Gavin Williamson has announced a new Defence Arctic Strategy, but does the British military have enough resources to back it up?

The strategy will enhance the Ministry of Defence’s focus on the Arctic, according to the Government.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“As the ice melts and new shipping routes emerge, the significance of the High North and Arctic region increases.

Russia, with more submarines operating under the ice and ambitions to build over 100 facilities in the Arctic, are staking a claim and militarising the region. We must be ready to deal with all threats as they emerge.”

The change in the natural environment in the Arctic and High North is driving a change in the security environment and, as the region becomes more accessible, there has been an increase in military activity. The new Defence Arctic Strategy will put the Arctic and the High North central to the security of the United Kingdom say the Ministry of Defence in a release.

“Currently, the Royal Marines conduct cold weather training in Norway on an annual basis, with around 800 due to deploy in 2019. As part of the new Arctic strategy, the Marines training will become joint with Norway on a long-term basis and integrated into Norway’s defence plan, providing UK troops a unique opportunity to train alongside a key ally.

The strategy will also complement our NATO commitments and in 2019, four RAF Typhoons will for the first time patrol Icelandic skies. This will allow the UK to work closely with allies to deter aerial threats to Euro Atlantic security. The mission will also provide the RAF with unique opportunities to test its skills in different environments. In 2020 we will also increase our operational commitments in the area with the introduction of new P-8 Poseidon aircraft. Based out of RAF Lossiemouth, the sub-hunters will help combat a range of intensifying threats, not least increasing submarine activity in the Arctic.”

This increased submarine activity poses a new threat and is something the Royal Navy is ready to combat. In 2018, a Royal Navy submarine took part in ICEX with the US Navy for the first time in ten years and as part of the new Defence Arctic Strategy, the Navy will mount regular under-ice deployments in the years to come.

The recent United States National Defense Authorization Act 2019 cleared the United States Navy to “acquire property and carry out military construction projects” at RAF Lossiemouth.

According to the act in section 2902:

The Secretary of the Navy may acquire real property and carry out the military construction projects for the installations outside the United States, and in the amounts, set forth in the following table:

Navy: Outside the United States
CountryLocationAmount
GreeceNaval Support Activity Souda Bay$47,850,000
ItalyNaval Air Station Sigonella$66,050,000
SpainNaval Station Rota$21,590,000
UKLossiemouth$79,130,000

It’s likely this is in support of a decision last year for the US to routinely base P-8 Poseidon aircraft in Scotland alongside British aircraft. This is supported by a line later in the act that states:

Navy  LossiemouthEDI: P–8 Base Improvements

The P-8 Poseidon basing agreement was signed last year by Harriett Baldwin, Under Secretary of State for Defence Procurement. Some have suggested that this is due to the relatively low numbers to be operated by the UK.

In 2019 the UK will take delivery of its first Poseidon P-8A aircraft and both nations have committed to deepen their defence cooperation when operating in the North Atlantic region.

A press release states:

“Through seeking opportunities to share logistics and support bases and optimise the use of P-8A aircraft, particularly in Europe, the declaration should ensure increased value for money and operational effectiveness.”

Harriett Baldwin said:

“The United States is our pre-eminent ally in global defence and collective security. This declaration is further evidence of how our two countries continue to cooperate and build mutual security, particularly in the North Atlantic region. Backed by a rising defense budget and a £178 billion Equipment Plan, the P-8A program will provide us with enhanced surveillance capabilities.”

The MoD had said that the declaration provides a new opportunity to maximise value for money for the taxpayer and continue to strengthen UK-US interoperability and ‘to pursue efficiencies in operations and support’ say the US, including at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, where the P-8A will bring some 400 plus jobs.

“The Department of Defense and U.K. Ministry of Defense plan to cooperate closely on operation of their P-8A aircraft in the North Atlantic to ensure a coherent approach to MPA activity.”

Air Commodore Ian Gale, senior responsible owner for the Poseidon P-8A program, said:

“This agreement will enhance the UK’s maritime patrol capability and further strengthen UK-US defence relations. The arrival of the Poseidon P-8A in 2019 will provide the U.K. with significantly increased capabilities and bring hi-tech employment to Scotland and the wider UK.”

However, recent evidence submitted to the Defence Select Committee argues that seven additional P-8 Poseidon aircraft should be acquired, bringing the total fleet to 16 aircraft.

Written evidence submitted by Air Vice-Marshal Andrew L Roberts (Retd) states that:

“SDSR 15 proposed that nine P-8 Poseidon MPA be acquired. At the time, the P-8 was the only MPA on the market capable of meeting the UK’s needs in a reasonable timescale.  Given the urgency of filling this acknowledged gap in the Defence Programme, the Government was undoubtedly justified in selecting that aircraft without going out to competition.

