On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic Contents

5UK Defence Capabilities in the High North

71.UK Armed Forces have few dedicated capabilities for Arctic operations, and as noted by the Minister for the Armed Forces in oral evidence, there are few specific capabilities required for the Arctic which could not be used elsewhere.191 The Royal Navy has one dedicated ice patrol ship, HMS Protector.192 However it appears that Protector spends the majority of its time in the South Atlantic and Antarctic.193 The Minister also mentioned the Echo class survey vessels and HMS Scott which have a “limited” capability to operate in the High North.194 A theme which ran through the Minister’s description of the UK’s ambition and role in terms of defence capability and the High North was one of resource. The multi-role nature of many of the platforms and units leads to them being in high demand elsewhere.195 As the Minister told us:

While we would be happy for the Arctic to occupy a larger proportion of our time… we have to be very careful about where that resource would come from.196

This chapter will focus on some general capabilities of UK Armed Forces which are particularly relevant to operations in the High North and North Atlantic.

72.The willingness of the UK to play a greater role in the security of the Arctic and the High North is tempered by the concern that Defence does not have sufficient resources to establish a meaningful presence in the region. Platforms and capabilities which might have a role in the High North are heavily committed elsewhere, and, with the Modernising Defence Programme still to be completed, there is no indication of new resources being applied. We ask the Department to explain how the Arctic and High North has featured in the strategic analysis undertaken in the course of the National Security Capability Review and the Modernising Defence Programme and how these will be represented in future policy.


73.In two of its recent reports we have underlined our concerns about the UK’s capacity for anti-submarine warfare, especially in relation to the number of surface and sub-surface platforms available to cover such a wide area of ocean.197 When asked to name the two leading challenges facing the Royal Navy Submarine Service, the historian Dr James Jinks highlighted lack of resources:

Do we have the necessary resources to match the tasks? I was talking about how the Submarine Service has had to find other things to do after the disappearance of the Russian threat. Those tasks are going to increase yet again, once the carriers enter service. If we deploy a carrier group, either independently or as part of the task group, we are probably going to have to have a submarine out there as part of that task group, so those roles could potentially increase.198

Dr Jinks also highlighted “the challenge of getting back to where we were in the Cold War, in terms of being a competent ASW force again”.199 Professor Grove responded to a question about risks to the Submarine Service in similar terms:

Maintaining the operational availability of a very limited number of submarines. There are not enough [nuclear-powered attack submarines]. There should be at least eight. Currently, if we are lucky, there are six. At times in the last couple of years, there has been nothing because of mechanical problems and accidents and that kind of thing. So the first challenge is maintaining the operational ability of what we have, and the second is maintaining enough personnel to man them, which of course feeds in to operational availability … When they work, the Astute-class submarines are magnificent. They have probably the best anti-submarine potential of any submarine in the world. The Americans were flabbergasted at the way one of our Astutes was able to hold a contact at long distance. They have enormous potential, and when they are there, when they have enough people and when they are out at sea, they are marvellous, but particularly given the limited number we have, we really need to stress operational availability and manning.200

74.Even where platforms are intended to be multi-role, the pressures that extreme climatic environments place on equipment may not have been adequately anticipated in design or thoroughly tested at developmental stage. An example of this are the engine failures experienced by Type 45 destroyers when operating for prolonged periods in high ambient air and sea temperatures.201 Related environmental considerations will apply for surface ships operating for prolonged periods in low sea temperatures. As we have heard in written evidence:

The presence of either floating ice or pack ice potentially affects all aspects of surface ship operations, endangering bow mounted sonar domes and interfering with towed arrays. Propellers, rudders, fin stabilizers, and sea chests can also be adversely affected by operations in ice-infested waters. Additionally, the extreme cold, high atmospheric moisture and icy conditions can weaken steel hulls, change hydraulic system temperatures and crack or shred protective coatings and insulators.202

As the naval analyst Dr Lee Willett wrote in 2011:

there is no public evidence that the UK has designed or is designing its six new Type 45 Daring-class destroyers, two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carries and its next generation ASW frigate (the Type 26 Global Combat Ship) specifically with [Arctic] capability parameters in mind.203

The Department will not publicly discuss the detail of the extreme weather conditions to which individual Royal Navy units can operate.204

75.As well as platforms there is an issue with the personnel to man and maintain the nuclear-powered submarine fleet. A recent report from the National Audit Office highlighted shortages of personnel in large number of skilled trades across the Armed Forces.205 A separate NAO report highlighted that the Royal Navy has shortage of 337 personnel (over 8%) in skilled nuclear trades and specialisms, including nuclear marine engineers. The report also acknowledges the work that has been by the MoD to try and improve recruitment and retention within these specialisms.206 Oral evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee by the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Tony Radakin, suggests that these efforts are beginning to bear fruit, with net increases in the numbers of engineering technicians and reduced outflow of skilled personnel. Although the numbers are moving in the right direction, Admiral Radakin acknowledged that targets were still being missed:

