By Mark Odell & Kiran Stacey
Financial Times – 29 December 2014
The decision to axe Britain’s fleet of maritime patrol aircraft has raised fears that the country’s nuclear deterrent is at risk as the Russian Navy steps up efforts to track the submarines that carry Trident missiles.
"The loss of Nimrod has created a potentially lethal gap in our defensive armoury. Even defence ministers admit that,"
said Julian Lewis, a Conservative member of the UK Parliament’s Defence Committee.
The government scrapped a new fleet of Nimrod submarine hunters, which cost almost £4bn to develop, just before they were due to enter service as part of drastic defence cuts four years ago. As a result the UK, which has the 13th-longest coastline in the world, has a limited ability to monitor what is happening off its shores, especially underwater. The move put the UK in a small group of countries with long coastlines that do not operate dedicated maritime patrol aircraft. Among 35 nations with the longest coastlines, the UK is one of six without the capability. The other five are: Iceland, Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Madagascar, Estonia and the Bahamas.
A decision on filling the capability gap will not be taken until after the general election next year at the earliest.
In late November a periscope – suspected to belong to a Russian submarine – was sighted near Faslane, the base on the Clyde for the Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident nuclear missiles. In response the UK called on its NATO partners to send patrol aircraft to Scotland to help Royal Navy warships search for the submarine.
"The Nimrod was the key to the procedure to swamp the area on the Clyde and its approaches to make sure when a [Vanguard] went through there was not a ... Russian submarine in the area that could track it. Once there is a tail on the [submarine] it is quite hard to shake,"
said Peter Roberts, a former senior Royal Navy officer who now works as a naval warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute. The Ministry of Defence refused to comment on the specifics of the search operation, first reported by Aviation Week, that led to four maritime patrol aircraft from Canada, France and the US being scrambled to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. But it confirmed that
"recently a number of NATO partners provided assistance in the operation of maritime patrol aircraft".
It is not known whether the search operation, which began in late November and stretched into the first week of December, succeeded in locating the mystery submarine. Although this is not the first time in recent years that Russian submarines have approached Faslane, it came just over a month after Sweden’s armed forces conducted a similar hunt. Earlier this year, a top US Navy submarine commander warned that Moscow was rebuilding its submarine capabilities, an area where Russian technology is regarded as at least equal to those of NATO forces.