However, capable though the P-8 may be, the number of aircraft planned is undoubtedly inadequate to fulfil even the highest priority tasks likely to be assigned to the force in tension and hostilities.”

The reduction of the UK’s anti-submarine warfare capability, which has been a core task of the Royal Navy for decades, has also been criticised by the Defence Committee.

In its report regarding UK capability in the Arctic called ‘On Thin Ice’, the Defence Select Committee identified the Arctic and the High North as an area of concern, largely due to the increasingly clear evidence of Russian military expansion. The Committee also resolved to undertake a closer examination of the region in a dedicated inquiry.

“The willingness of the UK to play a greater role in the security of the Arctic and the High North is tempered by the concern that Defence does not have sufficient resources to establish a meaningful presence in the region. Platforms and capabilities which might have a role in the High North are heavily committed elsewhere, and, with the Modernising Defence Programme still to be completed, there is no indication of new resources being applied. We ask the Department to explain how the Arctic and High North has featured in the strategic analysis undertaken in the course of the National Security Capability Review and the Modernising Defence Programme and how these will be represented in future policy.

The historical importance of the maritime space stretching from the Arctic to the North Atlantic is well established, but we can see that many of the strategic considerations which were present in the recent past are now re-emerging. The marked increase in Russian naval activity in the waters around the British Isles and the entrances to the Atlantic is clearly a matter of concern to the Government.

We are equally concerned about the United Kingdom’s ability to match this threat adequately. The reduction of the UK’s anti-submarine warfare capability, which has been a core task of the Royal Navy for decades, has been noted in recent Committee reports and we repeat those concerns here. While the capability of the surface and sub-surface vessels the Royal Navy operates is world class, there are not enough platforms available for the task in hand, and vessels that are in service are often committed to standing tasks elsewhere.”

The report also discusses the threat of communications disruption:

“The threat to undersea data cables is a real one, and the consequences of such networks being disrupted would be serious. We accept that the Government shares this concern and is aware of the associated risks. But this risk further reinforces the need for effective situational awareness to support maritime security and a credible anti-submarine detection capability to deter hostile activity.

An issue raised to particular prominence by the then Chief of the Defence Staff in December 2017 was the vulnerability of undersea data cables to hostile submarine action. As one submission noted:

“These connections—which carry almost all global internet communications—can be eavesdropped, thus allowing vital information to be gleaned. Cutting these cables could cause huge damage to economic markets and interrupt social communications.”

A 2017 report from Policy Exchange highlighted the vulnerability of undersea cables and the level of disruption that could be caused in a short period of time if the key data and communications links that they provide are cut. Russian naval activity along known routes of undersea cables has increased.

This, together with Russian naval expansion and widespread utilisation of hybrid warfare techniques, suggested that there was a real risk to cables. The report also noted that the GIUK Gap is home to several key undersea cable routes, the cutting of which would disrupt communication between NATO allies in the region, such as Iceland and Canada. It recommended that that NATO maritime exercises should incorporate the possibility of attacks on undersea cables and that the nature of the international response in the event of such an attack should be more seriously considered.

The MoD said in its written evidence on this matter:

“We regard undersea cables as part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure and monitor a variety of threats to them, including from possible hostile maritime activity. For security reasons, we do not comment on specific assessments. Russia has a formidable sub-surface warfare capability. It poses a unique security challenge including in the North Atlantic Ocean … We continue working with industry to ensure our subsea cable network is secure and have a variety of tools to monitor potentially hostile maritime activity.”

34 COMMENTS

  1. “Gavin Williamson has announced a new Defence Arctic Strategy, but does the British military have enough resources to back it up?”

    It’s a good question, and also whether it has the right sort of resources, and are the existing ones suitable, but perhaps it’s enough for now that they are actually coming up with a strategy, as that recognises the need and starts the ball rolling.

    • Just to add to that, as long as the QE and POW can actually safely operate in the Arctic (presumably so), then having the VSTOL rather than cats and traps will prove to have been the right decision in itself. I’d like to see an exercise out there as soon as, with QE and escorts.

      • Sorry, another afterthought. We’re going to need hardened and heat-resistant insulated and portable landing mats for the ice and the F35-B!

    • I agree with your sentiment dadsarmy. Though as a longer term outcome of the strategy, I really struggle to see how they can meet it in any meaningful way without more funds. I understand the US will be basing p8s in lossiemouth, so perhaps this strategy is part of the political maneuvering to enlist more NATO support to meet this threat? Or maybe it is part of a push to get more funds/ships (highly doubtful I know), some ssk’s and an lph would help in this arena…

      • I tend to agree JohnG, the Russians have been spending a lot of money on subs. I don’t know how Astute stands up, but 7 would need to multiplied by 5 if cash was unlimited. Meanwhile they send a smoky carrier up and down the Channel to fool everybody.

