THE two enormous aircraft carriers being built on the Clyde and Rosyth are likely to escape the government's defence cuts but their survival will be at the expense of the rest of the Royal Navy fleet which will be cut to its smallest size in history, it emerged yesterday.
The decimation of the fleet will see the number of UK warships cut by almost half to just 25 with frigates, destroyers, submarines, minesweepers and all amphibious craft facing the axe.
Yesterday, it emerged that admirals offered to scrap such a large proportion of the navy in exchange for keeping the carriers, upon which 4,600 jobs on the Clyde and at Rosyth depend.
While the suggestion that the work in Scottish shipyards will continue will be welcomed north of the Border, defence experts warned that the cuts would be felt more deeply elsewhere in the country.
There have been suggestions that at least one and possibly two out of Scotland's three RAF airbases at Leuchars, Kinloss and Lossiemouth will be axed in the coalition government's Strategic Defence and Security Review, which will see cuts in the UK's 37 billion annual defence budget.
The government's defence cuts are expected to be lower than 10 per cent but there are fears that they will be sufficiently draconian to see the UK ending up with aircraft carriers, but no aircraft to fly from them.
The option of savaging the fleet in return for saving the carriers was offered by navy top brass to the National Security Council as the days count down towards the publication of the review later this month.
Although negotiations over the cuts are going right down to the wire, the signs are that the future of the first carrier the Queen Elizabeth is secure. But there are still some doubts about whether the second ship the Prince of Wales will actually end up being an aircraft carrier.
Some people have suggested that the ship may be built then mothballed and put on a state of "extended readiness". Another option would be for the second carrier to be redesigned as a helicopter or troop carrier.
Although the future of Faslane looks reasonably secure thanks to the fact that the nuclear deterrent is based there, defence experts acknowledged that the minesweepers moored at the naval base are not safe. "This is the typical fudge that we were expecting. If we had no carriers we would be admitting that we were no longer a world power.
"The Tories are reluctant to say that, even though the truth is that we are not," said Clive Fairweather, the defence analyst and former SAS commander.
"In Scotland, we are talking about a lot of jobs, but there is a danger that we could have the aircraft carriers but they don't carry aircraft.
"The implications of getting rid of so much of the fleet also begs the question what are you going to do with the Royal Marines? You may have the ability to project power from the carriers, but you don't have the amphibious vehicles to get ashore.
"Any reduction in the surface fleet and possibly submarines will undoubtedly have an effect on Faslane. Faslane is quite a big naval base and will be affected. I personally think that we need the aircraft carriers, but we need a surface fleet as well.
"I would suspect that if you are losing a few surface ships and submarines, then it will affect jobs at Faslane."
Angus Robertson, the SNP's defence spokesman, said: "Big defence decisions will fall within days and ministers in London need to understand the consequences of their decisions for the defence footprint across the nations and regions of the UK.
"This review is financially driven and unfortunately the coalition government does not have the interests of many parts of the UK at heart. We must impress on them the importance of bases like RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss."
It is understood that the navy has offered to slim down the fleet to just 12 surface ships, leaving it with six Type 45 destroyers and six Type 23 frigates.
The submarine fleet would be reduced to seven Astute hunter-killers plus the four Trident nuclear submarines.
When the two carriers are included this would reduce the fleet by half from its current total of 42 ships.
Such a cut would see the fleet reduced to its lowest ebb since King Henry VIII.
In modern terms, it would see the Navy reduced to the size of the Italian navy and end up at around half the size of the French navy.
Naval sources have warned that the cuts would make it extremely difficult for Britain to defend sea lanes on which 90 per cent of the country's trade relies.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said: "The Strategic Defence and Security Review will be announced later this month. Until that is announced everything that is reported is purely speculation and rumour."
Rise and fall of britain's navy
Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was a landmark moment in Britain's rise as world's leading naval power
The first Dreadnought battleship launched in 1906
Sir Francis Drake saw off the Spanish in the 16th century
Full-scale of Britain's might on show at Weymouth Bay in 1939
When Sir Francis Drake faced the threat of the Armada in 1588, the navy could only muster 34 vessels - all much smaller than the Spanish warships.
That figure was swelled to 197 when gentlemen sailors rallied to the cause. The fleet eventually triumphed over the 132 Spanish vessels carrying 3,000 guns and 30,000 men.
The fleet then increased in size, from about 270 ships in 1700 to about 500 in 1793 and almost 950 vessels in 1805 when Admiral Nelson faced the French at the Battle of Trafalgar. At the peak of the Napoleonic Wars (1799 to 1815) there were 150,000 sailors in the navy.
The Dreadnought revolution saw the Royal Navy become the most powerful maritime force in the world. The first Dreadnought with its steam turbine and enormous guns was launched in 1906. By early 1914 the Royal Navy had 18 modern dreadnoughts (six more being built), ten battle cruisers, 20 town cruisers, 15 scout cruisers, 200 destroyers, 29 battleships (pre-Dreadnought design) and 150 cruisers built before 1907.
In the Second World War some 1,525 vessels of all sizes were lost, including 224 large warships. Over 50,000 British naval personnel lost their lives, a total more than all the men and women currently serving in today's Royal Navy and Royal Marines, and 20,000 more than in the First World War.
By 1945 the Royal Navy had grown to almost 900 major warships and a force of 866,000 men and women
Since then the size of the fleet has fallen steadily to its current level of 42 vessels.