Submarines are the Answer to Alleged Kremlin Transgressions

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s vow in the House of Commons that Russia would receive a ‘robust response’ from the UK if it had a hand in the attempted assassination in Salisbury of an ex-military intelligence officer (and one-time double agent) would not have caused much fear in Moscow.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s subsequent demand that the Kremlin explain how a military grade nerve agent came to be used in a Wiltshire community was met with angry denials that it had anything to do with Russia. Moscow demanded that the UK stop inventing so-called fairy tales and hand over a sample of the Novichok nerve agent allegedly used in the attack for analysis in Russian labs.

Where the stand-off would go next was uncertain at the time of writing.

Strong words of condemnation, chucking a few diplomats out of Britain or withdrawing the England team from a footie tournament – the World Cup, due to be held later this year in Russia – would just make President Putin snigger at the continuing weakness of an old Cold War foe the Russians used to respect.

One of the major reasons they took Britain seriously once upon a time was its ability to carry out operations in a part of the world Moscow considers home turf, though not via alleged assassination plots in quiet cathedral cities.

The UK’s deep cover operatives were submariners, with Prime Ministers from the late 1960s to the 1990s frequently giving personal authorization to send nuclear-powered attack submarines into the Barents Sea.

The sails of the US Navy attack submarines USS Connecticut and USS Hartford break through the ice on March 10 as part of ICEX 2018, which also, for the first time in some years, involves a British submarine. Photo: US Navy.

That is where they should be today, gathering intelligence on Putin’s new sea-based missile capabilities, which he is using to threaten the West. They should be trying to detect the Russian Navy’s increasingly formidable nuclear attack submarines as they break out into the Atlantic to menace the UK directly. They also need to trail Russia’s conventional submarines as they deploy to go and fire cruise missiles into Syria or, in future, other cauldrons of war and misery the Kremlin might seek to exploit for strategic advantage. British submarines must return to the shadow game of tracking and trailing Russia’s submarines as they try to interfere with NATO operations, plus seeking out its nuclear missile craft, which are poised to strike at all times.

A submariner keeps watch from the sail of the attack submarine USS Hartford after the boat has surfaced through the ice in the Beaufort Sea during ICEX 2018. Photo: US Navy.

However, the UK no longer maintains a presence in Arctic waters with surface warships or submarines at a level that would ever worry Moscow. This is due to successive governments hollowing out the Royal Navy’s fighting capabilities, cutting its people and warships back to the bone and failing utterly to maintain a strong enough submarine force. Increasingly it is other nations – and in the case of Canada using submarines that the UK sold off as it felt it wouldn’t need them – taking up the strain and sometimes performing a job the Royal Navy did so well.

Britain’s submarine warfare proficiency was once the envy of not only the Russians but also the Americans. It is why novelist Tom Clancy said of the Royal Navy’s submarine force during the Cold War: ‘While everyone deeply respects the Americans with their technologically and numerically superior submarine force, they all quietly fear the British.’

Britain does maintain a reputation for excellence in undersea warfare – and right now it has deployed its first submarine for some years to exercise under the Polar ice with the Americans – but there remains severe lack of submarines, a shortage of people and lack of funding to stay at sea that undermines all that (and the UK’s standing in the world).

The will-they-won’t-they pantomime over the question of whether or not Britain will build a seventh Astute Class attack submarine is a good illustration of how UK governments in recent years have turned global fear (and respect) of the Royal Navy into something approaching derision (among both friend and foe). NATO allies are mystified and deeply saddened by the self-inflicted destruction of the British fleet.

The recent hokey-cokey act over the Astutes followed claims the UK’s amphibious warfare forces are to be disemboweled in yet another round of defence cuts. It was suggested that the extremely capable assault vessels HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are to be axed and sold off – and the government has still not denied it may happen. On top of that at least 1,000 elite Royal Marine commandos might be given their marching orders. Those specialist ships and highly-trained commandos are key elements in the defence of NATO’s northern flank against potential Russian aggression, so Moscow has no doubt been delighted with the idea (at a time when it is building up its own amphibious forces).

With the future of the UK amphibious ships and Royal Marines far from settled the Astute submarine farce then unfolded.