  2. We have the expertise.
    We have capabilities.
    We lack the numbers.

    We always will until HMG match their world stage grandstanding with an uplift in numbers.

    The RN and RAF should take priority from now on and the UK should concentrate on power projection and NATO flanks, not land warfare facing off with the Russians.

    • My head is spinning with successive commitments to far east, near East, North sea…

      Great to see a billion pound air warfare destroyer with no land attack capability deploying to undertake maritime security and reassure our ‘allies’ in the near East. Please can we get type 31s in the water!

    • We seem to be short on pretty much everything Daniele, including common sense. Let’s hope HMG can find some in the defence budget for the latter. It doesn’t require much!

  3. The army is already incapable of fighting a proper war, and is already in a desperate situation. Hell we have armoured units beeing deployed to Eastern Europe to “deterr Russian aggression” with nothing more then glorfied technicals like those used by insurgents. Pitching the armed forces against each other is not the answer. A strong government that actually understands and cares about British defence and its international image is.

  4. It’s not just the responsibility of UK to counter the growing Russian threat.. Our allies are very important in this part of the world. I believe Sweden and Finland have an agreement to work together on ASW. And Norway has SSK boats in that area. The Dutch also have the Walrus class subs. The Scandinavian nations have reasonable surface capability as does Holland.And this is before you mention the US.
    The Astute class are truly excellent and even one of them is something any potential adversary would have to take extremely seriously

    • Thanks for your post Jack. I don’t know much about Nordic asw capabilities. I know about the famous Sweden Gotland class, that Germany has around 6 ssk and that we seem to be pooling p8s with various people, but that’s it. Understanding Nordic asw capabilities, do you think that with occasional support from the odd UK ship it is sufficient regarding countering Russia? Or would we need an increase in funding/ships in order to realistically meet the Russian threat with our allies?

  5. In the most optimistic case, the RN could put 2 SSNs in the arctic, leave only 1, perhaps 2, to cover the rest of the entire world. It is not feasible with present numbers.

  6. No we do not have anywhere near the firepower or military forces to defend NATOs northern flank. Russia has nothing to fear from the UK armed forces. In any conflict we would be a mere annoyance and quickly overwhelmed due to our lack of naval power. If we deployed 800 marines to occupy newly exposed islands then they would be very exposed. If we want Northern flank, safeguarding the article, RN deploying east of Suez, South China sea, Pacific etc then we needs to get building and quickly. Meanwhile do not dare cut the Royal navy any further. We need every single warship, auxillary and submarine we currently have.
    If it is the defence budget that is tight simply take the money from the over the top foreign aid budget. £15 billion is going to be spent on foreign aid this year. The government should take £5 billion from that budget to fund RAF strategic airlift force, Royal fleet auxillary, air tanker operations and the amphibious warship fleet. Thereby safeguarding those elements from cuts and allowing defence budget to concentrate on warfighting forces and allow more than 9 Poseidon aircraft, more than 48 F35Bs and more than 8 type 26s.

  7. Morning all
    This is not a new strategy so should be easy for the government to mandate.
    This is nothing new for the military just a return to what we were doing 20 years ago.
    What we will see though is a more joined up approach, inter service and international.
    You can see something is underway between the US/UK/NOR which should give the 24hr coverage required to provide minimum deterrence, be it aircraft, ships, submarines or land forces.
    Permanent basing now seems a cost effective policy (Bahrain, Germany, Cyprus, Falklands, Gibraltar, Singapore, Oman) which gives flexibility of manoeuvre and allows the military to surge in certain areas of required.
    Do we have too few P-8, probably
    Do we have too few T26, probably
    Do we have too few Astute, probably
    However, it looks as though HMG are trying to overcome that by forward basing USN assets in Lossiemouth, working with the RNorN and forward basing RM and supporting Army units in Norway.
    Even this will begin to put a strain on already limited manpower resources, before we start shopping for more kit let’s make sure we have the people to do all the things being asked of them

    • Lee I agree but forward basing in Germany no longer makes sense when the front line is more than a thousand kilometres away. It has no deterrent effect and cannot intervene in a crisis. The baltics would be overrun and could not be retaken. Let the central and eastern European members focus on balarus border while we focus on northern framework with scandavians. This plays to our strengths in naval and air warfare domains.

      • Hi Anthony
        Part of this is politics, part of it is the senelarger training area.
        Politics – whilst you may be trying to reduce us the 3rd party status in the EU, we are still with you
        Senelarger – great training area, used for most joint NATO exercises and just across the channel

  8. We have 3 RM Commandos ie a Brigade. So if we’re going to integrate 1 of them into the Norwegian order of battle what will we replace it with ? Are we going to raise a 4th Commando or downgrade the Commando Brigade ?