As a whole, in terms of the Royal Navy, we need to get more people in and we need to do a lot more to satisfy that. In terms of the Submarine Service and whether we are seeing us getting back to what I call normal, at the moment I wouldn’t want to gloss over that this is a stressful situation and we need to improve.207

In July 2018 the First Sea Lord announced that a new Joint Area of Operations was being created for the North Atlantic, with a view to more regular deployments by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force being undertaken.208

76.The historical importance of the maritime space stretching from the Arctic to the North Atlantic is well established, but we can see that many of the strategic considerations which were present in the recent past are now re-emerging. The marked increase in Russian naval activity in the waters around the British Isles and the entrances to the Atlantic is clearly a matter of concern to the Government. We are equally concerned about the United Kingdom’s ability to match this threat adequately. The reduction of the UK’s anti-submarine warfare capability, which has been a core task of the Royal Navy for decades, has been noted in recent Committee reports and we repeat those concerns here. While the capability of the surface and sub-surface vessels the Royal Navy operates is world class, there are not enough platforms available for the task in hand, and vessels that are in service are often committed to standing tasks elsewhere.

77.An issue raised to particular prominence by the then Chief of the Defence Staff in December 2017 was the vulnerability of undersea data cables to hostile submarine action.209 As one submission noted:

These connections—which carry almost all global internet communications—can be eavesdropped, thus allowing vital information to be gleaned. Cutting these cables could cause huge damage to economic markets and interrupt social communications.210

78.A 2017 report from Policy Exchange highlighted the vulnerability of undersea cables and the level of disruption that could be caused in a short period of time if the key data and communications links that they provide are cut. Russian naval activity along known routes of undersea cables has increased.211 This, together with Russian naval expansion and widespread utilisation of hybrid warfare techniques, suggested that there was a real risk to cables. The report also noted that the GIUK Gap is home to several key undersea cable routes, the cutting of which would disrupt communication between NATO allies in the region, such as Iceland and Canada. It recommended that that NATO maritime exercises should incorporate the possibility of attacks on undersea cables and that the nature of the international response in the event of such an attack should be more seriously considered.212 The MoD said in its written evidence on this matter:

We regard undersea cables as part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure and monitor a variety of threats to them, including from possible hostile maritime activity. For security reasons, we do not comment on specific assessments. Russia has a formidable sub-surface warfare capability. It poses a unique security challenge including in the North Atlantic Ocean … We continue working with industry to ensure our subsea cable network is secure and have a variety of tools to monitor potentially hostile maritime activity.213

79.The threat to undersea data cables is a real one, and the consequences of such networks being disrupted would be serious. We accept that the Government shares this concern and is aware of the associated risks. But this risk further reinforces the need for effective situational awareness to support maritime security and a credible anti-submarine detection capability to deter hostile activity.

80.The Royal Navy’s ability to patrol and conduct surveillance operations under the Arctic in the Cold War required a highly specialised set of skills amongst its submariners and a regular cycle of training to maintain institutional expertise. Dr Jinks outlined the history of the Submarine Service’s involvement in Arctic operations, from the experiments of the late 1940s to the start of a regular presence in the 1970s and their peak in the late Cold War. This included the development of the Swiftsure class of attack submarines, the first British nuclear submarine designed to be optimised for under ice operations. Dr Jinks also described how after the Cold War under ice patrols had been reduced as the focus of operations had moved away from Europe over the last 30 years, and instead of operating under the Arctic ice, Royal Navy attack submarines were operating in warmer waters to support expeditionary operations:

Once the threat declined, the Submarine Service had to start looking away from its traditional role of anti-submarine [warfare] and try to stay relevant in the world. You can probably recall, if you go back to the ‘90s, there were significant cuts in the size of the [attack submarine] fleet, coming down to where we are today. The Submarine Service, in order to find a role in the post-Cold War world, started to look for other things to do. You had power projection from the sea, in terms of the Tomahawk [Land Attack Missile] capability, and you had new roles east of Suez with Tomahawk.214

81.Written evidence from RUSI also identified how the nature of recent expeditionary operations, and consequent decisions on equipment, have had an impact on under ice capability:

[Arctic naval operations are] an area where the UK has made significant contributions previously, before the nuclear hunter-killer force was equipped with Land attack missiles. Within NATO, only Britain and US have the platforms to undertake nuclear submarine patrols under the ice cap, but both allowed such skills to fade after the end of the Cold War. Given the level of nuclear submarine availability in the Royal Navy, sustaining this skill set and experience now will be challenging. Astute class submarine deployments appear to be prioritised for weapon payload (specifically their Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) capability), rather than as a platform. Given the lack of strike weapons of similar range elsewhere in the British military (there is space for them in Type 45 Daring class destroyers, but fitting out was never funded), this seems unlikely to change.215

