London: Britain can sustain its mission in Libya for as long as it chooses, the head of the armed forces said Tuesday, after the navy chief warned of tough choices if the campaign lasts more than six months.
General David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, suggested that reported comments on Monday by Admiral Mark Stanhope, the head of the Royal Navy, had been misunderstood.
"He was actually answering a different question that`s been misconstrued, but we can sustain this operation as long as we choose to, absolutely clear on that," Richards told the BBC.
The earlier comments by Stanhope, the First Sea Lord, had called into question recent defence cuts including the scrapping of Britain`s flagship aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, and fleet of Harrier jump jets.
"How long can we go on as we are in Libya?" Stanhope asked at a media briefing.
"Certainly in terms of NATO`s current time limit that has been extended to 90 days, we are comfortable with that. Beyond that, we might have to request the government to make some challenging decisions about priorities."
Britain has been one of the chief players in the NATO military alliance implementing a United Nations mandate to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians in Libya as leader Moamer Kadhafi attempts to crush a rebel uprising.
"If we do it longer than six months we will have to reprioritise forces. That is being addressed now," Stanhope said. "It could be from around home waters. I will not prejudge what that decision will be."
In similar comments, one of NATO`s top commanders, French General Stephane Abrial, said on Tuesday that the alliance has sufficient means for the Libya campaign but the issue of resources "will become critical" if the conflict drags on.
Ark Royal, Britain`s biggest active warship, was axed as part of an eight-percent cut to the defence budget introduced by Prime Minister David Cameron`s coalition government, which is trying to bring Britain`s record deficit under control.
The vessel returned to base for the last time in December, leaving Britain without an aircraft carrier capable of launching jets for the next decade.
Separately the commander of the British naval task force that recaptured the Falkland Islands exactly 29 years ago warned Tuesday that the cuts meant Britain would struggle to defend the archipelago from another Argentine attack.
"As things currently stand, we`d have serious trouble defending anything much further than the other side of the English Channel," Admiral Sandy Woodward wrote in an article in the Daily Mail newspaper.