Is Britain prepared for the naval challenges of a new Cold War?

In December 2014 Russia quietly signaled what maybe called the start of Cold War II when it issued a new military doctrine which lists NATO as its “main threat”. President Putin, a former KGB officer is determined to return Russia to the superpower status of the Soviet Union. Communist dogma may have gone but it has been replaced by nationalist expansionism and paranoia used to justify a military renaissance. Western nations are feeling this growing power by increasing numbers of Russian ships, aircraft and submarines to probing defences and even entering territorial waters.

Despite the end of the Cold war in the 1990s it could be argued that the threat from Russia never really went away. Even as its forces decayed, it retained the world’s most formidable nuclear arsenal. Russia still covets its former possessions in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, seeking to expand it borders as an economic zone and buffer to ‘protect the homeland’. Many Western observers and governments have spent the last 10 years playing down the threat from Russia as decrepit and irrelevant. Those sounding a warning were labeled as “nostalgic for the certainties of the Cold War” or playing up the threat to justify specific defence expenditure. It was not until the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine that there was full recognition the Russian bear has woken from his sleep.

With an iron grip on his domestic media, Putin remains popular at home as the ‘strong man’ and a recent poll found 64% of Russians would like a return of the Soviet Union while only 26% wanted an immediate end to the war with Ukraine. Despite growing economic problems caused by Western sanctions and a dramatic drop in oil prices, Putin is committed to a 33% rise in defence spending in 2015. The plan announced in 2012 for an ambitious rearmament program through 2020 is valued at 20 trillion rubles ($500 billion). $132 billion is allocated for upgrades to the navy and in particular the submarine fleet. The effects of this growing investment which has been happening in earnest since 2008, is already being felt on the frontline.

In 2014 the Russian navy received more than 40 warships, submarines and support vessels of different classes. In contrast the Royal Navy decommissioned HMS Illustrious and received not a single new vessel.

The resurgent Russian Navy

The annexing of Crimea liberated the Sevastopol naval base from Ukrainian restrictions and by 2016 the Black Sea fleet will have received 6 new Grigorovich-class frigates, 6 improved Kilo-class submarines and several missile corvettes. Meanwhile the Northern fleet is starting to receive the new Borei class SSBNs and the Yassen SSGNs. Both classes have had a long and difficult construction history and the Borei’s have had serious problems with their Bulava missiles but the first vessel was declared fully operational in 2014. The 6 older Delta IV SSBNs have all now been overhauled and upgraded. The new Yassen attack submarines are thought to be the quietest non-NATO nuclear submarines ever built. Development of the Lada class SSK with AIP (air independent Propulsion) has resumed and is even more stealthy than the very successful Kilo class which are formidable adversaries, particularly in littoral areas.

  • Severodvinsk, Yasen Class

    Yasen class SSGN – Severodvinsk

    At least 8 of these ‘all rounders’ are being built or scheduled for construction. Armed with a variety of 24 vertically-launched cruise missiles for use against ships or targets ashore. Plus usual mix of mines and torpedoes and sophisticated sonar for traditional SSN role.

  • Borei Class

    Borei class SSBN – Yury Dolgoruki (Photo: Military Today)
    8 of this class are active, being constructed or planned. They are the first Russian boats to use pump-jet propulsion, developed in the 1980s by Western navies to reduce noise. Armed with 16-20 Bulava ICBMs and 6 SSN15 Anti-ship missiles

  • Delta IV

    Delta IV SSBN  (Photo: Wikipedia)

  • Lada Class SSK
    Lada class SSK  (Photo: Military Today)

The surface fleet is also being revived with a rolling programme of frigate and corvette construction. Justified as a response to the building of the three 15,000 ton US Navy Zumwalt class ‘destroyers’, a second Kirov class battlecruiser Admiral Nakhimov is being reactivated and modernized. Together with the Pyotr Velikiy these ships are the most powerful non-aircraft carrier surface combatants in the world at least until arrival of the revolutionary Zumwalts. On the downside, France has finally suspended delivery of the 2 Mistral class LDH in response to events in Ukraine and the only carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov will be unavailable for several years undergoing modernisation.

The revival of the Russian submarine fleet, aided by information obtained by espionage together with financial backing and political determination, now present a major challenge for NATO.

