We Must all Pray ‘the Better Angels’ Prevail

As I went to bed last night I stopped on the upstairs landing, my head spinning with the realisation that the world stood on the edge of an abyss, with two nuclear powers potentially at war before too long.

I paused at the threshold of each of my children’s bedrooms, listening to them breathe easily as they slept peacefully, the sort of thing I had not done for some years as they are teenagers now. Lodged in my mind was something a British politician said almost 56 years ago, which was before I was even born.

In late October 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis finally cooled, Labour MP Frank Allaun got to his feet during a Parliamentary debate on what had just happened in Caribbean – when the world had seemed to be on the verge of nuclear conflict – and revealed how it had shaken him to his core.

‘I went upstairs and looked at my children, who were asleep, and wondered what kind of future, if any, they were going to have,’ Allaun told his fellow MPs. ‘I guess that parents throughout the world had the same sort of reaction. I have maintained for some years that mankind’s chances of survival are only fifty-fifty. In the light of the last few days, however, I would say that the odds have considerably worsened.’

I could never have guessed when I found those words in Hansard while researching and writing my book ‘Hunter Killers’ , about British submariners versus the Soviets in the Cold War, that just five years after it was first published I would be having similar thoughts.

Thankfully, the dawn broke without the world having been obliterated by nuclear weapons and the breakfast news programmes continued their discussions with politicians and top brass about the mechanics of the Syrian crisis. An air of unreality still hung over it all, as if it was all some kind of outlandish computer game.

Yet, just as with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, today naval forces are being positioned to face each other down, armed to the teeth and potentially on a hair trigger with the horrifying spectre of nuclear exchange looming darkly over all of us.

A Soviet submarine caught on the surface during the Cuban Missile Crisis of late 1962. Photo: US Navy/US National Archives.

That we are here is doubly bewildering for me, as I witnessed the end of the Cold War at sea between NATO and Soviet naval forces. In the aftermath of the hardliners coup of August 1991, I sailed into the Barents Sea as an embedded journalist aboard the anti-submarine and intelligence-gathering frigate HMS London. As recounted in another book of mine, on the fighting lives of frigates named HMS London, back then there had been real fears that Gorbachev would fall and that the communist hardliners would return us all to the East-West confrontation.

HMS London had been sent into the High North on a long-planned diplomatic mission to make visits to Murmansk and Archangel even as the attempted coup unfolded and collapsed. What kind of reception would the Russians give to HMS London? She had already been overflown by Soviet jet bombers and was being shadowed by a sinister-looking Russian destroyer. With chaos in Moscow, nobody knew if the old foe was setting his face into stone again for a renewal of the confrontation, or would be welcoming.

A depiction of the end of the Cold War between the Royal Navy and Soviet Navy in the Barents, with the frigate HMS London greeted in the old battleground by the Soviet Navy warship Gromky and two Sukhoi fighter jets of the Russian naval air arm. Painting by Ross Watton © 2013. For more on the work of Ross Watton visit www.rosswatton.com

‘As HMS London sailed out of a brilliant orange sunset in the west, the Soviet Navy frigate Gromky suddenly plunged out of the steel grey curtain of drizzle and gloom that had fallen in the East,’ observe my diary notes from the 1991 voyage. ‘She closed in spectacular fashion – at her top speed…prow plunging into the sea, ploughing a furious furrow of spray. The crew of HMS London, who were told to clear lower decks, gave her a rousing welcome, cheering “hurray! hurray! hurray!” and lifting their caps in salute. The Gromky’s crew replied in similar fashion and with great gusto. Then all eyes switched skywards as two Soviet naval air arm SU-27 Flanker fighters wheeled low overhead with a bunsen burner roar. They dipped their wings in salute before their pilots pulled back hard on their control columns, showing off what fantastic technology the Soviets could produce to the old enemy… taking their jets up in a spectacular climb above the British frigate.

