High Spending Russia Closes Naval Gap with West

A Trident missile armed Vanguard class ballistic missile submarine leaving its base in the Firth of Clyde.
A Trident missile armed Vanguard class ballistic missile submarine leaving its base in the Firth of Clyde.

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Commodore Philip Thicknesse is a Falklands War veteran and career warfare officer and aviator, Philip Thicknesse is an international adviser at the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). He previously directed the UK Defence Crisis Management Centre, Maritime Warfare Centre and commanded British Forces South Atlantic Islands. 

About 20 years ago I visited St Petersburg as part of a Royal Navy deployment. We were hosted with great generosity and friendliness by the Russian Navy, given detailed tours of one of their latest warships and taken to Kronstadt Island. There was a distinct sense of unreality about the whole visit, of being in a place one simply had no expectation of ever seeing, let alone under these circumstances. My generation of naval officers had been trained, very rigorously, to fight and defeat the Soviet Navy.

Unlike the British army, which had trained on the central front to fight an orderly retreat to the channel ports, the US and Royal Navies had practised a far more aggressive doctrine in the North Atlantic, taking the fight to the Russians and searching out their nuclear submarines with the aim of preventing them from breaking out into the Atlantic to threaten the reinforcement convoys which were to flow from the eastern seaboard of America to Europe. The Cold War in the north Atlantic was, therefore, a rather hotter affair than ashore, with routine interactions with all arms of the soviet fleet. The effect of this was an extremely focused, highly trained, well drilled Royal Navy, confident that the Soviet Union could be defeated at sea.

I spent parts of the 1980s serving within NATO’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Strike Force, the UK commanded specialist component and vanguard for the US Carrier Battle Groups. There were times when we flew more hours per month than many front line aviators achieve now in a year. Compared to the previous battles of the Atlantic, it was a fairly bloodless affair, but there were still casualties. It was accepted that we would lose an aircraft a year from each of the front line ASW helicopter squadrons in accidents caused by combinations of fatigue and error and while huge efforts went into reducing the accident rate, there was, I think, a tacit acceptance that this was part of the price to be paid.

So there was the most enormous sense of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – and also a real sense that NATO had defeated a very demanding opponent, not least by pouring staggering amounts of money into the battle. In that sense, the Cold War was no different from any other in that economic attrition prevailed.

Such was the euphoria in some idealistic corners following the end of the Cold War, it was even suggested that Russia could become part of NATO, I think that I would have counted myself amongst that optimistic crowd, at least until 2000, when two separate realisations changed my mind. Both occurred during my time in command of HMS WESTMINSTER, a Royal Navy Type 23 specialist anti-submarine frigate.

The truth was, NATO navies were already fast losing their edge.

Since the mid-1980s, the superiority we had acquired in the ASW battle in the north Atlantic had been almost wholly eroded. In part this was because of the corrosive effect of the ‘peace dividend’, which manifested itself in a crippling decline in exercises and live operations.

Even more damaging, were the consequences of the American Walker Whitworth spy scandal.

By way of a brief refresher, the Walker Whitworth spy ring were an extended family group, serving in the US Navy and privy to a wealth of specialist knowledge critical to NATO’s technical superiority in ASW matters, including detailed information about the US and UK noise reduction programmes associated with our submarines and other information about our intelligence gathering and tracking systems. (It is perhaps worth a brief digression at this point to consider the cumulative consequences of US espionage catastrophes in the last 20 years: Walker Whitworth on the ASW battle, Wikileaks and PFC Wiggins on the conduct of diplomatic relations and most recent, and almost certainly even more damaging, Edward Snowden and his devastating disclosures on the methods and activities of the NSA and its allies. These three US failures have probably done more to damage the West’s tactical superiority over a range of potential adversaries than any other events in modern history. That’s a truly sobering thought when one contemplates the arrogance of the USA in its dealings with its loyal allies. But I digress.)

The effect of Walker Whitworth was that we almost completely lost our operational advantage, and found ourselves operating against a Russian nuclear submarine force that, though much diminished in size, had not succumbed to the lazy assumptions of a peace dividend. They’d kept practising. Hard. They still regularly sortie submarines into the UK’s waters, attempting to locate and then harass Trident submarines operating in the approaches to the Clyde submarine base. These incursions are deeply worrying and are difficult to counter, not least since the UK government’s catastrophic decision to scrap the RAF’s Maritime Patrol Aircraft programme.

HMS Westminster
HMS Westminster

The second event was a visit to Klaipeda, in Lithuania, as part of a Partnership for Peace Deployment into the Baltic. Lithuania – until only a few years previous a member of the USSR itself – was on track for NATO membership and we were there to demonstrate NATO outreach to former Soviet republics. In conversation with a senior Lithuanian naval officer I can remember asking him if it was possible that NATO could expand eastwards. ‘Never’, was his emphatic response, ‘Russia can never be an ally.’