President Putin is, as explained in the final section of my new book ‘The Deadly Trade’, deploying submarines to shock and awe the world – via missile boat diplomacy – and will have been very pleased to hear the UK might only build six Astutes. He has given orders for Russia to construct a dozen new Yasen Class attack submarines (a development of the formidable Akula) and so the dithering over the seventh Astute will have been music to his ears.

The once mighty Royal Navy, having recently been reduced to sending out plastic mine-hunters and fishery protection vessels to shadow Russian naval task groups passing close to British shores (due to a chronic lack of frigates and destroyers), was providing further evidence of a paper British lion. It can roar and bluster about ‘robust action’ but it currently has not much naval muscle left to do anything meaningful by way of conventional deterrence.

Nonetheless, on March 6, the Ministry of Defence was delighted to issue a confirmation that the seventh Astute Class submarine will indeed be built – giving the so-called good news to finally bury the potential bad news its own indecision and history of defence investment failures had created in the first place.

The Astute Class attack submarine HMS Ambush during Exercise Dynamic Manta 2015. The Arctic should once again become a major focus for British and NATO submarine operations. Photo: NATO.

In a written statement to the House of Commons, the day after the Salisbury alleged assassination story hit the headlines, defence procurement minister Guto Bebb was pleased to reveal the UK government would fund the seventh boat.

However, you have to ask what the point is of promising to construct a seventh submarine when it has been revealed by the National Audit Office that, during construction of earlier submarines, the process was badly delayed by some of their equipment being transferred to the few Astutes already in service – robbing Peter to ensure Paul can stay at sea.

And what is the point of building new submarines if you can’t recruit enough submariners to take them to sea? It is no secret that attack boat crews the UK needs to be out there – showing Russia it can’t have it all its own way – are being transferred into the Trident missile vessels just to keep them on deterrent patrol. Which means the attack boats cannot always deploy to exert their presence in waters close to Russia, or anywhere else.

It’s a disgraceful shambles and no way to manage a navy. Promises of a seventh Astute Class submarines are nothing but window dressing for a crisis in national defence that the government so far shows no inclination to really sort out.

The reality is that seven Astutes are not enough, but for the first time in more than a century Britain is not building any other kind of attack submarine as a follow-on or alternative. Ensuring the UK has enough nuclear-powered attack submarines it can send into Russian home seas – staying in international waters of course – in order to carry out some espionage on Moscow’s growing missile might and expanding submarine force is the answer. Having a dozen boats means the UK will be able to deploy up to half a dozen at a time globally, including some allocated to the Arctic.  This will not only counter Russia’s recent cheeky submarine forays close to the UK but also tell Putin that a line has been drawn against transgressions elsewhere (at sea, in the air or on land).

The Royal Navy attack submarine HMS Tireless sits on the surface of the North Pole during ICEX 2004. Back then the British fleet operated 11 attack submarines, and today it has half a dozen in commission. Photo: US Navy.

If Russian attack submarines again come into waters close to the UK – seeking out the Royal Navy’s Trident deterrent submarine as they deploy on patrol from the Clyde, or sticking two fingers up to Britain by making fast, submerged transits of the Irish Sea – it should be answered robustly alright.

Putin needs to know that the British fleet will return to its perfectly legal pursuit of sending anti-submarine and intelligence gathering frigates, plus attack submarines, into the Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea. The Russian Bear must find himself chasing his tail in his lair rather than snarling unchallenged in the face of the West.

 

THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00, hardback) has just been published and is a follow-on to ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books, 2013)  which told the story of Royal Navy submariners undertaking dangerous missions against the Soviet Union across the Cold War.

While working as a newspaper defence correspondent Iain sailed into the Barents Sea aboard a British anti-submarine frigate, during the warship’s special diplomatic mission to visit Murmansk and Archangel. At the end of the Cold War he also visited the other restricted Russian naval bases zones of Kronstadt and Sevastopol. He has twice been under the sea in nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine and is the founding and current Editor of the globally read naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review. www.warshipsifr.com

Maritime Fellowship Award for ‘Immense Contribution’

Iain Ballantyne has been saluted with a Maritime Fellowship at the UK’s Maritime Media Awards 2017, which were held at the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall, London.

