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State of the Royal Navy

Conservatives have welcomed signals that the Government is to approve plans for the construction of two new Royal Navy super-carriers, but have protested at cutbacks in the destroyer and frigate fleet.

Commenting as Defence Secretary Des Browne prepared to announce the go ahead for the 3.8 billion aircraft carrier programme - following a ten year delay - Dr Liam Fox said: "We welcome the overdue announcement of the new carriers, but it will not remove the problems of cuts to the naval fleet under Labour."

The Shadow Defence Secretary warned that "savage cuts" to the Royal Navy's destroyer and frigate fleet "cannot easily be undone by the carrier order".

And he stated: "What is worse are the cuts in the new Type 45 destroyers from 8 to 6, which will leave the carrier groups carelessly unsupported."

Dr Fox said: "Yet again, we are being subjected to New Labour spin. It's quite clear you just can't trust Gordon Brown's supposed 'new style Government'."

Mr Browne's Commons go ahead for the new aircraft carriers is expected to form part of a wider spending deal for the Armed Forces, which have been under acute pressure from war-fighting operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, Conservatives remain cautious given the Government's history of making repeat announcements about plans which fail to come to fruition. In 1998, the Blair administration said it planned to buy two new larger aircraft carriers, to project Britain's power internationally, replacing the Royal Navy's existing smaller carriers by 2012. This promise was repeated in 2003, 2004, 2005 and earlier this year - yet no orders have so far been made.

During the past decade the Government has cut the strength of the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary from 142 to 110 ships - and the active carrier force from three to two vessels - all at a time when the strategic climate has become increasingly dangerous and Britain's international military commitments have increased.

The frigate and destroyer fleet has been slashed from 35 to 25, with three destroyers and three frigates axed in 2004 alone - reducing the operation capability of the Royal Navy.

And cuts have left an alarming gap in Britain's naval air defence. In March 2006, the Government withdrew the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers from service, while the replacement Joint Strike Fighter is not expected to come into service until at least 2014.

Fox, Liam

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