Asked whether under ice capability had been adequately sustained, Dr Jinks’s said that it had been at “a very low level”, and that no Royal Navy submarine had been up under the ice since an accident aboard HMS Tireless in in the Arctic in 2007 which killed two crew members. Dr Jinks noted that the Royal Navy had continued to send exchange officers to the US Navy Ice Exercise (ICEX) programmes aboard US Navy submarines.216 Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, also said in an earlier oral evidence session that:

it is the declared policy of the submarine arm of the Royal Navy that it is a top priority to reinvest in under ice capability, as you say, having had a gap in submarine activities … for essentially a decade. One assumes that that means actually exercising with boats. The Astute217 has not been tested at all, as far as I am aware—at least, there has not been any public announcement on that score—but the legacy Trafalgars have shown their ability to operate in the north.218

82.There is however evidence that the Astute class submarines are not optimised for Arctic operations to the extent of the predecessor Trafalgar class. A brochure produced for visitors for the ICEX 2018 indicated that while the hardened sail and exterior components of the Trafalgar class allow it to surface through ice of at least 0.6 metres, Astute class submarines are unable to surface through ice more than two feet thick without risking damage to their superstructure.219

83.Asked whether, from a strategic standpoint, under ice capability was an area that the Government should be encouraged to invest in, Mr Childs said “There should be a refocusing on that area and the ability to do that as part of a deterrent capability, yes”.220 Dr Igor Sutyagin, Senior Research Fellow at RUSI said that from a Russian point of view “The worst-case scenario is the United Kingdom restarting its deployment of under ice patrols of its subs.”221 Written evidence from Professor Peter Roberts, also of RUSI, described under ice capability as:

the one British asset capable of persistent and meaningful contribution to applying asymmetric military pressure against Russia, in an area that they consider vital.222

84.In March 2018 it was announced that, for the first time since 2007, the Trafalgar class HMS Trenchant had surfaced through the ice in the Arctic Ocean north off Alaska as part of ICEX 18.223 The boat repeated breaking through the ice on several occasions over the next few weeks, including at the North Pole. The Minister for the Armed Forces said:

This exercise shows that our Royal Navy is primed and ready to operate in the harshest conditions imaginable, to protect our nation from any potential threats.224

85.The Royal Navy’s under ice missions in the Arctic are one of the less well-known aspects of UK operations in the Cold War, largely due to the level of secrecy which surrounded them. This contribution was crucial to NATO’s defensive strategy, and the Submarine Service developed a world-leading capability in these operations. As the strategic focus moved elsewhere after the Cold War, under ice exercises ceased altogether. We are very encouraged to see that with the mission of HMS Trenchant that this presence has been re-established, and hope that this is part of a permanent cycle of activity in the Arctic. Understanding that the Government does not comment in detail on submarine operations, we ask the Department to lay out its policy on the future of under ice exercises. We also ask the Department to outline the comparative under ice capabilities of Royal Navy submarines currently in service.

86.A further aspect discussed in evidence is the impact of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers now coming into service. Although the primary function of carriers is usually characterised as expeditionary, operating outside the Euro-Atlantic area, they have played an important strategic role in the North Atlantic. As noted in paragraph 24, the presence of a large striking fleet centred on several aircraft carriers and strong amphibious forces in the Norwegian Sea was at the core of the Maritime Strategy in the 1980s.225 Dr Sutyagin noted that carriers positioned off the Norwegian coast in the High North would be able to pose a direct threat to Russian territory.226 Witnesses dwelt further upon the utility of carrier operations in the High North. Professor Grove said:

One would hope that an area of deployment for the future carrier—or carriers—could well be in this area. In the good old days of the late ’60s, the idea was that you would send four American aircraft carriers and two British ones in two carrier groups. By the ’80s, that had come down to three American and one or two British anti-submarine warfare cruisers. Particularly as the Americans are finding difficulty with the operational availability of their force, I think that we Europeans—in a non-political sense—need to start thinking about using our carrier assets, as well as our submarines, to as it were reconstruct the old forward strategy, albeit in a new form and perhaps at a lower level in terms of numbers.227

Mr Childs also told us:

Clearly, the concept behind the [Queen Elizabeth class carriers] was that they were not copies of the Invincible class that did north-east Atlantic operations—ASW sea control, essentially—and they were for power projection. However, in the current context, I hope that there are concepts being looked at for how you would potentially employ these aircraft carriers in the context of northern waters going north, whether it is for some kind of air defence or power projection capability into the polar peninsula, or as major ASW platforms with Merlin helicopters aboard, for example. There is also the potential context of the Americans returning to northern waters with an aircraft carrier. That would be a huge signal both to northern NATO members and to Russia about potential intent in terms of signalling and deterrence.228

87.In an oral evidence session in May 2018, we asked the Secretary of State directly whether it was intended for the carriers to operate in the North Atlantic. He responded:

We always look at every single option to deal with the changing threat environment that this country deals with. In terms of where the carriers are deployed, I have no doubt that the carriers will be deployed in the north Atlantic, south Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf, and the Pacific: they are a global strike capability and they would be used on a global scale. Will they spend time operating in the north Atlantic? Almost certainly, yes.229

88.The Department should fully explain the concept of operations for carriers operating in North Atlantic and High North, including training and exercise arrangements, and the opportunities for working with allies.


