Last week the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Ben Wallace announced in Norway a ‘new’ UK defence strategy in the Arctic region under the title ‘The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North.
As is usual with most Government defence strategy announcements, this one is high on the use of positive sounding expressions such as plans to protect critical underwater national infrastructure and ensure freedom of navigation through international seas and ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ (EEZ’s) in the Arctic region and in setting out UK’s commitments to NATO, such as increasing UK training and operations in the area with Allies and international partners. The UK will also invest in research and development to build a sustainable and modernised Defence capability for the region although there is no mention of cost or funding.
What it appears to boil down to is that the UK will maintain a periodic Royal Navy presence in the High North. The strategy also reinforces support to Arctic Allies to preserve the stability and security of the Arctic region. My next question would probably be what with for as we all know the Royal Navy is currently stretched to the limit in respect of capacity, withdrawing older smaller vessels such as mine laying ships as fast as it can whilst at the same time deploying what little it has left to assist in the battle against illegal immigration and providing increased policing British waters in a post Brexit world that we now live in.
Yes Mr. Wallace, the “High North” as you choose to refer to it “and the impact of climate change affects us all whether we like it or not. The North Atlantic will always be the UK’s ‘home beat’ and so it is vital that we strengthen both our interoperability and our force integration with NATO and non-NATO partners in the region” but in all honesty other than reassuring words I am no clearer now of what real underlying new actions you are proposing to take.
Mr. Wallace announced his so-called strategy plan or response while in Norway with his Norwegian counterpart, Mr. Odd Roger Enoksen. We have strong ties with Norway and long may that continue. UK, Nato and Norwegian troops have been taking part in regular joint exercises, this one under the title Exercise COLD RESPONSE 22, a Norwegian-led exercise with 35,000 troops from 28 participating nations. The UK contribution to this required the use of six Royal Navy ships and 2,000 UK military personnel undertaking cold-weather training in northern Norway. Such exercises are completely routine and have been taking place annually in Norway for decades. I do not in any way question the value or importance of these or the demonstration of the UK commitment to Allied forces and which at all times need to be ready to operate in any environment under any conditions.
But I do question why the Secretary of State chose the occasion to attempt to paint a picture of additional UK intent in respect of involvement in Arctic Defence. There is as far as I can see absolutely nothing new in this presupposed new strategy and I am sure that our would-be enemies are not shaking in the boots with fear.
Training in Norway is hugely important and the UK is and should be extremely grateful to the Norwegian government which goes out of its way to provide grounds for NATO allies and partners to practise and hone military skills operating in extreme cold and often very rugged surroundings. The MOD says that around 900 Royal Marines have been deployed to the Arctic since January in preparation for these exercises, sharpening their expertise in operating in the freezing conditions.
It is close to five years ago now since I wrote the following in response to yet another ‘Arctic’ related strategy claim by our political masters.:
“I was particularly pleased to read last week that the Ministry of Defence has now agreed a strategy designed not only to enhance UK focus on an increasing range of potential threats arising from the Artic region but also one that ensures UK armed forces will work more closely with our Norwegian NATO military allies.
Being a fellow member of NATO, the UK and Norway enjoy a superb relationship and one that stretches back many decades. Unlike the UK which just about meets its 2% GDP spend on defence NATO commitment, Norway falls somewhat short of this with a reported intention to spend 1.56% on defence this year.
According to Defence minister Frank Bakke-Jenson speaking in January this year, Norway’s internal forecast for defence spending in relation to GDP is that this is targeted to fall to 1.5% in 2020, a figure where it will likely remain through 2024.
In order to maintain its surveillance capacity and meet future security challenges, in a $1.15 billion deal agreed in 2016 Norway agreed to acquire five Boeing P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft planes to replace the six P-3 Orion aircraft currently in service. With Norway having a long maritime border with neighboring Russia and with the country’s territorial waters stretching far into the Arctic the ability to track Russian submarine movements has gained in urgency. Before moving on, a quick look at what the Norwegian military comprises may be in order:
With 19 months military service conscription obligation remaining in force, Norway has in the region of 22,905 active serving military personnel and a reported 45,000 serving in the Reserve. While not a specialist area for me, worth noting that Norway is very strong in Armoured Personnel Carrier, Main Battle Tanks and Infantry Fighting Vehicle capability. This include 36 operational German built Leopard Main Battle Tanks which the Norwegian Army intends to replace in 2025 together large numbers of Infantry Fighting Vehicles and that include large numbers CV90 IFV’s and that include the 104 acquired under the deal signed in 2012 with BAE Systems Hagglunds and Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace. The Royal Norwegian Navy operates a fleet of five frigates/destroyers, six Ula class submarines and various mine clearance and other vessels.
Currently operating a fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets, having joined the program as a partner in the Systems Development and Demonstration phase, the Royal Norwegian Air Force placed an initial order for 40 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning ‘A’ variant aircraft and, dependent on funding availability, plans to acquire additional aircraft in due course. The Norwegian Air Force operates 4 x Lockheed Martin C-130J tactical airlifters and has various other fixed wing air capability including a fleet of Falcons jets. Leaving aside utility helicopters, the primary rotary capability has been based on a sizeable fleet of Sea King helicopters which are gradually to be replaced by a fleet of 16 UK built Leonardo EH101 helicopters ordered in 2015”.
UK military personnel training in Norway has in fact already been integrated into Norway’s defence plan. The relationship between Norway and the UK in respect of military cooperation has gone from strength to strength and rightly so. MOD Artic strategy complements already agreed UK NATO military commitments and as an example of this, in 2019 four x Royal Air Force Typhoons aircraft patrolled Icelandic skies for the first time.
The intention behind the new Artic strategy was perfectly clear back in 2018 so why we have pretended to announce something new that really is little more than just a continuation of existing policy defeats me. That we are working more closely with our allies in and around the Arctic region makes absolute sense and without doubt the UK will be in a better position to deter aerial threats to Euro Atlantic security. If only it had enough pilots let alone aircraft, these missions provide the RAF with unique opportunities to test skills in different environments.
As I also said at that time, in the 2020/21 time frame the UK will also be increasing operational commitments in the area with the introduction of the first of eight new P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability enters service with the Royal Air Force. All eight aircraft have now been delivered by Boeing and the first of Norway’s Poseidon aircraft are under construction.
Based out of RAF Lossiemouth and eventually planned to be working alongside Royal Norwegian Air Force Boeing P-8 Poseidon MPA capability and those of our US allies, the intention is that these P-8 submarine hunters will cover a vast range of territory helping not only to combat a wide range of intensifying threats caused by increased Russian submarine activity in the Arctic.
As we know to our cost because of the dangerous gap in capability we allowed to occur, over the past few years Russia has dramatically increased submarine activity in the Arctic region and has made no bones about its military ambitions in the wider region. Current NATO belief is that Russia would like to build around 100 facilities in the region.
MOD Arctic strategy is supposed to be designed primarily to combat any threat posed by increased Russian submarine activity and to that end in 2018 a Royal Navy submarine took part in ICEX with the US Navy – the first time anything like this ad occurred in over ten years. This then is a strategy in action and just as Mr. Wallace presented as being something new last week, so was exactly the same said in 2018 within the then ‘new’ Defence Arctic Strategy, was announced and that we were told that the Royal Navy would be mounting regular under-ice deployments in the years to come”.
Will any of this be enough in respect of being a satisfactory response to increased Russian ambitions in the region? The simple answer to that is no it won’t!
CHW (London 6th April 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785