Britain commits £1bn – and time – to end Gaddafi's attacks in Libya
Britain's military commitment to help Libyan rebels get rid of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is open-ended and the cost, estimated to top £1bn by the summer, will come out of special Treasury funds, the defence secretary, , said on Wednesday.
He believed operations against Gaddafi's forces were sustainable, denied there was a stalemate, and claimed there was the political will to carry them through. "Our resolve will not waver," he told MPs on the cross-party Commons defence committee.
Asked how long it would take Britain and other countries engaged in the operations to achieve their objectives, he said it was "up to Colonel Gaddafi". The Libyan leader had to "move to a safe distance" and stop threatening, let alone attacking, Libya's civilian population.
"It is essential to give the signal – it is not time-limited, it would not be short, and not be finite," Fox told MPs.
Asked about estimates by military analysts that the cost of Britain's air strikes on could amount to more than £1bn if they continued into the summer, he said the chancellor had agreed to pay out of the Treasury's contingency reserve.
Fox had just returned from a visit to Washington with General Sir David Richards, chief of the defence staff, to encourage the US to step up pressure on Gaddafi.
Asked about a comment from Admiral Mike Mullen, Richards's American counterpart, that the conflict in Libya was moving closer to a stalemate, Fox said he did not accept the description. Instead, he called the situation "fluid", pointing to the decision by the Italian government to join the air strikes, and by Kuwait to offer funds to the rebels.
Fox admitted there were "limitations" on what could be achieved by air strikes alone, especially when the rules of engagement were designed to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. However, he insisted that Britain's decision to supply the rebels, whom he described as a "very disparate grouping", with body armour and military advisers was not the first step to arming them. He added: "It would be completely unacceptable to have foreign forces on Libyan soil."
The defence secretary sidestepped a question about whether Gaddafi himself was a target, an issue that has provoked controversy between ministers and defence chiefs. That there was legal justification to target his regime's "command and control assets" was as far as he would go.
Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, said that while the costs of military action in Libya were rising fast there still appeared to be no apparent endgame.
"We support the UN effort and as it continues ministers must guarantee that not a penny piece will be taken from the frontline in Afghanistan, that these costs will not lead to further cuts to the MoD budget and that regular updates to parliament will include explanation of the costs of operations," he said.
Threatening Gaddafi with the prospect of an indictment before the international criminal court, Fox said it was essential the institution had "not only a long reach but a long memory". Had Gaddafi had his way he "would probably have unleashed hell on the people of Benghazi".
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