Although the number of new submarines is not yet approaching the scale of the former Soviet fleet, the new boats are much closer to their NATO equivalents in terms of stealth and sophistication.

They even incorporate escape pods for their crews, lessons learned from frequent Russian submarine disasters but also an indication of greater appreciation for highly trained personnel. Patrols by Russian submarines that were virtually non-existent 10 years ago are becoming more frequent and transatlantic forays by Russian attack submarines have become routine.

Coming to a coast near you

Hot on the heels of the detection of a submarine in Swedish territorial waters in October 2014, in late November it was reported that the UK had detected a submarine “close to the Scottish coast”. It was unclear whether they succeeded in locating the submarine, or if it had actually entered UK territorial waters. One can only speculate where the alert came from; a periscope fortuitously sighted by a Scottish fishing vessel, a detection by a friendly submarine or surface ship or most likely, by a seabed SOSUS array? The event put the media spotlight on the dangerous lack of UK Maritime Patrol Aircraft, as it was forced to call on NATO partners for help. 2 US Navy P3 Orions, a French Atlantique and a Canadian Aurora arrived at RAF Lossiemouth to support the a hunt. An RN submarine was almost certainly sent to the area along with HMS Somerset carrying the very effective Type 2087 towed array sonar. The RAF deployed a Sentinel radar reconnaissance aircraft. Although designed as ground surveillance platform, it does carry a powerful synthetic aperture radar which can detect very small objects such as a periscope. There was a repeat performance again in early January 2015 when 2 USN P3s made a sudden return to Lossiemouth from their base in Sardinia and were active for at least 5 days.

Sending Maritime Patrol aircraft to Scotland is very much in the US interest, however dismayed it maybe at Britain’s neglect of its defence. The US is particularly concerned that Akula and Yasen class submarines armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missile are operating near its coast. These submarines pass through the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap on their way across the Atlantic and may close the Scottish coast, perhaps hoping to detect the British SSBN departing on deterrent patrol. Low altitude cruise missiles fired from close to their target would be very hard to detect and provide even less warning than ‘traditional’ intercontinental ballistic missiles. The US investing in blimp-mounted radars designed to detect cruise missiles and these blimps have been seen flying over Washington DC.

While the Russians almost certainly have no intention of attacking the UK or US, their increasing strength is a powerful diplomatic lever that is being applied by Putin who seeks out weakness and exploits opportunities. Demonstrations of military power in the face of irresolute Western leadership gives Russia confidence to invade and intimidate its neighbours. In the face of this, it is alarming that the US is reducing its defence spending and some of its military presence in Europe while facing economic stagnation, the rise of China and on-going challenges in the Middle East.

The strategic position for Britain is a far cry from the early 1990s and the ill-advised ‘peace dividend’ that has been exploited to a point where the UK is reliant on foreign help to defend its own waters.

Westminster heads in the sand

The 2015 election looks set to be dominated by the NHS and cost of living issues, with defence barely mentioned or obscured by panics over terrorism. Even the most optimistic commentators can only hope that the 2015 review will allow spending to remain static, while most are predicting yet further cuts. The threat from the Russian navy alone should be reason enough to cancel cuts in the MoD budget. At least the replacement of the Trident submarines looks as if it will happen but if we are to properly meet the threat, then Royal Navy urgently needs more submarines, frigates and maritime patrol aircraft. Lacking sufficient anti-submarine assets, the RN maybe unable to protect the SSBN undermining the credibility of our primary deterrent.

The Type 26 frigate build programme should be started as a matter of urgency. As Admiral Lord West said recently of the Type 26 saga “it is a national disgrace… we need to knock some heads together with BAE Systems, probably the PM needs to do it”. As discussed in the previous post the lease or purchase of maritime patrol aircraft could be arranged quite quickly. Expanding the submarine fleet would be the biggest challenge. Even if the significant funds for additional Astutes was available, it would take years for additional boats to arrive and would impact the Trident replacement submarine programme. If we were to be really radical we could even consider buying some of the excellent German or Swedish AIP SSKs. Manpower would be another headache and would require a huge investment in recruitment and training, as we are struggling even to man our existing submarine force. Sadly such proposals seem pie-in the sky, wishful thinking in the current political and fiscal climate.

It is becoming an inconvenient truth that European politicians shy away from, a dangerous new cold war is beginning that we need to become psychologically and materially prepared to face.