One of the UK maritime community’s headline awards, Iain received it for his ‘immense contribution to the maritime cause’ since 1990, as a journalist, author of naval history books and Editor of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine (from 1998 to the present).

One of numerous lead stories Iain Ballantyne wrote during his time as the Defence Reporter of the Evening Herald, Plymouth in the 1990s.

The Maritime Fellowship citation highlighted Iain’s varied endeavours across his career, including covering aspects of the fall of the Soviet Union as a newspaper reporter, along with other assignments including the 1990/91 Gulf War and peace talks aboard a frigate in the Adriatic.

A depiction of the end of the Cold War between the Royal Navy and Soviet Navy in the Barents Sea, one of the historic events Iain Ballantyne covered during his time as a newspaper reporter. Iain Ballantyne is among the figures waving to the Gromky (background) from the bridge roof of HMS London (foreground). Painting by Ross Watton © 2013. For more on the work of Ross Watton visit www.navalbroadsides.co.uk

The citation saluted Iain’s‘authoritative and well-received books’ and added: ‘Few of today’s maritime writers have his breadth of experience, his instinct for a story, or his ability to undertake a tenacious, critical and careful search for the truth.’

More than 200 prominent members of the international maritime community and media gathered to take part in the established annual event, now in its 22nd year, and established by the Maritime Foundation to honour the memory of legendary Fleet Street naval correspondent Desmond Wettern.

This year the awards were presented by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, who said: “I’d like to congratulate our prize winners, together with all those nominated. We are truly fortunate to have so many diverse, creative and persuasive communicators to spread this message of maritime opportunity far and wide.”

In accepting his award, Iain thanked the Maritime Foundation, organizers of the Maritime Media Awards, and First Sea Lord for making the presentation.

The most absorbing task of the past two decades for Iain has been establishing and running the global naval news magazine WARSHIPS IFR, which he established at the invitation of UK-based publisher Derek Knoll who attended the dinner along with his daughter Christine, who continues to play a key role in the running of the magazine.

Iain expressed his heartfelt appreciation to Derek for having ‘taken a punt’ on what remains the only naval news magazine of its kind in the world, giving him the opportunity to edit WARSHIPS IFR and also to Christine and her sister Alison for all their hard work.

Also at the awards dinner was WARSHIPS IFR Associate Editor Peter Peter Hore whose perceptive prose and commentaries have considerably enlivened the magazine since its early days.

The globally distributed contributors to the magazine around the world have, said Iain, ensured there is barely a place where a naval activity is not recorded visually and reported on, and so they deserve commensurate high praise for all their efforts. One other key player from the magazine’s editorial team who was present at the awards dinner was Usman Ansari, who is the presiding Chief Analyst, writing commentaries, analysis and news items.

Iain Ballantyne (centre) with his WARSHIPS IFR colleagues and friends Usman Ansari (left) and Peter Hore (right) at the awards dinner in London.

WARSHIPS IFR’s strength resides in its world-wide analysts and commentary writers, not least the fiery Odin who speaks truth to power via his popular monthly leader column ‘Odin’s Eye’. Many times over the years there have been enquiries as to who the incredibly well informed, astonishingly perceptive and often rather blunt ‘Odin’ is, but his (or her) true identity remains a secret. Iain suggested that keeping his acceptance speech short was important to avoid provoking Odin, who might otherwise start hurling bread rolls from the back of the room.

Iain made a special point of saluting the fantastic men and women of today’s world’s navies and Royal Navy in particular, for their work around the Globe to preserve maritime security, and thanked the veterans of wars who have made his books a success.

In fact Iain expressed his gratitude to everyone whom he has worked with across his career in newspapers, magazines and the publishers of his books, including Pen & Sword Books and Orion Publishing. It was for Orion that Iain wrote ‘Hunter Killers’ (2013), a ground-breaking book on the British experience of submarine operations in the period of the late 1940s to early 1990s.

Iain thanked Captain Doug Littlejohns and Commander Rob Forsyth for joining him at the awards dinner. The two distinguished former submarine captains – who both commanded the nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Sceptre during the Cold War – played a key role as technical advisors for ‘Hunter Killers’ – providing him with his own version of The Perisher course (almost). It’s worth noting here that the book also told the story of their adventures in the Submarine Service, as well as fellow submarine captains Cdr Tim Hale and Capt Dan Conley among other underwater warriors, most notably Michael Pitkeathly (Pitt.k).

