On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The Arctic and the High North

1.Since the end of the Cold War the Arctic States have been successful in maintaining the Arctic and High North as an area of low tension, and the region has been generally characterised by continuing close international co-operation amongst states which may have taken divergent positions on crises occurring elsewhere in the world. However, it is clear that the natural environment in the Arctic is going through a period of fundamental change, giving rise to issues which are bringing about a similar change in the security environment. (Paragraph 16)

2.There is a risk that the perception of the Arctic as an area of exceptionalism where unique considerations of governance apply and where the application of general norms of international law are disputed, could be exploited by nations who have shown an increasing disregard for the rules-based international order elsewhere. The Svalbard archipelago is an example of this, where the possibility of further adventurism by a resurgent and revisionist Russia cannot be discounted. (Paragraph 17)

3.As the ‘globalisation’ of the region continues, an increasing number of states which are more geographically distant from the Arctic are declaring that they have an interest in Arctic affairs and wish to share in the benefits which might come from a more accessible Arctic. This is to be welcomed, as long as these interests continue to coincide. We should nonetheless be aware, in this new age of ‘great power competition’, that this state of affairs may not last indefinitely. The Government should work closely with allies to establish a common position on all aspects of international law in the Arctic to ensure that disputes active amongst states in the region are not aggravated or exploited. (Paragraph 18)

The UK, the High North and the North Atlantic

4.The strategic importance of the High North and the North Atlantic to the security of the UK and Europe cannot be overstated. During the Cold War a huge amount of effort was invested in the development of plans and capability to counter the threat that existed to NATO’s Northern Flank and the wider North Atlantic. Although we are not facing challenges on the same scale today, the prospect of Russian power being projected from the High North into the North Atlantic has returned and a comprehensive strategy is needed to meet this threat. (Paragraph 27)

5.We repeat the concerns voiced by the House of Lords Arctic Committee about the way in which UK Arctic policy is prioritised and co-ordinated. The Polar Regions Department’s considerable responsibilities in respect of the Antarctic place Arctic affairs at risk of being made a lower priority, and the dispersal of policy responsibility for Arctic affairs across Whitehall has the potential to frustrate co-ordination. We ask the Government to reconsider its decision not to appoint an Arctic Ambassador to improve co-ordination of policy in Whitehall and bolster UK representation in Arctic affairs. (Paragraph 32)

The new security environment

6.There is little doubt that the Arctic and the High North are seeing an increasing level of military activity. There is much greater divergence in the evidence we have taken on what the reasons behind this are, particularly in relation to Russia. One view is that there is no offensive intent behind Russia’s military build-up and that it is simply trying to regenerate military capacity in order to reassert sovereignty. The opposite view is that this is just one more part of Russia’s aggressive reassertion of great power competition. We have received a range of views in between. (Paragraph 68)

7.Our view is that the UK and its allies should be extremely wary of Russia’s intentions in the region. It is difficult to credit that the scale and range of military capabilities being deployed by Russia in the Arctic fulfil solely defensive purposes. Russia has shown itself to be ready to exploit regional military advantage for political gain. While the Arctic remains a region of low tension, this could change quickly, particularly given Russia’s increasingly revisionist attitude to the rules-based international order. (Paragraph 69)

8.NATO’s renewed focus on the North Atlantic is welcome and the Government should be congratulated on the leadership the UK has shown on this issue. We encourage the Government to show similar leadership in bringing NATO to a common position on its role in the Arctic and the High North. We further encourage the Government to lay out its strategy on the future role of defence partnerships outside of NATO in the region. (Paragraph 70)

UK Defence Capabilities in the High North

9.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. (Paragraph 72)

10.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. (Paragraph 76)

11.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. (Paragraph 79)

12.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. (Paragraph 85)

13.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. (Paragraph 88)

14.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. (Paragraph 94)

15.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. (Paragraph 98)

16.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. (Paragraph 103)

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

18.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. (Paragraph 105)

19.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. (Paragraph 110)

20.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. (Paragraph 113)

21.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. (Paragraph 116)

22.It is clear from our inquiry that the changes in the natural environment in the Arctic and High North are having a significant effect on the security environment. Although the region is characterised by low tension, it cannot be taken for granted that it will remain this way and the renewed presence of a revisionist state in the region gives rise to the risk that the situation could change swiftly. (Paragraph 117)

23.Military activity is rising in the region in response to this new uncertainty and its strategic importance to the UK requires the Government to react. The UK sustains a range of capabilities which could play decisive roles. The recent focus on expeditionary operations in hot weather climates has however reduced the focus on the importance of sustaining specialist capability needed to operate in the Arctic and High North. New efforts should be made to regenerate this expertise. (Paragraph 118)

24.If the definition of a leading defence nation is one which has the ability to deploy a range of capabilities anywhere in the world, then this includes the unique operating environment of the Arctic and the High North. Being able to do so is ultimately a question of resource and a question of ambition, and we call upon the Government to show leadership in providing both. (Paragraph 119)

Published: 15 August 2018