The Royal Navy insisted that no decisions had been made about reductions to its fleet, amid reports that it was set to lose four major warships in the next three months.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman dismissed newspaper stories about a cull as "speculative and premature", insisting that restructuring plans were still in their infancy and while some older ships may be taken out of service, this will be countered by the introduction of several new vessels.
"It's likely that some of the older ships could be taken out because they do not have as much capability as some of the new ships being brought in," he said. "We have made an order for six Type-45 destroyers and it is planned to procure up to 12 new ships. "Some of the older vessels contribute less well to anticipated pattern of future operations and work is ongoing to establish a sustainable future structure" said the spokesperson adding that changes will be introduced "some time in 2004".
A report in The Daily Telegraph said the reduction in ship numbers was being brought about by budget cuts announced in last month's defence White Paper. The newspaper identified the four Type-42 destroyers to be axed as Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow and Liverpool.
The MoD said: "These vessels may well be among those that are being talked about but no firm decisions have been made. "We are not in a position to say we are reducing our fleet. The report may say we need less, the same or more (ships). We have no idea. "We are looking at the future structure of our fleet"
Conservative defence spokesman Nicholas Soames said that the threat to the warships was part of a wider problem of under-funding of the armed forces. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The Navy will be announcing very shortly that they are going to mothball four of the type 42 air defence destroyers, which means the fleet is going to be dangerously short of air cover.
"The defence budget is in a real crisis and we must acknowledge that and we are going to have to deal with it. "I think people will be quite astonished that - at a time when the forces have delivered so spectacularly - they should be in a period when it appears the Government is going to cut the resources that are their rightful due, given the operations they now have to undertake." He said: "We aren't putting enough money into defence and we are going to have to find ways of getting more in."
Mr Soames declined to say how the Conservatives would fund extra spending on defence. But he pledged: "We will fund whatever defence capabilities are essential to safeguard our national security and fulfil our obligations. "I shall be lobbying very hard to secure those funds to make sure that we have what we need for our troops to go on performing in the way they have."