The United Kingdom was forced to rely on French maritime patrol aircraft last month, after deep defence cuts left it with no planes to investigate a suspected Russian Submarine in the North Sea.
The episode, which has some striking similarities to the alert over a suspected Russian submarine probing dangerously close to the capital city of Baltic state Sweden in October, began when an unexpected periscope was spotted at sea, reports the Daily Mail. The alarm having been raised, the British forces were unable to scramble an aircraft of their own to intercept, and so called for help.
Eventually American, Canadian, and French patrol aircraft were dispatched to the area, and four planes operated out of British Royal Air Force base RAF Lossiemouth in concert with Royal Navy ships scouring the area. According to reports the search, which was unsuccessful, lasted a full week into December. It is possible had an aircraft been available at short notice the suspected Submarine could have been found sooner, saving thousands of man hours of hunting for the four NATO nations.
The Royal Air Force operated a fleet of British-built Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from the 1960’s until the Strategic Defence Spending Review (SDSR) in 2010. Although ageing, they were fitted with sophisticated, modern sensing equipment and long after the Royal Navy officially took over the role of the UK’s nuclear deterrent were capable of dropping nuclear depth-charges for taking out high-threat submarines and enemy battle groups.
At the time of the SDSR the Nimrod fleet was in the process of being upgraded, but was running nine years late and £800 million over budget. Upon cancellation the entire fleet was, in the great tradition of British defence procurement waste, torn apart by mechanical diggers. Although the government erected barriers to prevent their destruction being televised, images were acquired and leaked by the media.
The presence of Russian warships and aircraft around the United Kingdom have become a regular occurrence over the past year, with occurrences of aircraft having to be escorted out of NATO airspace reaching cold-war levels for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That this spike in activity of a potential enemy with conventional military equipment of the sort that the government believed in 2010 we would no longer be facing has increased pressure to reverse cuts.
Conservative MP Julian Lewis said of the incident: “It’s inevitable that we will have to call on our allies to meet capability gaps, but what it also shows is the absolute necessity of ring fencing the defence budget at least to the Nato minimum level of two per cent”.
Although there was speculation after the last SDSR that there would be further cuts below the NATO mandated level of two percent of GDP a year in 2015 or 2016, the recent announcement by the Prime Minister that the UK would receive both it’s aircraft carriers rather than mothballing one upon completion suggests further military cuts may be avoided for now.