Published in July 2018, the report, On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic, Twelfth Report of Session 2017-19, summarises evidence taken by the House of Commons Defence Committee over a number of sessions on the UK’s capability to conduct military operations in the Arctic and far north.
The report makes clear that capability routinely available to the UK during the Cold War has declined or lapsed altogether, but that it urgently needs to be recovered in the face of Russia’s increasingly assertive military posture in the region.
The committee highlighted the fact that changes taking place in the natural environment in the Arctic and High North are driving a change in the security environment. As the ice recedes and the Arctic becomes more accessible to navigation and the exploitation of its extensive natural resources, a region that has been characterised by low tension and multi-lateral co-operation has in recent years begun to see an increase in military activity.
“At the forefront of this activity is the Russian Federation. Although there is a divergence of views on Russia’s motivations, it is difficult to conclude that this build-up of military strength is proportionate to an exclusively defensive outlook,” the report said. “Russia has shown itself to be ready to use military force to secure political advantage and the disputed operation of a number of international legal norms in the Arctic is vulnerable to exploitation by a revisionist state.
“The Arctic and the High North are central to the security of the UK and history has shown that its domination by a hostile power would put the security of the wider North Atlantic Ocean at considerable risk. The leadership which the UK has previously shown in the defence of the region should be reinstated, and the new priority which NATO has given to the North Atlantic should be accompanied by a renewed focus of the source of the threat in the High North.
“The UK continues to sustain capabilities and expertise which can play a leading role in the Arctic and High North, but the focus on operating in this challenging environment has been reduced over the long years of engagement in expeditionary operations in hot weather climates. The multi-role nature of these specialist capabilities also leads to them being in high demand elsewhere, an indication of the wider resource pressures in defence that are resulting in the armed forces struggling to meet commitments and sustain levels of training.
“If the definition of a leading defence nation is one which has the ability to deploy a range of capabilities anywhere in the world, then this includes the unique operating environment of the Arctic and the High North. Being able to do so is ultimately a question of resource and a question of ambition; the committee calls upon the government to show leadership in providing both.”
UK Armed Forces have few dedicated capabilities for Arctic operations, and as noted by the Minister for the Armed Forces in oral evidence to the committee, there are few specific capabilities required for the Arctic which could not be used elsewhere.
Few ice class vessels available
The Royal Navy has one dedicated ice patrol ship, HMS Protector. However, it appears that Protector spends the majority of its time in the South Atlantic and Antarctic. The Minister also mentioned the Echo class survey vessels and HMS Scott which have a ‘limited’ capability to operate in the High North.
A theme which ran through the Minister’s description of the UK’s ambition and role in terms of defence capability and the High North was one of resource. The multi-role nature of many of the platforms and units leads to them being in high demand elsewhere and the committee found that 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.
Addressing specifically maritime aspects of capability required for the region, the committee noted that in two of its recent reports it had underlined concerns about the UK’s capacity for anti-submarine warfare, especially in relation to the number of surface and sub-surface platforms available to cover such a wide area of ocean.
When asked to name the two leading challenges facing the Royal Navy submarine service, historian Dr James Jinks highlighted lack of resources. “Do we have the necessary resources to match the tasks? If we deploy a carrier group, either independently or as part of the task group, we are probably going to have to have a submarine out there as part of that task group, so those roles could potentially increase,” he said.
Dr Jinks also highlighted “the challenge of getting back to where we were in the Cold War, in terms of being a competent ASW force again”.
Professor Eric Grove responded to a question about risks to the submarine service in similar terms. “There are not enough nuclear-powered attack submarines. There should be at least eight. Currently, if we are lucky, there are six.”
Turning to surface ships, the committee noted that the presence of either floating ice or pack ice potentially affects all aspects of surface ship operations, endangering bow-mounted sonar domes and interfering with towed arrays. Propellers, rudders, fin stabilisers, and sea chests can also be adversely affected by operations in ice-infested waters. Additionally, the extreme cold, high atmospheric moisture and icy conditions can weaken steel hulls, change hydraulic system temperatures and crack or shred protective coatings and insulators.