89.In addition to maritime surface and sub-surface assets being committed to anti-submarine warfare, the ability to locate and track a heightened level of submarine activity over such a wide area places great importance on airborne anti-submarine warfare capability. Before 2011 the UK’s long range fixed-wing airborne ASW capability was sustained by the fleet of Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). The Nimrod MR2s were due to have their service lives extended by being upgraded to the Nimrod MRA4 variant, but after lengthy and costly delays this project was cancelled in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). All Nimrods were withdrawn from service in 2011, leaving the UK with a capability gap in MPA. Our predecessor Committee strongly criticised this decision in its 2010 report following the SDSR.230 The Lords Arctic Committee, anticipating the 2015 SDSR, singled out the capability gap in MPA as a particularly serious deficiency in terms of maintaining both military and search and rescue capability:

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review must give urgent consideration to reintroducing a maritime patrol capability for the UK. This is needed for both defence and search and rescue operations.231

Professor Grove told us “The loss of the maritime patrol aircraft cannot be overestimated as a blow to our anti-submarine warfare capabilities.”232

90.As well as lowering awareness of potentially hostile submarines entering the North Atlantic, reduced maritime surveillance presents a particular risk to the security of the UK’s nuclear deterrent based at HM Naval Base Clyde in Faslane, Scotland. From 2010 several media reports suggested that the Russian submarines were making repeated attempts to record the distinctive acoustic signatures of the UK’s Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines as they entered and exited Faslane. Successfully recording these signatures could allow the Vanguard class submarines to be more easily detected, identified and tracked at sea. These reports also suggested that the UK was having to place heavy reliance on other NATO allies to conduct maritime surveillance.233

91.In the 2015 SDSR it was announced that the UK’s MPA capability would be regenerated with the purchase of nine Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft from the United States, due to come into service in 2019. These aircraft would be based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland and manned by crews who had sustained their skills in airborne ASW by being embedded with the US Navy.234 In 2017 the UK signed a Statement of Intent with the US and Norway to enhance co-operation in maritime security in the North Atlantic, based on their common operation of the P-8A platform.235

92.While this move to address part of the capability gap that had been created is welcome, James Gray MP questioned whether the numbers of P-8A aircraft the UK is buying were sufficient.236 In the course of our recent inquiry ahead of the Modernising Defence Programme, we received detailed written evidence from former RAF officers with extensive experience of ASW operations who argued that the intended aircraft and crew provision for the MPA force was too low to fulfil the range of tasks under its responsibility, particularly in light of the fact that the RAF had over 40 Nimrod MPA in the 1970s. They believed that unrealistic assumptions had been made about the ability of NATO allies to contribute to MPA provision and that at least 16 aircraft and a higher crewing requirement was needed to attain the necessary coverage.237 Written submissions to this inquiry have also noted the P-8As being purchased configured to the US Navy’s requirements in terms of manned-unmanned teaming and air-to-air refuelling. The latter issue is a particular problem as the P-8A aircraft are not compatible with the air-to-air refuelling system used by the RAF’s Voyager tankers and will significantly limit their operational range if it is not addressed.238 When the Minister for the Armed Forces was asked whether he thought that nine P-8As would be sufficient, he said:

I think our contribution of nine to the wider NATO force is a very reasonable one, yes. We are working closely with both our Norwegian and US allies, and I think collectively the NATO force is sufficient.239

93.A 2016 report from the NATO Joint Air Competence Centre on airborne ASW noted a dramatic decline since the end of the Cold War in airborne ASW capability across the Alliance. This report notes a range of deficiencies in the numbers and availability of MPA platforms, the levels of training and exercising, interoperability, doctrine, command and control structures, and ground infrastructure. The report also makes recommendations on how several of these issues might be addressed to bring NATO’s ASW capability back towards its former level of effectiveness.240

94.We have received substantial evidence that nine Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft are not enough for the UK to provide sufficient anti-submarine warfare coverage in the North Atlantic. The extent of the current threat is openly acknowledged by Ministers and airborne anti-submarine warfare capability is a crucial part of the response. The Department should provide the Committee with a detailed justification of the planned maritime patrol aircraft establishment.

95.In 2017 work began to restore the Remote Radar Head facility at RAF Saxa Vord in the Shetland Islands which had been closed in 2006.241 According to the Government the station has been re-established “to provide early warning of Russian military activity on NATO’s northern flank”.242 Reports accompanying the announcement that the facility reaching its Initial Operational Capacity indicated that the RAF has been required to launch 69 Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) operations over the previous five years in response to military aircraft nearing UK airspace.243 Saxa Vord is due to reach full operating capacity by the end of 2018.244

96.Group Captain Clive Blount RAF (Rtd), an officer with extensive experience of the High North, gave us some indication of the practical difficulties of air operations in the region:

The issue with air is that it is about range. In the High North, we are talking massively long distances to have any sort of effect. We have gradually become an increasingly short-range Air Force in my view. The F-35 variant we are selecting is not the longest range by a long means. The Norwegians have realised that in their selection of the F-35, which is a longer-range version, they are going to need tankers. I have a feeling that we have had a push towards a far more tactical range Air Force than we used to have, and that causes issues when we are operating in the High North, primarily because there is a paucity of basing and areas to operate.245

97.Group Captain Blount went on to discuss the challenges of operating in low temperatures and the need to have regard to environmental operating boundaries of equipment. As well as temperature, there are additional environmental considerations which have to be taken into account in the higher latitudes. Due to many satellites holding equatorial geostationary orbits, communication or navigation equipment reliant on satellites such as GPS will be adversely affected. Space weather also has a greater impact when operating in proximity to the magnetic pole.246

98.The Department should provide reassurance that air platforms have the range and resilience to sustain operations in the High North, and give evidence that proper testing has taken place of the capability of equipment in cold temperatures and at high latitudes.

