Over the next decade Britain’s military will step up its Arctic deployments in order to deter the Russian threat, according to British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson.
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The announcement came on Sunday in a special interview with The Telegraph amid Williamson’s visit to Royal Marines at a new base in Bardufoss, northern Norway.
Williamson said the Royal Marines have launched a 10-year program 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.”
He also announced that “Britain’s new fleet of submarine-hunting aircraft will fly over the Arctic next year in their first deployment.”
Williamson said the new P8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft will fly in the Arctic “to counter Russian submarine activity.”
“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,” he said.
Nine of the new P8 Poseidon aircraft will be delivered to the RAF airfield in Lossiemouth, Scotland in 2020 to fly reconnaissance patrols over a wide area, including the High North and North Atlantic, and their roles will include protecting Britain’s nuclear deterrent submarines, according to The Telegraph story.
In a recent report, Britain’s Defence Select Committee said “it is difficult to credit that the scale and range of military capabilities being deployed by Russia in the Arctic fulfil solely defensive purposes.”
Williamson was quoted as saying 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 U.K. territorial waters, up from just one incident in 2010.
Winter training in the region has been conducted by NATO for the past 50 years, and this year’s exercise also included Apache attack helicopters for the first time.
-Russia ‘paying attention’ to NATO in Arctic
Speaking at last week’s Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia is closely watching growing NATO deployments in the Arctic region.
“We pay attention to the NATO member states stepping up in the region,” he said.
“We discussed this with our Norwegian partners. We want to understand what kind of mandate NATO is going to have in the Arctic,” he added.
“If you listen to some people like the minister of war -- oh, sorry the minister of defense -- of the United Kingdom then you might get an impression that nobody except NATO has the right to be anywhere.”
Lavrov said Russia has “repeatedly made various constructive proposals within the framework of the Arctic Council and other regional structures.”
The Arctic Council -- an intergovernmental forum cooperating on issues related to the region -- counts among its members Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.
Lavrov said: “We are confident that cooperation in the Arctic does not require any military component. I hope our partners agree with this approach.”
British-Russia relations have been strained since a controversial referendum in 2014 in Crimea, which drew the ire of the international community as Russian soldiers occupied the region during the voting process.
The vote led to the annexation of Crimea, a move not recognized by Turkey, the U.K., or the UN.
Relations were further soured by the March 2018 poisoning and near death of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who live in England, an attack Britain blames on Russian agents.
The Skripals were admitted to a hospital after being found unconscious in Salisbury but they were both discharged from the hospital after long treatments.
Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the U.K. following a 2010 spy exchange between the U.S. and Russia. Before the exchange, he had been serving a 13-year prison term for leaking information to the British intelligence.
Russia missed a deadline set by London to explain how a certain type of military-grade nerve agent was used in the attack.
Following the poisoning, a worldwide expulsion saw more than 150 Russian diplomats sent home from Western states.
NATO and the EU have supported the U.K. and condemned the attack.