Britain above the Arctic Circle

With a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles above the Arctic Circle, a House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee has said that the UK needs to take urgent steps to upgrade its Arctic capabilities. AIR International examines the committee’s findings


This graphic show’s a top view of the arctic region.
Central Intelligence Agency

A House of Commons subcommittee report, ‘On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic’ lays out the importance of the region, especially with the effects global warming is having on the polar ice cap.

The report says: ‘The consensus is that without action to mitigate human sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during the summer months before 2050, and possibly within the next decade or two. Since the mid-2000s low minimum ice extents have become the norm.’

The absence of ice will open up vast new opportunities to exploit natural resources. In 2008, the US Geological Survey estimated that technically recoverable resources in the Arctic amount to around 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil as well as considerable reserves of rare earth metals and minerals.

This is one of the reasons why nations around the world, including China and india, are asserting their interests in the Arctic. As relatively easily exploitable resources become scarcer, the appeal of the riches beneath the Arctic Ocean will increase.

As the ice melts new shipping routes open. Russia has a fleet of ten nuclear-powered Arktika-class icebreakers it has used for decades to keep shipping routes clear in the frozen northern latitudes. The first of three new vessels in the class, the largest yet constructed, was launched in 2016 and is due to be commissioned in 2019. Russia is ready to exploit the so-called North East Passage, of which the Northern Sea Route is part, which passes along the northern coast of Russia and Scandinavia.

Britain has observer status in the Arctic Council, a group of representatives of eight Arctic findigenous communities, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States that governs the region.

Increasing Russian threat

Minister for the Armed Forces, Mark Lancaster, when asked if the view was that the Arctic was being militarised said: “There is certainly military activity in the Arctic. All the Arctic nations, except for Iceland, which has a treaty with the US, maintain a military capability. We perceive that at the moment to be defensive in nature compared with other areas, but we are monitoring it very carefully”.

Historically the area has been characterised as a region of low tension, but as Chinese actions in the South China Sea show, the opportunity to acquire wealth is a strong stimulus. Already Canada, the US and Denmark are in dispute about parts of the North West Passage and Russia has asserted ownership of the resource-rich Lomonosov Ridge, a claim subject to UN arbitration. Russia has already reactivated Soviet-era bases in the Far North and is building bases for tactical and strategic aircraft. In late October 2014, TASS reported that the Chief of the Russian National Defence Centre, Lt Gen Mikhail Mizintsev, said Russia plans to build 13 airfields, one aviation training ground and ten technical radars and air guidance stations in the Arctic region. In an echo of Cold War practices, two Tu-160 Blackjack nuclear bombers deployed to Ugolny Airport in Siberia on August 16, 2018. The jets flew 4,350 miles (7,000km) from their home at 6950th Guards Air Base at Engels. Refuelled in light by Il-78s, the bombers were reportedly supported by ten other jets comprising MiG- 31s and Tu-95MSs that did not land at Ugolny.

There are many examples of increasing tension in the region. The UK government recognises this, but the Committee urged it to do more to address the emerging threat from Russia.

Legitimate interests?

Dr Igor Sutyagin, Senior Research Fellow in Russia Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told the Committee: “The Arctic is terribly important for Russia, because it is responsible for … between 12% to 15% of Russian GDP [Gross Domestic Product] and 80% of Russian gas.”

The Committee noted: “The 2015 revision of the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation placed a greater emphasis on reducing the level of threats and increasing military capability compared to the previous 2001 edition. In presenting the 2015 Maritime Doctrine to President Putin, the Russian deputy prime minister said that the two areas of main focus were the Arctic and the Atlantic, due, amongst other reasons, to the growing proximity of NATO to Russia’s borders”.

In February 2018 UK Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson told the Committee there had been a: “tenfold increase in Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic [since the end of the Cold War]” and that the level of Russian submarine activity in the strategically vital Greenland – Iceland – UK gap (GIUK gap) is: “currently equalling or surpassing Cold War levels”.

An RAF Nimrod MR2 on patrol in the skies over the North Pole, it is shown with two RN submarines just breaking through the ice.
Ministry of Defence

Britain’s role in the Arctic

As a member of NATO, Britain has long been considered an expert in Arctic warfare but as in so many other aspects of the UK’s military, it is increasingly difficult to maintain that claim.

The Royal Navy’s fleet of surface ships is spread too thinly to be able to act in several theatres of operation at once. Its submarine force is not immune to these cuts and the increasingly fractured ice makes operations under the Polar Ice Cap more dangerous because of calving icebergs and the like.

Britain’s Arctic aerial capability

Aircraft and surveillance satellites are the only means by which the vast distances involved when policing the Arctic can be quickly surveilled; aircraft are the only platforms capable of rapid response to emerging threats or suspicious activity. In time of war both fixed- and rotary-wing sub-hunters are vital to keep sea lanes open; the Committee focused most of its attention on the former.

In doing so it was reflecting the views of the House of Lords Arctic Committee, which, anticipating the 2015 SDSR, singled out the capability gap in maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) as a particularly serious deficiency in terms of maintaining both military and search and rescue capability.

The UK used to have a fleet of Nimrod MR2 MPA, but it was retired in 2010 and then in the 2010 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2010) its planned successor, the hugely over budget Nimrod MRA4, was scrapped before it had entered service.

This left a capability gap ignored until it was announced in the 2015 SDSR that nine P-8A Poseidons were to be ordered to replace the capability lost with the retirement of Nimrod.