Land and littoral

99.The commitment to the reinforcement of the Northern Flank in Norway discussed in paragraph 26 above has continued, the cold weather specialism within UK Armed Forces residing in the Royal Marines. The centre of expertise within the Corps is the Mountain Leader cadre, a group of highly trained Royal Marines instructors and specialists with expertise in mountain and cold weather warfare. Every year units from 3 Commando Brigade lead a series of exercises in Northern Norway to maintain the cold weather specialism.247 General Stickland described in oral evidence that these exercises have four main objectives:

100.In both the oral evidence we have taken and the visit we undertook to observe the exercises in Norway, a number of matters arose which pose challenges for the current and future sustainment of cold weather training. The first relates to the issue of resources identified at the beginning of the chapter. Both the scale of cold weather training and the planning cycle of the exercises are affected by uncertainty over whether resources will be made available within each financial year. We were told on our visit that in the 1980s brigade-sized formations comprising of thousands of personnel went to Norway. Today, the numbers of personnel involved are usually in the low hundreds the ‘company plus’ level. In 2018, exercises were conducted at an even lower level than usual, in what was described by the Minister for the Armed Forces as a one-off reduction at a saving of £2.5 million. The Minister said that it was anticipated that training would return to normal levels next year.249 He added subsequently:

The challenges of defence finance in particular are there for us all to see … The impact of currency fluctuations and everything else can at times put greater pressure on the uncommitted spend, which training unfortunately falls into. One of the challenges of my role is trying to automatically prevent pressures on uncommitted spending such as training, as we saw this year. I have to fight very hard to try to prevent that, but there are some things within that blend of committed and uncommitted spending that mean you are constrained in your actions.250

General Stickland had earlier said on the need for regular deployments:

The key thing for me is the drumbeat of training. There is huge skill fade because of the complexity and harshness of the environment, so the drumbeat is important to me.251

On our visit, we were told that these reductions were the result of the wider cost pressures across the Naval Service, as the Royal Navy seeks to regenerate carrier strike and sustain the nuclear deterrent. As we noted in our preliminary report ahead of the Modernising Defence Programme, this is not confined to the Naval Service as reductions in training have been implemented across the Services as a way of staying within annual budgets.252 In oral evidence General Stickland recognised that there were tactical consequences to exercising at lower levels of mass, but said that the Royal Marines were focused on building up strength to operate at Commando (roughly battalion size) level at the next large NATO cold weather exercise in 2020.253

101.Lieutenant Colonel Matt Skuse RM (Rtd), a former Royal Marine Mountain leader who had also served as Defence Attaché to Norway and Iceland made a wider point about the bureaucratic obstacles that exist to placing cold weather training on a more long-term basis:

I think in this particular year it is the military capability team [at the Ministry of Defence] who have continued to put the funding for our winter deployments on the table for an in-year saving each round. As a consequence, we have been coming to Norway since the ’60s, every year, at 12-months’ notice. As a result, the Norwegians have not been able to help us out with any infrastructure.254

Colonel Skuse argued that taking a more long-term view would allow for both better co-operation with Norway and the development of a more strategic focus:

[The nature of the funding cycle] is the reason we have not really sat down to have proper conversations about medium or long-term plans. We have almost surprised [the Norwegians] by our presence each year, and it is costing us a lot more staff work than it should do, and that staff work is not going to useful things such as working out how our world-class light infantry meets their world-class cold-weather heavy forces. That synergy is presently not being exploited. … So if you could ring-fence that budget for winter training, it is a relatively small act, but it would grow through to become a very large consequence on the sort of five to 10-year timeline.255

The Colonel also argued that the reduced size of the deployment contributed to a more short-term outlook:

There is also an important detail that is hidden in the fact that we are going out in smaller levels. When a brigade went out, a brigade commander and his staff went out. They generated staff work, made comment on the strategy and so on. When we go out at company commander level, the senior guy on the ground for the duration may be an OF-3 Major. He is more likely to try to push efficiency into the package rather than long-term thinking. That is an ugly by-product of the fact that we have downscaled, because we are putting less thought into it. Arguably, the whole thing is now intellectually underinvested.256

102.Colonel Skuse also raised an issue that we discussed with the Royal Marines on our visit—whether the deployment in Norway was limited to environmental training, or whether it was part of a more joined up strategic ‘package’ that was integrated with the defence of NATO’s Northern Flank and acted as a credible conventional deterrent. He responded that the nature of the funding settlement did have a wider effect on how the training is conducted, and its strategic impact:

