In 2012, a House of Commons Defense Committee meeting on future maritime surveillance discussed the threat posed by Russian intelligence gathering efforts against Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The committee heard that the absence of a maritime patrol aircraft, a shortage of towed-array equipped escort vessels and the possible retasking of attack submarines could result in a reduced anti-submarine capability. As a result of these shortcomings, “a resurgent Russian navy can now threaten our SSBN fleet and operate with confidence around our shores.”
This seemingly prophetic warning has now been thrust into the headlines.
In late November, a suspected periscope was spotted by a trawler west of Scotland in an area where British ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are believed to transit en route to their patrol areas.
With no way of finding and identifying the alleged intruder, the British government was forced to rely on its NATO allies to patrol its territorial waters.
First to arrive at Lossiemouth was a French Atlantique aircraft, followed the next day by a pair of American Orions and a British Sentinel R1. A Canadian Aurora also joined the search.
There has been no report that the elusive submarine was ever found, suggesting that it successfully, if not unsurprisingly, evaded the efforts of this multinational search party.
This is all rather embarrassing for the Ministry of Defense given that Sir Peter Luff, the minister responsible for defense equipment, assured the House of Commons in 2010 that a combination of the Type 23 frigate, the Merlin helicopter and C-130, as well as reliance on allies and partners, “would be able to mitigate the capability gap” lost through the cancellation of Nimrod MRA4.
The absence of a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft dates back to the decision in the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review not to bring the Nimrod MRA4 into service.
That the sole Royal Air Force aircraft available to participate in the search is not deemed capable of maritime surveillance is evidenced by a Ministry of Defense’s £198 million plan to upgrade the software of the five Sentinels. This is expected to enable them to carry out a rudimentary maritime patrol role as part of a service life extension plan to keep the modest fleet operational until 2018. However, the company that makes the Sentinels has said “the aircraft would not fit a maritime patrol aircraft role” even after this upgrade so the undertaking may prove fruitless after all.
The Royal Navy managed to contribute one of its thirteen remaining frigates capable of undertaking anti-submarine operations, a job soon to be carried out by only eight “tail-equipped” frigates of the Type 26 class. In doing so, however, it demonstrated that the “fleet” is stretched to the limit and that the fallacy of more capability on fewer hulls would be laughable were its implications not so serious. With the Fleet Ready Escort searching for a mystery submarine, a cannon-equipped patrol boat was all that remained to shadow a quartet of Russian warships through the English Channel.
For an island nation that is dependent on importing food and energy from abroad, the absence of a maritime patrol aircraft is little short of a national disgrace. Through the fifty years of the Cold War, the Royal Navy’s primary mission was the plugging of the GIUK gap to prevent Soviet submarines terrorizing the sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. Now neither the Royal Air Force nor the Royal Navy seems capable of fulfilling their primary role — ensuring the security of the United Kingdom.