In spite of frequent claims that the Royal Navy is “barely able to defend its own waters”, two of its escorts are shadowing the largest group of Russian warships to pass near to the UK since the end of the Cold War. Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov sailed from the Northern Fleet base of Severomorsk on Saturday accompanied by seven other surface ships and probably at least one submarine.
Given the heightened tension with Russia, this is deployment is a little more significant that usual, although the UK media perhaps tends to over-play the direct threat to the UK. The ships are destined for operations off Syria but passing his warships through the English Channel is useful to Putin as it demonstrates his military reach and raises questions about Europe’s ability to respond. Russian carpet bombing of civilians, targeting of aid convoys and hospitals in Syria are war crimes that mark a new low in Putin’s behaviour and signal further decline in relations with the West. Naval vessels have always had the useful ability to imply a threat without actually engaging in combat or violating sovereign territory.
HMS Richmond sailed from Shetland on Monday and was well positioned to intercept. HMS Duncan sailed from Portsmouth and a few other NATO warships have shadowed the task group as they passed down the North Sea, conducting flight operations and then into the English Channel. It is also highly likely that a Royal Navy or US Navy nuclear submarine is silently trailing them. By historical standards sailing two warships for escort duty in home waters would be a bare minimum expectation and of little note, but the under-sized RN escort fleet has had to face numerous challenges in the past few years. Today it is still getting on with the job, demonstrating it can respond to events and has the defence of UK waters covered. The RN is also active around the world. Four of the much-maligned Type 45 destroyers are at sea. HMS Duncan is watching Russians, HMS Dragon sailed from Portsmouth today, HMS Diamond is homeward bound from the Mediterranean and HMS Daring is escorting US warships in the Gulf region.
The Russian ships are old and are typical of the decrepit state of much of the their larger surface fleet units. However they do carry some threat. The battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy is a Soviet-era giant built in the 1980s, one of the most heavily armed ships in the world with a battery of 20 ship missiles and up to 224 surface to air missiles. The carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is of a similar vintage and can been seen belching thick black smoke, a sure sign of tired machinery that may struggle to complete voyage. In the recent past she is often been accompanied by an ocean-going tug in case of break down. Her air group of SU-33 and MiG-29s strike fighters may not be the most modern Russian jets in its inventory but still present a credible threat to NATO ships and aircraft.
By next year the Royal Navy will be sailing its own aircraft carrier in the English Channel and North Sea. It will be some time before HMS Queen Elizabeth achieves its full operating capability but the ship and its air group will eventually be vastly superior to Russia’s single carrier. The Russians do however, tend to arm all their warships with heavier self-defence weaponry, an aspect of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s equipping that should be addressed more seriously. It is also important that government places further orders for F-35 Lightnings so the 138 aircraft promised becomes reality. The carriers require a credible airgroup as quickly as possible, a priority the RAF must also remain committed to.
Type 26 – action this day
The RN’s ability to respond to foreign warships arriving near UK waters is dependent on its surface fleet. With every passing day the backbone of that fleet, the Type 23 frigates are ageing while their replacements have still not started construction. Now would be a good time for Theresa May’s government to announce they are placing orders for the Type 26 frigates as a mater of national priority. Such an action would be a politically advantageous statement and would probably have more impact on Russian thinking than calls for further economic sanctions. It would welcomed across the the UK, by the navy, by shipbuilders and be seen as a sign the government is serious about defence.
- Commentary: Why Putin is unleashing his only aircraft carrier (Reuters)
- Russian warships pass through Channel watched by Royal Navy (Guardian)
- Russian warships pass through English Channel (BBC)