At the moment, it is pretty much all about the environment, because of that 12-month timeline. A Royal Marine commander will turn up. He has not got links into any clever documents about how we work in synergy with the Norwegian forces. He simply tries to do what he expects to do in other places in the world in a cold-weather environment to overcome those frictions—the effect of snow and increased logistic challenges—that are a fact of life out there. If we had a more coherent plan he would actually be able to do some of that exercise and “train where you fight”, which was a key phrase during the Cold War. At the moment, it is simply the way we fund that package that stops him doing that.257

He added later:

I would gamble that we are not actually reading the NATO plan for the reinforcement of Norway when we do our exercise planning. We are not actually exercising that plan at all. We are not sending in refinements about the logistics. If we find an airport had changed its runway length, no one would report that to the international staff. We are simply not doing what we should be doing. We are not doing the basics. That is because we are going back at 12 months’ notice each time at a very tactical level. Change the funding strategy.258

General Stickland, however said, that there was a wider strategic purpose:

All our activity sits within the ability to deter and reassure as part of the NATO Graduated Response Plans … Our ability to deploy and operate is a fundamental part of the UK’s components of those deployment plans… quite a lot of the time the training bridges into a NATO exercise. NATO does not exercise in things it is not interested in. It is interested in this, and it is a way of rehearsing and particularly of integrating our forces. At the command level, people will be very aware that they are a component of a capability that reinforces under a NATO [concept of operations plan].259

On the issue of budget programming, the General said:

The nature of how the short-term budget runs is how Defence does its business. It is my job to make sure that people understand that there is a requirement. The crucial thing to say is that we have had a progressive build-up of this capability since 2013. We have been working to build back our core skills as we go through. As the Minister says, there has been a shortfall this year, but my target is to make sure that I justify the requirement for 2019, building to the large-scale exercise that we are targeting in 2020 with our coalition and NATO partners.260

103.The winter training exercises in Northern Norway each year led by the Royal Marines are crucial to maintenance of the cold weather warfare specialism. The level of training required to survive, move and fight in this environment is high and these skills fade if they are not maintained by regular training cycles. As these exercises are already taking place at low levels of mass, reducing them further will do more damage to their tactical utility and reduce the numbers of personnel completing cold weather training. The fact that this has been done on financial grounds is particularly unacceptable. The Government should ensure that cold weather training exercises return to normal levels in 2019.

104.The Government should explain how cold weather training exercises are integrated with NATO’s Graduated Response Plan for the reinforcement of Norway.

105.The pressure on the defence budget combined with the annual process of allocating uncommitted spending on training restricts the ability to plan training over the long term, limiting its strategic effect and reducing the ability to integrate more closely with allies. The Department should explore how it can be more flexible in programming multi-year cold weather training arrangements, instead of conducting the process on an annual basis.

106.General Stickland highlighted how the annual exercises in Norway were a focus for defence co-operation with NATO allies. Cold weather training has been more closely integrated with the Norwegian Army261 and the Dutch marine combat group also undertakes training in Norway.262 The close relationship that the UK has with Norway on a wide range of matters including defence was dwelt upon by Colonel Olsen, and the Royal Marines are an important part of this:

We have found that in the last decade or two, more and more countries have lost that Arctic skill set because they gave priority to other areas. It is an art in itself to operate up there. One thing is to do the basics: to keep yourself warm with the right clothing, to get a good night’s sleep under tough conditions, to eat properly, and to handle the snow, the wet and the waters up there… We find that the Royal Marines are so good at it; their motivation and their willingness to take on new challenges is really important for us.263

107.The growth of the relationship with the United States Marine Corps has been particularly valuable. The winter warfare capability of the USMC lapsed over the years the Corps was heavily engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and other generally hot weather climates. Recognising the growing importance of regenerating this capability, the USMC began sending units to Norway to be trained by the Royal Marines in 2015. We were able to observe this training on our visit and were struck by the positive feedback from American personnel about the quality of the training being provided. General Stickland said on this subject:

It’s a key part of our business. It also comes to the issue of the US Marine Corps providing significant mass and significant capability. But where our commando force can act alongside them and enable them, that is a key contribution to some of these response plans. The key thing for us is that this is a very strong relationship with the US Marine Corps. We are, in many other areas, seeking to look at where we can interoperate with them, so that our skills can enhance theirs.264

108.Colonel Skuse also dwelt upon the importance of this training relationship:

This is a wonderful—arguably, once in a generation—opportunity for the Royal Marines to give back to the US Marine Corps. We have begged and borrowed off them as long as I have been serving, and now we are giving back in terms of capacity and capability. That is wonderful for the relationship between the US Marine Corps and the Royal Marines, and is probably good for the relationship between the UK and the US. It is wonderful to see it happening. We have a skill set that they now feel they need, and we are generously giving it over. It is genuinely heart-warming.

