Seldom can HM Government have been so embarrassed to spend so much and yet be so accurately pilloried for its inefficacy than in Angus Robertson MP, Defence Spokesman and SNP Group Leader at Westminster’s speech on December 3rd. The UK spends £40bn on ‘defence’. But, by trying to project strength globally, the UK Government’s delusional ego has left no credible defence of the UK itself.
The MoD focusses on being a ‘global player’. As a result, the current RN web site says “the core of the fleet” are their 13 frigates which “can typically be found east of Suez, safeguarding Britain’s vital maritime trade routes“. This rather avoids the practical substance of why the MoD even exists in the first place and underscored in detail in Angus’s forensic speech. It is a shame that so few people pay attention to what the government is doing in all our names:
“I think that Members from across the House agree that naval forces are there to protect and patrol, to secure freedom of movement, to enforce the boundaries of territorial waters, to control exclusive economic zones, and to secure the environment—a significant consideration—renewables and critical infrastructure. That is particularly important when one bears in mind what is likely to happen in the decades ahead with offshore wind, tidal and wave power and the development of super-grid systems, which are likely to connect Iceland, the Faroe islands, Scotland, Norway and the rest of Europe.
“There is no better place to start than with an incident that happened two years ago and has close connection to my part of the world. The 65,000-tonne Admiral Kuznetsov anchored on the edge of UK waters off my constituency. Other Russian ships that also sought shelter in the Moray Firth included the anti-submarine warfare ship Admiral Chabanenko, and the escort ship Yaroslav Mudryy.
“The vessels did not warn domestic authorities that they were going to come so close to the coast, and are believed to have blamed bad weather for making that approach. It was the first time the Kuznetsov, or a vessel of its size, had deployed near UK waters, and it was the closest in 20 years that a Russian naval task group had deployed to Scotland or anywhere else in the UK.
“In previous years, Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft would have been loitering and would have been aware of the presence of a Russian deployment of that size. Of course, by 2011, the UK had no such aircraft; it is the only northern European military without them. Nevertheless, the Russians were there without any UK escort. At that stage, the Ministry of Defence was relying on Scottish fishing vessels to report developments, including fly-tipping by the visitors.
“When the MOD became aware of the Russians’ presence, a 30-year-old Type 42 frigate, the HMS York, was scrambled from Portsmouth, around 1,000 miles away. That distance, at 20 to 24 knots, takes more than 24 hours to travel. The responsibility that the HMS York was fulfilling was that of fleet ready escort, which means being the deployable and capable vessel in UK waters ready to perform emergency response tasks.
“NATO has, as part of its immediate reaction force, standing NATO maritime group 1, which operates in the eastern Atlantic. Similarly, standing NATO mine countermeasures group 1 operates in northern waters. They are relevant for future and current naval vessel provision, as they are standing operational commitments for allied nations, which provide destroyers, frigates and mine countermeasure vessels. It is notable that the UK has not provided vessels to either of the groups for several years.
“Similarly, on joint training, there is a real issue of properly committing current and, hopefully, future vessels. Last month saw the largest NATO training exercise in northern Europe in nearly a decade. Some 6,000 troops from 20 allied and partner nations took part in Steadfast Jazz, which involved land, air, and sea elements. Of the 6,000 participants in the exercise, the UK contributed precisely 52 personnel aboard a single mine hunter. It followed a large-scale exercise with maritime dimensions in Norway, where the UK provided just one aircraft, which is more than has ever been provided to the NATO air policing commitments in Iceland.
“When it comes to our immediate maritime backyard, the UK is sadly posted missing too often and is not taking its responsibilities seriously. The absence of any mention of the high north and Arctic in the most recent strategic defence and security review eloquently underlines my point.
“This is all especially relevant to Scotland when it comes to current and future conventional vessels. Scotland is a maritime nation with a sea area five times larger than its land area. Our coastline is over 11,000 km long—longer than that of the People’s Republic of China or India. It constitutes 61% of the entire UK coastline, and there are more than 800 islands. Remarkably, however, there is not a single major, ocean-going, UK conventional vessel based in Scotland to perform the key tasks that I have outlined”.
There are some amplifications needed in Angus’ speech, but only in detail, not in its general validity. These are:
- HMS York was actually a 5,200-tonne Type 42 destroyer (not 4,900 ton frigate). But, even so, had it been on-station in the Moray Firth, engagement with the Russian task force on its own would have been suicidal. It was paid off in 2012.
- Admiral Kuznetsov is only 55,000 tonnes fully loaded (yet still twice the size of any recent RN a/c carrier). Carrying 17 Sukhoi fighter and 24 Kamov helicopter aircraft, its task group was quite capable of also taking on remaining RAF strength in Scotland.
- Steadfast Jazz 2013 took place in November and was principally an exercise in ground deployment in Poland involving troops from Sweden and Ukraine. This highlights how the UK’s single-ship contribution was a trivial addition to a side-show.