British Prime Minister David Cameron and his military chiefs are in open conflict over the sustainability of Britain’s bombing campaign against the Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.
After a second military commander was reported on Tuesday to have expressed reservations about the campaign, Cameron showed his displeasure in a meeting with journalists.
“There are moments I wake up and read the newspapers and think, I tell you what, you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking,” he said.
He maintained that the United Kingdom would be able to sustain operations for a long time, despite recent widespread cutbacks in the Ministry of Defense budget. “Time is on our side, not on Qaddafi’s side,” he said.
The latest equivocation about the military operation came from Sir Simon Bryant, the air defense marshal, who was reported to have told members of Parliament in a recent briefing that Britain’s operations in Afghanistan and Libya have placed a “huge” demand on equipment and personnel. He expressed concern about the Royal Air Force’s capability to sustain its operation beyond September.
Bryant said air crews were overworked, felt undervalued because of the defense cuts and morale was “fragile.” The RAF, he said, is finding it difficult to recruit staff, and in some specialties is falling one-fourth short of personnel requirements.
Under the government’s current plans, the RAF with 32,000 personnel is due to lose 5,000 people over the next three years. Half of its intelligence officers are scheduled to be phased out.
Britain is employing Typhoon and Tornado aircraft in the Libyan bombing campaign, along with the recent addition of Apache helicopters. It also has on duty in Afghanistan 10 Tornadoes, four Hercules transport planes and more than 20 helicopters.
Military leaders have expressed concern that, by autumn, they may have to transfer equipment from Afghanistan to Libya to sustain the operation there, if Colonel Qaddafi has not fallen from power by then.
Just last week, Admiral Mark Stanhope, the head of the Royal Navy, warned that current operations against the Libyan regime would be “unsustainable” beyond September.
Sir Menzies Campbell, a former Liberal Democrat leader, backed the military complaints.
“First the Navy, now the RAF—defense decisions are coming home to roost,” he said. “You can have increased defense commitments and cuts, but you can’t have both at the same time.”
British members of Parliament have told reporters they are getting a lot of mail from constituents about the costs of military operations in Afghanistan and Libya.
And on Thursday, the British government finally bowed to pressure and acknowledged that the Libyan bombing campaign has so far cost £250 million. The Defense Ministry provided the figure in a written statement to the House of Commons after officials had previously shown reluctance to come clean on the costs.
When Cameron first authorized bombing on March 19, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said it would run into the tens of millions.
One British television correspondent recalled on Tuesday that, 10 years ago, then Defense Secretary John Reed expressed confidence that British troops being sent to Afghanistan could return without having fired a shot. Since then 374 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and more than 1,700 wounded.
Earlier this week Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian newspaper, reported that he had tried unsuccessfully to find out how much the Libyan operation was costing Britain. A Ministry of Defense spokesman said the Treasury was “doing an assessment,” but no “actual figures” were available.
A Treasury spokesman told Mr. Katz that it was not currently possible “to pull together real-time figures.”
Mr. Katz then turned to the Foreign Office, and a spokesman told him: “The foreign secretary has made clear that we will present accurate costings to Parliament in due course. We will not be providing a running commentary.”
This, Mr. Katz noted, was the response from a government that claims to be “the most open and transparent in the world.”
He noted that, as of June 3, the US government reported it had spent $715.9 million on military operations in Libya and associated humanitarian assistance, of which $398.3 million was spent on bombs and missiles alone.
The Pentagon sent 120,000 halal meals ready to eat (MRE’s) to Benghazi at a cost of $1.3 million, he said. And by Sept. 30 the Pentagon expects the Libyan bill to have risen to $1.1 billion. All these figures came from a document the Obama administration gave to Congress last week.
Mr. Katz recalled a Guardian report in May that quoted defense experts who suggested the British bill by autumn is likely to be between £400 million and £1 billion.
“If David Cameron is serious about transparency, he needs to be as open about inconvenient facts as he has been about inconsequential ones,” he wrote.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at email@example.com.)