The Colonel also noted that the renewed American presence in Norway was a piece of strategic messaging in itself based on a decision debated and ratified by the Norwegian Parliament.265

109.The Royal Marines play an increasingly important role in inter-service training. With the establishment of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Eastern Europe, the Royal Marines have been working with the British Army personnel leading this deployment to provide expertise on cold weather warfare. While the conditions in Estonia and Poland where these units are deployed are not necessarily the same as those found in Northern Norway, deployment in the Baltic during the winter months still requires the transfer of expertise on survival, movement and combat in cold weather conditions. General Stickland explained what this involves for the Royal Marines:

We provided members of the Mountain Leaders to the 3rd (UK) Division to make sure the troops that were deployed to Poland and Estonia under the operation there were sufficiently aware of the resilience required for cold weather soldiering. I was providing, essentially, a cadre of expertise to ensure people can soldier safely in those difficult conditions.266

110.As the owners of the cold weather warfare specialism within UK Armed Forces, the Royal Marines have been able to transfer expertise to the British Army to support the deployments in Estonia and Poland. The high quality of the cold weather training that the UK provides also makes it a sought-after commodity amongst our allies. The training that has been provided to the United States Marine Corps since 2015 is a particularly valuable example of defence co-operation and we were struck by the positive feedback we received from the Americans. Co-operation of this nature is at the core of the UK/US defence relationship and is a reminder of what the UK stands to lose if the capability which supports it is run down.

111.The need for proper clothing and equipment to operate in the freezing temperatures in the High North is of obvious importance. Although the equipment provided is generally of a high standard, our observation from our visit in 2017 was that the arrangements and budget for the supply of replacement equipment were uncertain, and that new and undamaged equipment was starting to fall into short supply. We also encountered experiences that we have heard elsewhere from serving personnel that the process of setting requirements for particular sets of specialist equipment is lengthy and administratively cumbersome. Too often specifications that are requested by the specialists on the ground are not delivered by the bureaucratic process further up the chain. We asked Colonel Skuse to comment on whether procurement processes could be improved:

Yes. It should not be as hard as it is. Equipment is not bad at the moment, but the processes should not be as difficult as they are. It requires a little bit more intellectual investment—no revolution there, but a bit of refinement and polish of our processes for working out what we need and what works and then buying it in. There is no one thing—it is a lot of polish in small areas.267

112.General Stickland recognised that there had been difficulties with the supply and maintenance of cold weather equipment and told us funding had been put in place to deliver an operational stock by 2021. When asked about the sufficiency of pipeline and supply he responded:

I think if I had been sitting here two years ago, I would have given you a different answer to this question, but we have money in the line, and a profile that focuses on getting that equipment to where it should be, which is an op stock, by 2021.268

113.We are pleased to see that further work has been done to improve the supply and maintenance of equipment which is vital to sustaining cold weather warfare capability. We ask for further details on the funding that has been provided for cold weather equipment, and the contractual arrangements which will flow from this to deliver an operational stock by 2021. We also ask that the Department provides details on the role of the Royal Marines Mountain Leader cadre in setting the requirement and specification for this equipment.

114.In February 2018 the Committee reported on the current status and future of the UK’s amphibious capability, following reports that substantial reductions in the strength of the Royal Marines and the possible disposal of the Albion class Landing Platform Dock (LPD) amphibious assault ships were being considered as part of the National Security Capability Review.269 We asked General Stickland how the amphibious warfare specialism sustained by the Royal Marines interacts with the cold weather warfare specialism:

The nature of how we do our business is essentially that we come from the sea … There is a very strong linkage between the amphibious side and the cold weather warfare part of the jigsaw. From my perspective, as part of the response plans, the ability to project power, command and manoeuvre from the sea are all part of our contribution to those response plans.270

115.When asked whether the absence of the LPDs would make it more difficult for Royal Marines to reinforce Norway in pursuit of those response plans, General Stickland replied “Absolutely”.271 In its written evidence the Department has described how UK amphibious assets contribute to NATO reinforcement plans (which would include the plan applying to Norway) as part of the Alliance’s Amphibious Task Group Framework Nation construct:

The expectation from NATO is that Framework Nations provide, as a minimum, the core of an Amphibious Task Group at High Readiness: Landing Platform Dock, Littoral Manoeuvre Command and Control staff, and Lead Commando Group.272

116.Our report of February 2018 underlined the current and future importance of amphibious capability to UK Defence. One aspect of this is the role this capability plays in the defence of NATO’s Northern Flank. Reducing this capability by disposing of the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ships would make it more difficult, if not impossible to reinforce Norway swiftly in the event of a crisis. The wider challenges being faced by the Royal Marines which we highlighted in the February 2018 report also have the potential to compromise the amphibious and cold weather warfare specialisms that are sustained by the Corps. The interaction between the UK’s amphibious and cold weather warfare specialisms should be a central factor in the Department’s consideration of the future of amphibious capability, as should the risk to the UK’s NATO commitments if the capability which supports this commitment is reduced.

