The number of Russian naval vessels passing close to the UK has climbed steadily in the last 10 years Although most of this activity is lawful and benign, the RN always deploys vessels to closely monitor these movements in the UK area of interest. Here we summarise this activity, its purpose and messaging.
The relentless vigil
Keeping an eye on the movements of your potential adversary’s military is prudent for any nation and practised in many forms going back centuries with non-aligned navies across the globe continueing to keep a close eye on each other. During the Cold War period, the RN was tasked to gather intelligence on the Soviet Navy and they returned the compliment with similar missions to track NATO vessels.
Although there have been few publicised incidents close to the UK, further afield there were some serious clashes. There is a fine line between shadowing a vessel and harassing or interfering with its passage and safety depends on fine judgement and professionalism on both sides. For example, in 1970 a Soviet frigate collided with HMS Ark Royal (IV) while harassing the ship during flying nations, damage was not serious but it resulted in the death of two Russian Sailors. In the undersea game of cat and mouse that continues unabated today, there have been numerous recorded collisions. At least two RN SSNs suffered significant damage when getting too close to Soviet submarines although fortunately, none of their pressure hulls were penetrated and both were able to return home from patrols in northern waters.
The focus of this article is the movement of surface units this close to the UK but Russian military activity also includes submarines and aircraft. The Russian airforce routinely sends long-range bombers or maritime patrol aircraft to probe UK air defences. Typhoons of the RAF Quick Reaction Force (QRF) are usually scrambled to intercept them. So far these flights have remained inside international airspace and are legal, if unprofessional. They can put civilian air traffic at risk or cause disruption as the Russians do not squawk their position or communicate with UK air traffic controllers.
Precise details are not available in the public domain and the exact level of Russian underwater activity around the British Isles is difficult to assess but is known to have risen sharply in the last 5 years. Russian submarines may frequently attempt to penetrate UK waters and are especially interested in opportunities to trail and record the signatures of the nuclear deterrent boats. The SSBN is more vulnerable to detection in the channels close to home either outbound or inbound from patrol and considerable effort is made to sanitise the routes of any intruders and ‘delouse’ the boat to ensure it is not followed. Other Russian submarine activity takes place around the UK in an effort to observe naval activity, gather intelligence and familiarise themselves with the waters.
Prisoners of geography
To some extent, the passage of Russian vessels near to the UK is a result of geographical constraints. Their Northern Fleet, the largest and most important, is based in Severomorsk inside the Arctic Circle. To access the Atlantic and Mediterranean, ships must pass either to the North of the UK through the GIUK gap or to the South, via the North Sea and Dover Strait. The Baltic Fleet is smaller but must also pass through the NATO-dominated Skagerrak and English Channel. Although some Russian vessels pass through the treaty-controlled Dardanelles, their Black Sea fleet is relatively small and can offer a limited contribution to global operations.
Since 2015 when Russia fully committed its military to propping up the government of President Bashar Assad in the bloody civil war, the deployment of naval vessels to the Mediterranean has increased significantly. The naval base at Tartus is the only such facility Russia has outside the former Soviet Union and in 2017 Assad was pleased to extend their lease on the base for another 49 years. The deal permits Russia to keep up to 11 vessels in Tartus, including nuclear-powered submarines and Moscow is investing $500M in infrastructure improvements at the base.
From a strategic perspective, this is about a Russian influence in the Levant. To support this objective, the maintenance of their Eastern Mediterranean fleet requires a regular rotation of warships, submarines and support ships from distant bases. These vessels also help ensure the regular flow of ships carrying munitions and supplies to the Russian Air Force and Army fighting in Syria.
The RN was deployed on 17 separate occasions in response to Russian naval activity in the UK area of interest in 2020, a 26% increase over the previous year. In comparison, there were 11 activations in 2014, while 2017 was the busiest year on record with 33.
The passage of Russian vessels is usually known well in advance and the progress of the ships can sometimes even be tracked by amateur OSINT enthusiasts using the AIS signals from support vessels. NATO can call on a large intelligence network for forewarning and the naval units involved are co-ordinated by Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) based in Northwood (North London). Typically the French or Dutch Navy will hand over to the RN as the Russians leave their areas of interest.