The aircraft will be based at RAF Lossiemouth in northern Scotland and are expected to be in service from ‘around 2020’ according to the MoD. However, there are many, including James Gray MP who do not accept that a fleet of nine aircraft is enough to perform the job required.

The P-8A is undoubtedly a very capable weapons system. The Royal Air Force categorises it as an intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform but it is also capable of destroying submarines and surface vessels from stand-off range with missiles and torpedoes. However, Poseidon has relatively short endurance when compared with legacy platforms such as the P-3 Orion and Nimrod. It can be refuelled in mid-air to extend its range but the United Kingdom’s system of probe and drogue refuelling as employed by the Royal Air Force fleet of Voyager tankers is incompatible with the US system of air-to-air refuelling employed by the Poseidon.

The Nimrod MR2 could stay in the air, unrefuelled, for around 8½ hours allowing a 3½ hour patrol at 1,000nm (1,852km) from its operating base. Inflight refuelling increased the range. Nimrod MRA4 could fly for 14 hours unrefuelled and up to 27 hours with air-to-air refuelling.

Unrefuelled, the P-8 can fly for about ten hours, enough to allow it to remain on station for slightly less than five hours 1,000nm from base.

NATO member Norway has a long border with Russia in the Arctic and it has ordered five P-8A Poseidons to replace its six P-3 Orions. The Committee noted that in 2017 the UK signed a Statement of Intent with the US and Norway to enhance cooperation in maritime security in the North Atlantic, based on their common operation of the P-8A.

The US National Defense Authorization Act 2019, signed by President Trump in August 2018, authorised $79.13 million for work on infrastructure at RAF Lossiemouth for US Navy P-8 operations.

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.”

The figure in brackets is the number of patrols that could be mounted if the number of crews is not increased from the current level of two per aircraft.

An Air-Vice Marshal’s view

The Committee seems to have placed a lot of reliance on written evidence submitted to it by retired Air Vice-Marshal Andrew L Roberts, a man with unparalleled knowledge of UK MPA operations. Roberts’ main conclusion was: “The planned force of only nine P-8 Poseidon aircraft would be insufficient to guarantee concurrent continuous cover for both the UK deterrent and other vital tasks, including CVA [Aircraft Carrier, Attack] protection, in tension and hostilities.” His suggested remedy to this perceived deficiency is that the UK should acquire at least seven additional Poseidons to bring the fleet up to 16. Those additional aircraft would need to be ordered before Q2, 2019 because Boeing has decided to end P-8 production in 2022. Given the Defence Minister’s assertion that nine jets is “sufficient”, such a buy is unlikely.

Roberts went on to say US-style flying booms should be fitted to the Royal Air Force’s Voyager tankers to refuel the P-8s.

Cost is one factor that makes such a move unlikely as is the fact that in operations in the North Atlantic the UK would be working as part of NATO and have access to other members’ refuelling platforms. The Air Vice-Marshal observed that other operators of the A330 tanker, of which Voyager is a variant, are already fitted with booms and should the UK’s jets be retrofitted with such a device they would be capable of refuelling the UK’s C-17 Globemasters and RC-135 Rivet Joints. This acknowledges the fact that the UK MoD has signed a contract with the provider of the Voyager capability, AirTanker, that means it must pay the company a penalty if British military aircraft are refuelled by any platform other than one of AirTanker’s Voyagers.

Another of Roberts’ recommendations was that consideration should be given to establishing the aircrew/aircraft ratio above the planned 2:1. However many aircraft are in the fleet, more crews make for higher utilisation of the available jets.

The Air Vice-Marshal pointed out that if Poseidon is used, as it is described by the Royal Air Force, as a proper ISTAR asset with responsibility for littoral operations, even more P-8s would be needed. Air Vice- Marshal Roberts included the following chart to illustrate his contention that more P-8s are required.

For a comparison of the sustained patrol capability possible with varying numbers of Nimrod MR2 and P-8 Poseidon aircraft in frontline service see the table above.

The Air Vice-Marshal’s explained his table: “The Nimrod MR2 figures assume only 70% aircraft availability which was the case just before the fleet was withdrawn. Those for the P-8 aircraft assume 85% availability.”

“The minimum number of hours on patrol for effective ASW cover is about three hours.

Asterisks are shown against the number of patrols possible at ranges where less than three hours on patrol would be achieved.”

“The figures in square brackets for established fleets of 9, 12 and 15 P-8s show the number of concurrent patrols possible with only the planned two crews per aircraft instead of optimal crew establishments, effectively halving the RAF P-8’s fleet potential productivity in times of tension and hostilities.”

The table shows that to achieve four continuous patrols at anything greater than 600nm (1,111km) from base, an additional three P-8s are needed. To enable four patrols to be sustained out to 1,200nm (2,222km) from base while providing sustained ASW cover a fleet of 15 is needed.

Were the crew-to-aircraft ratio to be held at 2:1 and the maximum tension/wartime flying rate not increased above an assumed 130 hours per month, 15 aircraft would need to be available to maintain four patrols continuously. Those patrols could not be maintained beyond about 400nm (740km) from base.

Money talks

The report goes into great detail on every aspect of Arctic warfare and what the UK should aspire to except, surprisingly, the not inconsiderable contribution that can be made by ship-borne helicopters such as the Royal Navy’s Wildcat and Merlin. However, it is unlikely that in today’s straitened financial times that even more money will be spent on defence.