191 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q68

192 Ministry of Defence (DIA0020)

193 PQ 359 0 [2015–16]

194 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q77

195 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q102 [Group Captain Clive Blount]

196 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q67

197 Defence Committee, Beyond 2 per cent: A preliminary report on the Modernising Defence Programme, Seventh Report of Session 2017–19, HC 818, para 57; Defence Committee, Indispensable allies: US, NATO and UK Defence relations, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 387, para 34–38. See also Mr Graham Edmonds (DTA0004)

198 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q33

199 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q33

200 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q33

201 Defence Committee, Restoring the Fleet: Naval Procurement and the National Shipbuilding Strategy, Third Report of Session 2016–17, HC 221, paras 84–86

202 Professor James Kraska and Professor Sean Fahey (DIA0015). See also RUSI (DIA0002).

203 Willett, L, ‘Afterword: A United Kingdom perspective on the role of navies in delivering Arctic security’ in Kraska, J (ed.), Arctic Security in an Age of Climate Change, CUP, Cambridge, 2011, p 290, quoted from Depledge, D, ‘Looking North: Britain’s revitalised interest in the northern areas of Europe’, RUSI Commentary, 9 March 2012. See also ‘Britain “woefully unprepared” for Arctic warfare’, Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2011

204 PQ 1216 1 [2017–19]

205 National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence: Ensuring Sufficiently Skilled Personnel, HC 947 [2017–19], 18 April 2018

206 National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence: The Defence Nuclear Enterprise: a landscape review, HC 1003 [2017–19], 22 May 2018

207 Public Accounts Committee, Oral evidence taken on 2 July 2018, HC 1028 [2017–19], Q48

208UK to expand navy in North Atlantic amid “growing Russian threat”’, Sky News, 9 July 2018. The definition of a Joint Area of Operations is found in Ministry of Defence, Joint Doctrine Publication 01: UK Joint Operations Doctrine, November 2014, p 123

210 Scottish Global Forum (DIA0012)

212 Sunak, R, Undersea Cables: Indispensable, Insecure, Policy Exchange, December 2017. This adds to the growing literature on the wider subject of maritime hybrid warfare. See Royal Norwegian Embassy, London (DIA0047) and Schaub Jr, G. Murphy, M and Hoffman, F G, Hybrid Maritime Warfare: Building Baltic Resistance, RUSI Journal, Vol 162, No 1 (February/March 2017), pp 32–40; Stavridis, J, ‘The United States, the North Atlantic and Maritime Hybrid Warfare’ from Olsen, J A (ed.) NATO and the North Atlantic: Revitalising Collective Defence, RUSI Whitehall Paper 87, March 2017, pp. 92–101

213 Ministry of Defence (DTA0003)

214 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q28

215 RUSI [DIA0002]

216 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Qq28

217 The Astute class is the Royal Navy’s newest type of nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN).

218 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q94

219 US Navy, ICEX 2018 Visitor Briefing Book, January 2018, p 14

220 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q96

221 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q64

222 RUSI (DIA0002)

225 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q25

226 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q65

227 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q35

228 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q117

229 Oral evidence taken on 22 May 2018, HC 387 [2017–19], Q184

230 Defence Committee, The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy, Sixth Report of Session 2010–12, HC 761, para 137. The point was repeated in the subsequent report Future Maritime Surveillance, Fifth Report of Session 2012–13, HC 110

231 House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic, Responding to a changing Arctic, Report of Session 2014–15, HL Paper 118, para 428

232 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q35

236 Oral evidence taken on 15 November 2017, HC 388 [2017–19], Qq10, 17. See also Human Security Centre (DIA0006)

237 Defence Committee, Beyond 2 per cent: A preliminary report on the Modernising Defence Programme, Seventh Report of Session 2017–19, HC 818, para 69. The particular written evidence submissions were from Air Vice-Marshal (Retd) Andrew L Roberts (MDP0011) and Group Captain (Retd) Derek K Empson (MDP0018)

238 Scottish Global Forum (DIA0012); Mr Graham Edmonds (DTA0004)

239 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q132

241 HC Deb, 21 Jul 2005, c115WS

242 HL Deb, 26 June 2018, c 110

243New Shetland radar to better protect UK Northern airspace’, Ministry of Defence, 26 January 2018

244 PQ 1290 7 [2017–19]

245 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q92

246 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q116

247 Ministry of Defence (DIA0020)

248 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q132

249 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Qq91–93

250 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q98

251 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q98

252 Defence Committee, Beyond 2 per cent: A preliminary report on the Modernising Defence Programme, Seventh Report of Session 2017–19, HC 818, para 98

253 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q109

254 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q104

255 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q104

256 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q105

257 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q105

258 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q105

259 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Qq95–96

260 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q97

261 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q94

262 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q95

263 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q41. See also Royal Norwegian Embassy, London (DIA0047).

264 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q116

265 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q111

266 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q101

267 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q113

268 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q112

269 Defence Committee, Sunset for the Royal Marines? The Royal Marines and UK amphibious capability, Third Report of Session 2017–19, HC 622

270 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q118

271 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q121

272 Ministry of Defence (DTA0003)

Published: 15 August 2018