Surface combatants not designed with ice in mind
As the naval analyst Dr Lee Willett wrote in 2011: “There is no public evidence that the UK has designed or is designing its six new Type 45 Daring class destroyers, two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and its next generation ASW frigate (the Type 26 Global Combat Ship) specifically with [Arctic] capability parameters in mind,” and the Ministry of Defence will not publicly discuss the detail of the extreme weather conditions to which individual Royal Navy units can operate.
As well as platforms there is an issue with the personnel to man and maintain the nuclear-powered submarine fleet. A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted shortages of personnel in large number of skilled trades across the Armed Forces. A separate NAO report highlighted that the Royal Navy has shortage of 337 personnel (over 8%) in skilled nuclear trades and specialisms, including nuclear marine engineers. The report also acknowledges the work that has been done by the Ministry of Defence to try and improve recruitment and retention within these specialisms. Oral evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee by the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Tony Radakin, suggests that these efforts are beginning to bear fruit, with net increases in the numbers of engineering technicians and reduced outflow of skilled personnel. Although the numbers are moving in the right direction, Admiral Radakin acknowledged that targets were still being missed. “As a whole, in terms of the Royal Navy,” he said, “we need to get more people in and we need to do a lot more to satisfy that. In terms of the submarine service and whether we are seeing us getting back to what I call normal, at the moment I wouldn’t want to gloss over that this is a stressful situation and we need to improve.”
In July 2018 the First Sea Lord announced that a new Joint Area of Operations was being created for the North Atlantic, with a view to more regular deployments by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force being undertaken. “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,” said the committee.
“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.”
Undersea cables at risk
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 to the committee 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 Ministry of Defence 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.”
“The threat to undersea data cables is a real one, and the consequences of such networks being disrupted would be serious,” the committee said. “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.”
The Royal Navy’s ability to patrol and conduct surveillance operations under the Arctic in the Cold War required a highly specialised set of skills amongst its submariners and a regular cycle of training to maintain institutional expertise.
Dr Jinks described how, after the Cold War, under-ice patrols had been reduced as the focus of operations had moved away from Europe over the last 30 years, and instead of operating under the Arctic ice, Royal Navy attack submarines were operating in warmer waters to support expeditionary operations.
Written evidence from RUSI also identified how the nature of recent expeditionary operations, and consequent decisions on equipment, have had an impact on under-ice capability. “Arctic naval operations are an area where the UK has made significant contributions previously, before the nuclear hunter-killer force was equipped with land attack missiles.
“Within NATO, only Britain and US have the platforms to undertake nuclear submarine patrols under the ice cap, but both allowed such skills to fade after the end of the Cold War. Given the level of nuclear submarine availability in the Royal Navy, sustaining this skill set and experience now will be challenging.”
Need to reinvest in under-ice capability
“Astute class submarine deployments appear to be prioritised for weapon payload (specifically their Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) capability), rather than as a platform. Given the lack of strike weapons of similar range elsewhere in the British military (there is space for them in Type 45 Daring class destroyers, but fitting out was never funded), this seems unlikely to change.”
Asked whether under-ice capability had been adequately sustained, Dr Jinks’s said that it had been at “a very low level”, and that no Royal Navy submarine had been up under the ice since an accident aboard HMS Tireless in in the Arctic in 2007 which killed two crew members (although this has recently changed, as later mentioned). Dr Jinks noted that the Royal Navy had continued to send exchange officers to the US Navy Ice Exercise (ICEX) programmes aboard US Navy submarines.
Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in an earlier oral evidence session that: “It is the declared policy of the submarine arm of the Royal Navy that it is a top priority to reinvest in under-ice capability, as you say, having had a gap in submarine activities … for essentially a decade. One assumes that that means actually exercising with boats. The Astute has not been tested at all, as far as I am aware – at least, there has not been any public announcement on that score – but the legacy Trafalgars have shown their ability to operate in the north.”