“The Russian Navy is a capable Navy, that’s why their ships are a part of our routine surveillance plans… We learn what we can from the group and how it operates, we’ll continue to monitor for any changes in behaviour and continue to work closely within the Alliance to ensure all Allied navies are comfortable with the level of surveillance and information flowing regarding Russian Navy assets.” Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, Commander Allied Maritime Command, 2017.
The RN maintains a ship allocated as the Fleet Ready Escort (FRE), usually, a frigate kept either at very high readiness or already be at sea around the UK. FRE duties may take it further afield and it may double as the Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS) on submarine hunting duties. Should the FRE not be best placed or other frigates or destroyers unavailable, the RN may allocate an OPV or even a minehunter to the escort task. Between 2012-14 the MoD admitted that FRE was gapped for several weeks due to lack of available assets but there have not been reports of this happening recently. As the RN moves to a more carrier-centric surface fleet, it is possible FRE may sometimes have to be gapped again or allocated to an OPV.
Once a warship is engaged in monitoring a warship or a group of vessels, it maintains a safe distance and but may circle occasionally and record electronic emissions and gather imagery with powerful electro-optical cameras. Electronic (ELINT) and Signals (SIGINT) intelligence gathered during routine transits is unlikely to reveal much that is not already known. However, establishing the pattern of habitual operating behaviour helps build a picture and will help quickly spot any departure from the norm. Radio communications with the Russian sailors are usually described as diplomatic, cordial and professional.
Under international law, warships are not permitted to loiter within sovereign territorial waters that extend 12 miles off a nation’s coast but are entitled to pass through the waters and through narrow waterways such as the 22-mile wide Dover Strait under Article 17 of UNCLOS rules concerning ‘innocent passage’. This requires warships to behave in ways that are “not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state” and they may not stop or anchor except in emergencies.
While the movement of Russian warships close to the UK may primarily be necessary transits of ships deploying elsewhere, it has a useful additional benefit for Moscow. In an overt way, it signals power projection capability and forces NATO to devote resources to watching. The political and public relations dimension of this activity is perhaps as important as its military significance.
Occasionally the messaging may be stronger. During December 2020, in the middle of the pandemic and as Brexit negotiations reached their climax, no less than nine Russian warships and submarines were operating close to the UK. Eleven RN vessel and other NATO units were involved at various times in a monitoring operation that lasted 20 days. The sending of messages is not entirely one-way traffic, RN surface ships took part in at least three NATO freedom of navigation operations close to the Russian coast in the Barents Sea during 2020.
When the Russian navy comes calling, the UK media tends to over-react to these mostly routine events, worried that warships are “stalking our coasts”. The unseen threat from ballistic and cruise missile-armed submarines are in fact, of much greater concern than that of their surface fleet. On a day-to-day basis, the activities of Russian hackers in the cyber domain are actually causing far more harm than the activities of Russian ships. Should the Kremlin ever be foolish enough to start a shooting war against NATO, it is very unlikely to begin with warships opening fire without warning in the Dover Strait.
There is a PR benefit for the RN that issues a regular stream of press releases and images soon after it has been involved in these operations. For the general public, a photo of a Royal Navy vessel shadowing a Russian warship offers a simple and easy-to-comprehend example of how the RN is protecting UK interests.
There is often concern that the RN is fielding vessels out-gunned by their Russian counterparts and in particular, the OPVs are under-armed for the task. The offshore patrol vessels are, after all, well suited to patrolling offshore and for surveillance work, not designed to go into combat against foreign warships. In an ideal world, the escort task would be undertaken by frigates, for symbolic reasons at least, but in this instance, employment of OPVs may be the best use of constrained resources. If we imagine for a moment the Russians actually attacked their shadowers, they could achieve a temporary success but are sailing waters dominated by NATO warships and aircraft and could expect quick retribution.
The routine work of maintaining a presence and patrolling is not especially glamorous but makes up a large part of all peacetime naval tasking. While the RN must be fully prepared to go into combat against a peer adversary if ever called upon, the basics of readiness, seamanship, navigation and surveillance are its bread and butter.