And so it came to pass. So much hope seems to have come to nothing. Today the West finds itself contemplating a highly undesirable return to the earlier status quo with an aggressive Russia which seems determined to de-stabilise relations with all and sundry. The reasons seem clear, as I outlined in my last piece: Russia is on its knees, causing Putin to act, in the west’s eyes, irrationally.

How, then, to respond?

Comprehensively. The West needs to develop a total strategy in order to ensure the peace.  On the economic front, probably the West’s most powerful set of tools, Russia needs to be contained. Of course, much of Europe remains dependent on Russia for energy, but that can go both ways. This is a very finely balanced requirement, but the West can control Russia economically through the energy market. Europe must break its dependence on Russian energy in order to reset the strategic balance of power in its favour. Then it can control demand, and therefore the price, of energy. The aim should not be to produce Russian economic collapse- which would be quite as damaging and dangerous. Instead, we should look to achieve a ‘goldilocks’ state, somewhere in between.

Diplomatically, Russia, if it could be persuaded to act collaboratively, could be a force for real good. Russia’s very different view of the world is crucially important as a permanent member of the Security Council, not least as a check and balance on Western arrogant assumptions about liberal democracy. Amongst the painful lessons of the last 20 years of Western interventions is that sometimes, regrettably, horrible dictatorships appeared to be successful in suppressing or containing indigenous extremism.

Militarily, the West, through NATO, needs to get serious. The current debate about the rightness of 2% as a proportion of GDP to spend on defence is thoroughly misleading. 2% is at best the eventual steady state funding level, but equipment and armament and fuel stocks have been so depleted that there first needs to be a significant programme of re-equipping, remembering that, in the end, wars are won by the richest, but don’t have to be fought to be won. It is the curious paradox of defence spending that while all defence equipment is built in order for it to be destroyed, if it can be built and used extremely well, it will act as a deterrent and never be used in anger.

Russian defence spending has doubled since 2007, rose by 18% last year and now accounts for over 20% of all public spending. Since 2010 a ten year, $720bn, defence modernisation programme has been in execution and the results are beginning to be seen in new classes of submarine, diesel electric and nuclear, and in surface combatants. The same is true for the equipment programmes for the army and air forces.

Russian submarine Tula (K-114)
Russian submarine Tula (K-114)

There might be valuable lessons to learn from the 1920s, the last time the UK sought to extract a ‘peace dividend’.  As a result of the Treasury’s 10 year rule, defence spending declined through the 1920s to 2.5% of GDP.  The rush to re-arm starts in the mid-30s with defence spending rising, belatedly, to 15% in 1939 and peaked at almost half GDP by 1944.  It is at least worth considering what might have happened if the UK had maintained an effective level of defence spending and deterrence throughout the 20s and 30s, and whether that heightened expenditure might have acted as a deterrent on Germany. So it seems to me that before determining the level of expenditure as a percentage of GDP, one should debate the purpose of that expenditure, which is surely to prevent future large scale conflict. One might call this ‘spend to save.’

The threat of nuclear war, of course, makes this very different to the 1920s and 30s.

This new confrontation means different things to different countries. For the Baltic States and others in Eastern Europe, the threat is of covert Russian intervention and conventional military force. Almost without exception, these states – at one stage amongst the worst hit in Europe by the financial crisis – are increasing conventional military spending. Lithuania has reintroduced conscription.

For the Western allies including the US and UK, it means keeping an assertive presence along NATO’s border with Russia. And it means having the military power to back that up in a crisis.
So, for the UK and US, that means replacing their submarine based system nuclear deterrents – both nearing retirement – with others similar systems. They are clearly the most survivable and assured nuclear weapons platform, and that it will therefore never have to be used. In our private lives we insure ourselves with the intention of NOT to make claims against the policy. Only a fool would not have the best insurance available to them and well equipped, trained and confident NATO forces are exactly that insurance policy. Organisations like Greenpeace have produced alarmist figures in support of their campaign against the deterrent, the most recent being, I think, a through life cost (i.e. about 30 years) of the Trident Successor programme, of £97bn.  The NHS budget for 2014/15 was about £113bn. The through life cost of the Typhoon fighter aircraft programme is said in some quarters to be about £46bn. This cost results in an eventual aircraft fleet of 107, no more than a couple of dozen of which are available for operations at any one time.  Relative value for money?  Again, the cost of the UK campaign in Afghanistan was £37bn, plus hundreds of wasted lives and thousands of crippled young men and women.  For the cost of this campaign the UK could build Trident’s successor three times over (the MOD estimate for the build is £11-14bn.). Let’s hammer this nail out of sight. The apparent cost of HS2, a railway line designed to trim a few minutes off the journey between Birmingham and London, is believed to be about £50bn.

Is it, therefore, that the fundamental question our politicians need to ask of themselves is, ‘what price peace?’

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