Into the Bear’s backyard – the Royal Navy in the Barents Sea

HMS Kent is currently operating in the Barents Sea with US Navy warships conducting maritime security operations. This is a significant deployment as officially the US Navy says it has not sent surface ships to the area since the mid-1980s.

The task group comprises three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers USS Donald Cook, USS Porter, USS Roosevelt and Type 23 frigate, HMS Kent supported by fast combat support ship USNS Supply. The 3 destroyers of the US 6th Fleet, forward-deployed and based in Spain are amongst the USN’s most modern air defence vessels. They are equipped with the latest Baseline 9 AEGIS combat system that can simultaneously track and destroy ballistic missiles as well as conventional aircraft and cruise missile threats. Besides air defence missiles, the combined 270 VLS cells of the American ships also carry a mix of Tomahawk, Harpoon and ASROC, making for a potent force, even in the absence of an aircraft carrier. Despite the high-end weapons and sensors of the US destroyers, HMS Kent (and her embarked Merlin Mk2) contribute the most effective surface-based anti-submarine capability to the group. The deployment is also supported by USN Poseidon P-8A Maritime Patrol Aircraft (It is very early days for the UK Poseidon force) and at least one US or RN attack submarine. In all, 1,200 military personnel from the two nations are involved.

Up around the corner

The Royal Navy is no stranger to the Barents Sea and the freezing and stormy waters around the North Cape. The bravery and endurance of the naval and merchant sailors serving on the notorious Arctic convoys of World War Two is one of the outstanding feats of naval history. In the Cold War that followed, the RN and USN began to send conventional and then nuclear submarines to gather intelligence on the expanding Soviet Navy close to their home waters. The majority of RN submariners serving at the height of the Cold War were involved in demanding patrols in the Barents Sea, what they called, “going up around the corner”. Hunting and tailing Soviet submarines to record the sound signatures and gather intelligence on operating procedures was the primary goal. These tense patrols yielded enormous intelligence and gave NATO a major advantage in countering the huge Soviet submarine fleet but often entailed considerable risk. At least two Royal Navy submarines are known to have sustained serious damage after underwater collisions with Russian boats they were trailing. There were probably other incidents involving US, RN and Soviet boats that are not in the public domain or were officially attributed to “collisions with icebergs”.

Severomorsk, just north of Murmansk is the main base for the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet. From here their attack submarines deploy aiming to break out into the Atlantic Ocean to hunt NATO SSBNs and threaten the sea lines of communication. Their SSBNs also try hide in the vast Atlantic or under the Arctic ice. The Barents Sea is also used for Russian weapons testing and in the past year has seen tests of ballistic (Bulava), hypersonic (Tsirkon) and anti-satellite (Nudol) weapons. Although the number of submarines on both sides is much reduced since the height of the Cold War, it is certain that RN and US submarines have continued to venture into the Barents Sea on covert intelligence gathering missions, hoping to witness missile tests and naval exercises. More overt operations in the Arctic Circle by NATO surface ships have also continued regularly but only as far as the Norwegian Sea.

The vast area of operations. The maritime geographical disadvantage of the Russians is immediately obvious. Northern Fleet vessels must pass through the Barents and Norwegian sea and then the GIUK gap in order to get into the Atlantic and beyond. The operating bases for Maritime Patrol Aircraft at Lossiemouth, Keflavik, Andoya and Kirkenes are another advantage for NATO.

Watching us watching them

The deployment of HMS Kent and US ships in the Barents is effectively a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP), asserting their legal right to sail in international waters. The ships may also gather some communications and electronic intelligence (COMINT/ELINT) from Russian units at sea and from emitters ashore but it is also an opportunity to exercise in the tough conditions of the Arctic and record the environmental conditions, in particular the salinity and temperature of the water column that has a big impact on both passive and active sonar performance. Like the Black Sea, the Russians tend to consider the Barents Sea beyond their 12-mile territorial waters limit as “their lake” and their Defence Ministry was notified on May 1 of the operation in what the US describes as “an effort to avoid misperceptions, reduce risk, and prevent inadvertent escalation”. Moscow has not commented but the cruiser RFS Marshal Ustinov was sailed from Severomorsk to monitor the ships while Russian submarines and aircraft are also likely to take an interest.

Russian propaganda channel RT has published an article claiming the US & Royal Navy have launched a “Cold War-style provocation in Russia’s Arctic backyard”. To put this objection in perspective, it should be remembered the Russians maintain a hectic programme of ‘provocations’ / legal FONOPs of their own. The RN routinely escorts Russian warships that come needlessly close to UK territorial waters in the North Sea before transiting the English Channel. The number of Russian submarines detected in the waters around Scotland attempting to intercept RN and USN Trident missile boats have increased. The Russian AGI (intelligence gatherer) RFS Viktor Leonov is frequently to be found transiting up and down the eastern coast of the United States.

Great power competition is alive and well, the surface ships at least on both sides usually keep within international law while trying to spy on each other at sea. There is a good argument that FONOPs actually contribute to peace and stability by allowing adversaries to understand and monitor each other while maintaining the principle that there must be of freedom of navigation on every part of the world’s oceans. For the European members of NATO it is another demonstration that, despite the antics of the President, the grown-ups in the US administration are still ready, willing and able to do the heavy lifting in the defence of the continent.

USS Porter, HMS Kent, USNS Supply and USS Roosevelt steam together in unusually calm and sunny Arctic conditions. To mark 75 years since Victory in Europe Day, on Friday 8th May, HMS Kent will be flying a particularly large battle Ensign (as is more common practice in the USN!) and will hold a service of thanksgiving for those who gave their lives on the brutal Arctic convoys (Photo: LPhot Dan Rosenbaum, RN, 5 May 2020.)