Iain’s next book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ is to be published in March 2018 by W&N and has again benefitted from the technical advice of his submariner friends.

Lastly, Iain paid tribute during the acceptance speech to the late Desmond Wettern as an inspiration, whom he hoped “was smiling down from heaven on the thriving pursuit of naval writing in the UK today, which may not quite be the old school variety of days gone by – when newspapers were king – but has evolved to match the times and new technology.”

For more on the awards: https://www.bmcf.org.uk/category/news/

The Soviet Spy Who Built British Warships

The Soviet Union’s top spy in America during the 1950s used the cover name Rudolf Abel but was in truth William August Fisher. Born on Tyneside, in the north east of England, in 1903, Fisher worked at Swan Hunter as a teenage apprentice draughtsman when the shipyard was constructing both warships and merchant vessels.

In 1957 the FBI apprehend Fisher in a New York hotel after busting into his room, bringing to an end his bid to set up a spying network seeking out intelligence on American nuclear weapons, including the Polaris Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

The parents of ‘Colonel Abel’, as he was known in the USA during his trial, were anti-Tsarist political activists who returned to Russia in 1921 after the communists seized power. Fisher worked in signals intelligence for the Soviets during WW2 before utilising his British upbringing to successfully insert himself undercover in the USA in the late 1940s.

At one stage he worked alongside Konon Molody, who, as ‘Gordon Lonsdale’ in the early 1960s would run the notorious Portland Spy Ring in the UK, stealing secrets of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Bridge of Spies’ begins by masterfully plunging us into ‘Abel’s’ humdrum life in late 1950s USA as he tries to go about his espionage as unobtrusively as possible. The spy, a talented artist, takes an easel and paints with him for some landscape work to cover a visit to a dead letter drop.

Berlin-wall
An East German policeman stands guard over a worker constructing the Berlin Wall, to ensure he does not try to escape to the West. Former US Navy officer turned lawyer James Donovan had to cross from West to East Berlin to negotiate for the spy swap on the so-called ‘Bridge of Spies’, as featured in the Steven Spielberg movie. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

‘Abel’ (Mark Rylance) is later arrested in his underpants back at the hotel and put on trial (fully clothed). He is defended by insurance lawyer, and former US Navy officer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who had also been an advocate at the post-war Nuremberg war crimes trials. Despite public outrage Donovan manages to get Abel sentenced to prison rather than receive the death penalty.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

Fast forward to early 1962, and Donovan plays a pivotal role in springing shot-down U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) from imprisonment in the Soviet Union in exchange for ‘Abel’. The swap takes place on the Glienicke Bridge, which spans a stretch of cold water lying between West and East Berlin. At Checkpoint Charlie – one of the controlled gateways through the newly constructed Berlin Wall – another release takes place simultaneously, of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) earlier arrested by the East Germans for being a spy.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

That, in essence, is the core story of ‘Bridge of Spies’. It does play fast and loose with some of the facts but succeeds in powerfully and movingly conveying the big moral issues of the time as well as plunging us convincingly into the places where it all happened.Despite its simplistic boiling down of a complex story it still presents a multi-layered yarn, never resorting to histrionics or pompous moralising. It never gives in to the temptation of having Hanks’ character indulge in ludicrous action man antics or gunplay.

Mark Rylance’s subtle performance preserves the enigma of ‘Abel’ (who during his trial did not reveal his real British identity) while still conveying the inner paradoxes of a cultured man working for a brutal totalitarian state.

‘Bridge of Spies’ (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) will be released on DVD and Blu Ray formats this spring.

This is a version of a review to be published in the forthcoming March 2016 edition of WARSHIP IFR magazine (due out on February 19). www.warshipsifr.com

Iain Ballantyne is the author of ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books) which tells the story of the Royal Navy’s submariners and submarines during the Cold War.

Among other things, ‘Hunter Killers’ looks at the activities of the Portland Spy Ring and certain aspects of Soviet espionage in the UK that sought to snatch Royal Navy submarine secrets. Iain is currently writing ‘The Deadly Trade’, a history of submarine warfare from Ancient times to today, for the same publisher.

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