British forces to step up Arctic deployment to protect Nato's northern flank from Russia

Dominic Nicholls

British forces are to step up Arctic deployments to protect Nato's northern flank from Russia, Gavin Williamson has announced.

The Defence Secretary said the Royal Marines have launched a ten-year programme that will see over a thousand troops train each year with their Norwegian counterparts, building up to a brigade-strength deployment in the near future.

In addition, he announced that Britain’s new fleet of submarine-hunting aircraft will fly over the Arctic next year in their first deployment.

Mr Williamson was visiting Royal Marines conducting winter training at their new base in Bardufoss, northern Norway, where temperatures have reached as low as -30°C. He said the new P8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft will fly in the Arctic to counter Russian submarine activity that is back to Cold War levels. 

The Defence Secretary said: “Whether it’s sharpening our skills in sub-zero conditions, learning from longstanding allies like Norway or monitoring submarine threats with our Poseidon aircraft, we will stay vigilant to new challenges.”

Mr Williamson drinks a rum toast after breaking the ice with the Royal Marines Credit:  MoD

The Arctic visit comes amid criticism of the Defence Secretary for jeopardising UK-China trade talks by announcing the deployment of a Royal Navy warship to the Pacific. 

General Sir Lord Dannatt, a former head of the Army, said Mr Williamson had oversold his idea. Beijing is said to have pulled out of trade talks with Philip Hammond as a result, but the Defence Secretary insisted his comments had been cleared by the Prime Minister and Chancellor. 

Nine of the new P8 Poseidon aircraft will be delivered to RAF Lossiemouth in 2020 to fly reconnaissance patrols over a wide area, including the High North and North Atlantic. One of their roles will also be to protect Britain’s nuclear deterrent submarines.

Winter training in Norway, now in its 50th year, is crucial to Britain's cold weather warfare specialism Credit: Jack Hill/The Times

Security experts have warned the UK and its allies to be extremely wary of Russia’s intentions in the Arctic. In a recent report on the subject, the Defence Select Committee warned: “It is difficult to credit that the scale and range of military capabilities being deployed by Russia in the Arctic fulfil solely defensive purposes”.

The region is a key strategic area for Nato as it controls the route out to the Atlantic for Russian submarines and other naval assets. 

The Defence Secretary says that Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic has increased tenfold in recent years and that in 2017 the Royal Navy had to intercept 33 Russian ships approaching UK territorial waters, up from just one incident in 2010. 

The RAF will deploy the Poseidon sub-hunters as soon as they are delivered in 2020, as the skillset has been maintained through cooperation with allies.

The Defence Secretary plans to build up a brigade-strength deployment in the Norwegian Arctic Credit: JACK HILL/Times Newspapers Ltd

RAF crews have been been flying on US Maritime Patrol Aircraft since 2012, following the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 aircraft in 2010 under David Cameron’s coalition government. 

An MoD spokesman said: “Seedcorn crews have continued to be stationed with other nations flying Maritime Patrol Aircraft, such as the US, Canada and New Zealand”.

As the owners of the cold weather warfare specialism within Britain's Armed Forces, the Royal Marines have been able to transfer expertise to the British Army to support the deployments in Estonia and Poland, and to Nato allies such as the Norwegian Army and, since 2015, the US Marine Corps. 

A soldier takes shelter at Bardufoss, where temperatures have reached as low as -30°C Credit: Jack Hill/The Times

The Defence Committee report said: “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.”

This year is the 50th anniversary of the winter training exercises in Norway. They are crucial to the maintenance of the cold weather warfare specialism, and this year’s exercise has included Apache attack helicopters for the first time.