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.
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:
|Greece||Naval Support Activity Souda Bay||$47,850,000|
|Italy||Naval Air Station Sigonella||$66,050,000|
|Spain||Naval Station Rota||$21,590,000|
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||Lossiemouth||EDI: 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.”