There is however evidence that the Astute class submarines are not optimised for Arctic operations to the extent of the predecessor Trafalgar class. A brochure produced for visitors for the ICEX 2018 indicated that while the hardened sail and exterior components of the Trafalgar class allow it to surface through ice of at least 0.6m, Astute class submarines are unable to surface through ice more than 2ft thick without risking damage to their superstructure.
Asked whether, from a strategic standpoint, under ice capability was an area that the government should be encouraged to invest in, Childs said: “There should be a refocusing on that area and the ability to do that as part of a deterrent capability, yes”. Dr Igor Sutyagin, Senior Research Fellow at RUSI, said that from a Russian point of view, “the worst-case scenario is the UK restarting its deployment of under ice patrols of its subs.”
Written evidence from Professor Peter Roberts, also of RUSI, described under-ice capability as “the one British asset capable of persistent and meaningful contribution to applying asymmetric military pressure against Russia, in an area that they consider vital.”
In March 2018 it was announced that, for the first time since 2007, a Trafalgar class submarine, HMS Trenchant had surfaced through the ice in the Arctic Ocean north off Alaska as part of ICEX 18. The boat repeated breaking through the ice on several occasions over the next few weeks, including at the North Pole. The Minister for the Armed Forces said, “This exercise shows that our Royal Navy is primed and ready to operate in the harshest conditions imaginable, to protect our nation from any potential threats.”
“We are very encouraged to see that with the mission of HMS Trenchant that this presence has been re-established, and hope that this is part of a permanent cycle of activity in the Arctic,” the committee said. “Understanding that the government does not comment in detail on submarine operations, we ask the department to lay out its policy on the future of under ice exercises. We also ask the department to outline the comparative under ice capabilities of Royal Navy submarines currently in service.”
A further aspect discussed in evidence is the impact of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers now coming into service. Although the primary function of carriers is usually characterised as expeditionary, operating outside the Euro-Atlantic area, they have played an important strategic role in the North Atlantic.
The presence of a large striking fleet centred on aircraft carriers and strong amphibious forces in the Norwegian Sea was at the core of the Maritime Strategy in the 1980s. Dr Sutyagin noted that carriers positioned off the Norwegian coast in the High North would be able to pose a direct threat to Russian territory.
Witnesses dwelt further upon the utility of carrier operations in the High North. Professor Grove said: “One would hope that an area of deployment for the future carrier – or carriers – could well be in this area. In the good old days of the late ’60s, the idea was that you would send four American aircraft carriers and two British ones in two carrier groups. By the ’80s, that had come down to three American and one or two British anti-submarine warfare cruisers. Particularly as the Americans are finding difficulty with the operational availability of their force, I think that we Europeans – in a non-political sense – need to start thinking about using our carrier assets, as well as our submarines, to as it were re-construct the old forward strategy, albeit in a new form and perhaps at a lower level in terms of numbers.”
Childs told the committee: “Clearly, the concept behind the Queen Elizabeth class carriers was that they were not copies of the Invincible class that did north-east Atlantic operations – ASW sea control, essentially – and they were for power projection. However, in the current context, I hope that there are concepts being looked at for how you would potentially employ these aircraft carriers in the context of northern waters going north, whether it is for some kind of air defence or power projection capability into the polar peninsula, or as major ASW platforms with Merlin helicopters aboard, for example. There is also the potential context of the Americans returning to northern waters with an aircraft carrier. That would be a huge signal both to northern NATO members and to Russia about potential intent in terms of signalling and deterrence.”
In an oral evidence session in May 2018, the committee asked the Secretary of State directly whether it was intended for the carriers to operate in the North Atlantic. He responded: “We always look at every single option to deal with the changing threat environment that this country deals with. In terms of where the carriers are deployed, I have no doubt that the carriers will be deployed in the north Atlantic, south Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf, and the Pacific: they are a global strike capability and they would be used on a global scale. Will they spend time operating in the north Atlantic? Almost certainly, yes.” In response, the committee said the department should fully explain the concept of operations for carriers operating in North Atlantic and High North, including training and exercise arrangements, and the opportunities for working with allies.