    • Depends how you view the Commandos. We have 3, but only 2 are now used in a land role with 3 Commando. 42 was re rolled as maritime ops commando already.

      I don’t think it will be integrated with Norway, no more than the Dutch marines are integrated with our own Commandos, despite forming part of 3 Commando in war for NATO ops as part of the UK Netherlands amphibious force.

        • Indeed. And as I mentioned only two going forward will be used as part of that brigade as a formation, among with Commando Logistic Regiment, the Command Support Group, Armoured Support Group, 539 Sqn, 29 RA and 24 RE.

          42 has been reduced in manpower, had it’s support company and heavier weapons removed, and is split into Companies deployed on ships, providing the Standby Rifle Troop, boarding parties against pirates, and In future CSAR people aboard the carriers.

          43 is the same. It too has a specialist role separate from the rest of the RM.

          It will not deploy into Norway as part of a 3 Battalion Brigade, as was standard for the
          3 Commando Brigade ORBAT.

          16 AA Brigade is the same, reduced to 2 para battalions rather than 3, though they have had a Gurkha Battalion added as it becomes clear 2 manouvre units is not enough.

          So in effect your first question is correct. The Brigade has been downgraded.

          The supports for 3 separate Commandos do not exist either. 24 RE is 2 squadrons strong, with a 3rd field squadron never formed. 29 RA only has 12 guns in 2 fire batteries.

          Hope this helps.

  9. Afternoon all
    The 800 troops that will deploy to Norway not come from a single Cdo unit but be a combined arms activity that will exercise the brigade function as an all arms manoeuvre warfare battle group.
    I am never keen on quoting the expected ORBAT but here goes:
    Lead Cdo – 40 or 45 Cdo RM
    29 Cdo RA battery including command elements
    148 Party NGFS
    HQ 3 Cdo Bde
    AD Troop
    BPT
    845/847 Sqn
    Cdo Logs
    30 Cdo RM including Y Troop
    18 Sigs Regt
    SBS
    HMS Albion
    At least 1 LSL(A)
    The Dutch
    The RAF
    Whilst 800 seems a small number what actually gets deployed is the organic function of the Bde, the list above and a lot more, it’s not just about putting boots on the ground it about exercising the C2 function, logistics chain, supply chain – everything you would expect from the Bde and it’s supporting elements, getting the boys used to operating in the snow again, planks waxed and ice breaking drills included…….
    Expect 40 to be off the jungle at some point 👍🏻

    • Great post Lee. Thank you.

      And nice ORBAT list. All I can see that I might add to that is elements of 24 Engineer Regiment, probably not a squadron, maybe a troop? And of course 17 PMR.

      Not sure if our Vikings have been used in Norway yet, so a troop of them would also be welcome.

      I wonder if any of the RM Reserve will be represented, or do they not have the skills?

      • Hi Daniele
        Many thanks.
        I would expect 59 to deploy and elements of PMR. You will also see an airhead team deployed (to support the Hercules and C-17 with their deliveries of beer – its really expensive in Norway and their off-licences look like banks!!)

    • Hi Bill
      16 AAB comprises of two active Para infantry units, 2 PARA and 3 PARA. 4 PARA are the reserve unit, 9 PARA being their organic RA unit. Other infantry units will get assigned to brigades depending on their status and role.

    • Bill. Your are correct.

      16 AA Brigade.

      Bde HQ
      216 Para Signals Squadron R Signals.
      2 Para
      3 Para
      2 RGR
      7 Para Regiment RHA.
      23 Para Engineer Regiment.
      13 AA Regiment RLC.
      16 Medical Regiment RAMC.
      156 RMP.
      Pathfinder Platoon.

      Supported by 12 ( Minden ) AA Battery RA, 21 ( Gibraltar ) Battery RA, elements of 33 EOD Regiment ( 821 EOD ) and 47 Air Despatch.

      Both 7 RHA and 23 RE had squadrons removed under Army 2020. 3 and 4 AAC were also removed.

      4 Para is as stated the reserve formation, with a few other bits and pieces.

      Interestingly. 16 Medical run the “Black Serpent” courses for medics working with UKSF and provide personnel for the UKSF Med Group.

      Cheers.

    • Morning TH
      Who do you mean by we?
      The only real proposal was the one from the Sec Def who stated the HMG would be sending 800 RM and Army Commandos back to Norway every year, reintroducing an annual exercise that had shrunk over recent years due to other commitments.
      As for the comments, they are just ideas that people, who want to contribute to the debate have – makes us a nice healthy democracy.
      I think most commentators on here would want to see the defence budget increased to meet the ambition, whether that will happen is hard to tell.
      MDP is now closed for comment, those comments have been shared with the public, in a precis type way and I think you will find most of the comments were not talking about the virtual fleets of kit that some may want but were articulating ways in which HMG could achieve its ambition.
      Have a great day
      Lee

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