It comes as Britain and the US launched air strikes on Thursday night against Houthi rebels over their attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea, with Rishi Sunak warning it would “continue to take action” if the Iranian-backed rebels did not deescalate.
There have been calls to send HMS Queen Elizabeth, the UK’s £3 billion aircraft carrier to the region, as part of the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) which is made up of a ring of advanced warships, submarines, helicopters and fifth generation fighter jets.
However The Telegraph understands that RFA Fort Victoria, the only Solid Support Ship capable of providing the CSG with the amount of ammunition, aircraft, spare equipment and food required for a full deployment, is unable to sail owing to a lack of sailors.
In normal times it operates a crew of 100, but is understood to currently be working with a skeleton crew.
While the merchant navy’s vessel was due to be back on the water in 2023, having undergone extensive repairs since it sailed with the CSG to the Indo-Pacific in 2021, it is still in Liverpool’s Cammell Laird shipyard despite the fact it is understood to be mechanically fine.
The Royal Navy describes the “role” of the CSG as being able “to act as a self-contained force that can work independently or as part of wider operations”.
It is understood that the Navy has prioritised crewing other Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels over RFA Fort Victoria, such as tankers, which provide fuel for ships, and the bay class landing vessels, which deliver humanitarian aid and act as a mothership to mine-hunting vessels.
Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, said: “It’s atrocious the Navy has let Fort Victoria get to the state it’s in. Bearing in mind she [Fort Victoria] is the only one, there should have been a very high priority when she returned from the CSG 21 to make sure she was in tip top condition should she be needed.”
On Thursday night four RAF Typhoon fighter jets, supported by a Voyager air refueling tanker, used guided bombs to conduct precision strikes on two of the Houthi facilities in Yemen. The Ministry of Defence confirmed that “several key targets at the airfield were identified and prosecuted by our aircraft”.
However, the former head of the navy cautioned that there was a “general lack of understanding of the capability of an aircraft carrier” in response to the recent strikes.
“It’s extraordinary that when things started hotting up in the Red Sea region there wasn’t the immediate move to send an aircraft carrier there,” Lord West said.
“If we had an aircraft carrier there we could have had 24 aircraft only 100 miles from Yemen ready to go at any moment and reattack.”
Although RFA Fort Victoria remains in Birkenhead, defence sources insisted “there would be other ways of supporting the aircraft carriers” if the warship were to be sent to the region.
It is understood this could include working with other nations to ensure solid supplies such as obtaining more ammunition.
It has been suggested that naval chiefs could move sailors to RFA Fort Victoria from other merchant navy vessels, but they would need time to be trained.
Pete Sandeman, a naval expert, said: “The Carrier Strike Group is missing a major supporting element. It’s not a big problem just for exercises, but if something more serious happens then it is a problem. You can only rely on friendly nations for logistic support up to a point.”
It comes after The Telegraph revealed that the Navy has so few sailors it has to decommission warships HMS Westminster and HMS Argyll to staff its new class of frigates.
The Navy has suffered a collapse in the flow of new recruits into the service amid a recruitment crisis that is affecting the whole of the Armed Forces and its support arms.
John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, accused the Conservative Government of having “hollowed out” the Armed Forces.
“Our Navy support ships are spending less time at sea, and ministers have failed to get to grips with the growing recruitment crisis,” he said.
Mr Healey pledged that under a Labour government, all three forces will have “the kit they need to fight with confidence and fulfil our Nato obligations”.
While the RFA currently maintains the fleet requirement of 11 vessels, recent figures show the availability of the support ships to be sent to sea alongside the Navy has halved in the past decade.
Figures obtained by Labour showed the RFA vessels spent fewer than 1,200 days “at readiness” for deployment in 2022, compared to more than 2,400 days in 2013.
Tobias Ellwood, the former chairman of the Defence Select Committee, called on the Government to increase pay for military personnel to resolve the crisis.
He said: “Unless pay and conditions for both the RN and RFA are immediately addressed the shortage in personnel will result in a reduction of maritime operations at the very time our wider security interests are being threatened.
“The Mod has long understood this – but not the Treasury who need to be persuaded.”
A Royal Navy spokesman said: “Within the last three months both of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers have been at sea on operations, ably supported by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The RFA continues to fulfil all its commitments.”