of Fleet Ready Escort (FRE) in order to be able to respond quickly to a potential threat at home or abroad.

However, slashed Defence budgets and the war in Libya has meant there hasn't been a vessel available since the start of October.

The last ship to fill the role, called the FRE, was HMS Portland but that left for war games off the coast of Scotland in October, and it is now having a rest period in Plymouth on the south coast.

Former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord Alan West said: "I would hardly say it is a luxury. If there was a terrorism incident in UK waters, this would historically be the ship sent in to deal with it.

"It's a big problem. If we haven't got a ship ready to do this role then it's worrying. It's a very unsatisfactory position to be in."

The shortage comes after the Government cut the navy's surface fleet to 19 frigates and destroyers in last year's defence review.

Critics warned the cuts would leave the navy overstretched. Since February nine warships have been deployed to Libya, leaving none left to be on hand in the UK.

It is believed the last time this happened was 1982 after every available ship left for the Falklands War.

Lord West added: "What it shows is that the number of frigates and destroyers we've got now is insufficient.

"We need more ships as a matter of urgency."

The Navy denied British waters were unprotected and said "other assets" were available, but it is understood these ships would take longer than a FRE to respond in an emergency.

This is because they are either undergoing maintenance, on sea trials preparing for operations, or are in a rest period having recently returned from sea.

The Navy confirmed the lack of a FRE comes as a direct result of Britain's role in Nato's Libya operations, which officially ended at 9.59pm last night.

A Royal Navy spokesman said: "Due to the successful deployment of Royal Navy units to the Libya campaign, it has been necessary to reprofile the commitments of some ships.

"Should a Fleet Ready Escort activation be required, a Royal Navy ship would be allocated."

Asked why there has not been a FRE since HMS Portland, the Navy spokesman said: "We do not need one currently. We've got ships off Libya and they are returning now. That's the situation. We've had to look after our priorities and be flexible. We are doing the best with what we have got."

: In response to this story, the Ministry of Defence says that:

Various newspapers have reported that Britain's coast has been undefended for the past month because the Royal Navy cannot spare a single ship due to cuts and operations in Libya.

There are always a number of Royal Navy units at sea in UK waters maintaining security, including fishery protection and minehunting duties. Other units, including frigates and destroyers, are regularly involved in training exercises and would therefore be available for retasking at short notice if circumstances dictate. Should a Fleet Ready Escort activation be required, a Royal Navy ship would be allocated immediately.

Due to the successful deployment of Royal Naval units to the Libya campaign, it has been necessary to reprofile the tasks of some ships. UK waters remain well-protected as at any one time there are always a number of Royal Navy ships conducting maritime security operations. Should a ship be required for a counter-terrorist operation, for example, a Royal Navy ship would be allocated immediately. The Fleet Ready Escort is not and has never been the sole protector of UK waters.

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