Iran tanker seizure: Ex-admirals join criticism of Royal Navy cuts

Former heads of the navy and politicians are today joining a chorus of criticism of the state of the Royal Navy - warning Britain's fleet no longer has the power to protect British interests, following the seizure by Iran of a British-flagged oil tanker.

Former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West said the Navy is 'disgracefully short of ships' while retired commander of UK maritime forces Rear Admiral Alex Burton today said the Navy's decline since 2005 'has had an impact on our ability to protect our interests around the globe'. 

In 1982 when Britain retook the Falklands with a Naval task force, the Royal Navy had 80 major warfighting vessels. Today it has 19 excluding submarines, and ten of those surface ships are undergoing long-term maintenance.  

The vessels that can be deployed have a raft of problems including aircraft carrier HMS Elizabeth's lack of fighter aircraft and the Type 45 destroyers that are fitted with engines that slow down in hot weather.  

Defence minister Tobias Ellwood has already admitted that the Navy is 'too small' after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized Stena Impero on Friday in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. 

Boris Johnson, who is expected to become Prime Minister tomorrow, has yet to weigh in on the growing crisis and Theresa May's spokesman today insisted that protecting all the ships in in the Gulf is an 'impossible' task for any Navy. 

The Royal Navy fleet is a fraction of its size three decades ago and many ships are currently out of commission undergoing maintenance or repair

Where are the Royal Navy's ships today?

DESTROYERS - ACTIVE

HMS Duncan - headed for the Gulf

HMS Dragon - UK water

DESTROYERS - INACTIVE

HMS Diamond - maintenance in Portsmouth 

HMS Defender - maintenance

HMS Dauntless - major refit, out of commission until 2021

HMS Daring - laid up since 2017 pending major refit

FRIGATES - ACTIVE

HMS Montrose - deployed to Arabian Gulf for three years

HMS St Albans - UK waters

HMS Sutherland - UK waters

HMS Kent - preparing to deploy to Gulf 

HMS Westminster - recently returned from Baltic exercises 

HMS Argyll - UK waters

HMS Northumberland - UK waters

FRIGATES - INACTIVE

HMS Richmond, HMS Lancaster, HMS Somerset, HMS Portland, HMS Iron Duke - all in for extensive refit the Navy's Devonport base in Plymouth

HMS Monmouth - awaiting refit 

But defence expert Huw Merriman MP today disagreed and accused the MoD of 'dropping the ball' by failing to organize British ships into convoys that could be more easily protected.        

Compounding the criticism, Jacob Rees-Mogg has accused Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt of 'grandstanding' for the Tory leadership contest while failing to take proper action after Iran threatened to take a British ship.    

The Navy's only vessel in the Gulf arrived on the scene 10 minutes too late to save the Impero on Friday and was reduced to sending radio messages ordering the Iranians not to board the tanker.  

More British ships will be needed if  the growing game of brinkmanship between Iran and the West in the Gulf escalates - after it began when axed the Iran nuclear deal and imposed sanctions on Tehran, and ratcheted up when the Revolutionary Guard bombed two oil tankers.

Then British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker carrying oil to Syria off Gibraltar earlier this month, a move understood to have been at the request of Washington, prompting immediate threats from Tehran that it would seize a British vessel.  

While the Type 23 Frigate HMS Montrose was immediately put on alert in the Gulf, and Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan was dispatched from Britain, the admiralty could not find any more resources to protect British shipping in the Strait of Hormuz despite the obvious threat. 

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important shipping channels in the world, providing the only route to the open ocean for one-sixth of the world'soil supply. 

But it also borders Iran making ships easy targets for Tehran.  

Theresa May attended a COBRA meeting today, and afterwards Number 10 insisted that it would not be able to protect all British ships, even if the Navy had more vessels. 

A spokesman said: 'We do not seek confrontation with Iran but it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to seize a ship going about legitimate business through internationally recognised shipping lanes.'

'The high volume of ships moving through the strait of Hormuz, up to 30 ships covering more than 100 nautical miles makes it impossible to escort vessels individually.' 

But that is not a view shared by Navy veterans and defence experts. 

Conservative MP Huw Merriman said yesterday: 'I take the view that we have dropped the ball here ... we did not put in place a chain where we asked all of our vessels to leave at a certain time under convoy.

'So it was hardly a surprise when one of ours got taken.'

Retired commander of UK maritime forces Rear Admiral Alex Burton told BBC Radio 4: 'There is no doubt that the size of the navy since 2005 - reduced from 31 frigates and destroyers to now 19 - has had an impact on our ability to protect our interests around the globe.

'I credit the politicians

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