‘Soon HMS London was cloaked in black, red and grey smoke, created by Soviet naval vessels only faintly made out in the gathering night. Flares dropped from low flying Mail anti-submarine flying boats and May maritime patrol aircraft created more smoke. When the smoke screens dispersed London found herself passing the Soviet Navy hospital ship Svir, which was carrying more than 100 British and Russian veterans of the [WW2] Arctic convoys. The cheering veterans welcomed HMS London to the fold, shouting and waving from the guardrails of the Svir’s packed upper decks.’

That just over quarter century later we have moved to a situation where British submarines could soon potentially launch cruise missiles into Syria, and then be hunted and come under attack from Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean, is, to say the least, a deeply sad turn of events.

The Royal Navy hunter-killer submarine HMS Trenchant surfaces in the Beaufort Sea during a joint UK-US exercise last month (March). Armed with Tomhawak missiles she may be one of the units Britain sends into action against Syria. Photo: US Navy.

Those of us who witnessed the thawing of the Cold War in the Barents – the most dangerous front line at sea – breathed a deep sigh of relief that 40 years of knife-edge confrontation, with the threat of nuclear Armageddon hanging over humanity, was finally over.

In the warm glow of that long confrontation finally being over, we could never have imagined that the world would slide back into the era of nuclear war threats being hurled around, or the repeated use of chemical weapons on civilians.

Yet here we are with the very real possibility of the naval forces of the West and Russia on the brink of the kind of hot war that never actually happened during the Cold War between those two sides. In 1962 cool heads prevailed despite the readiness of Soviet forces on Cuba to fire their nuclear-tipped missiles and the Americans pursuing and forcing Russian submarines to surface.

Indeed, who could have guessed even four years ago when I embarked on writing my latest book, ‘The Deadly Trade’, that an American President would use social media to explicitly threaten the Russians with missile attack.

The Ohio Class guided-missile submarine USS Florida departs Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. Capable of launching up to 154 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) the Florida is most likely still deployed and may be ordered to bombard chemical weapons targets in Syria. Photo: US Navy.

But, it was the Russians who unwisely provoked him in the first place by threatening direct assault on American forces launching any missiles into Syria. In the recent past, as recounted in ‘The Deadly Trade’, the Russians have even threatened European naval forces with nuclear attack as retaliation for their governments daring to consider arming frigates and destroyers with Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems.

Threats of nuclear annihilation by Moscow are nothing new. In the summer of 2014, not long after his forces annexed the Crimea and began fuelling insurrection in eastern Ukraine – the opening shots against the West for pushing too far east with NATO among other so-called transgressions against Russia – President Vladimir Putin stated that his country was reinforcing its ‘powers of nuclear restraint’. He added that other nations should ‘always realise that is it better not to mess with Russia.’

The new Russian guided-missile frigate Admiral Essen, which is reportedly in the eastern Mediterranean awaiting orders from the Kremlin. Photo: Cem Devrim Yaylali. For more of his work visit: www.turkishnavy.net

What made the situation this spring much worse was the reaction of the US President, who stoked the fires with the notorious tweet in which he warned: ‘Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!”.’ Trump later tried to be more conciliatory but the world is less likely to remember his emollient tweet about helping with the Russian economy and avoiding an arms race.

As I suggest in ‘The Deadly Trade’, in an era of strongmen puffing their chests out and making blood-curdling threats to inflict mass destruction on would be foes, humanity will have to rely on what President Abraham Lincoln, during his inaugural address of March 1861, called ‘the better angels of our nature’. They prevailed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we must pray they do so again today as the submarines and surface warships of both sides position themselves in the eastern Mediterranean.



Iain Ballantyne is the Editor of the global naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review  and author of the recently published ‘THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00, hardback).


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

In pursuit of ‘The Deadly Trade’ across the ages

It has been almost four years in the making but it’s not long now until ‘THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ hits the water, with a publication date of 8 March.

In ‘THE DEADLY TRADE’ readers encounter the heroes and villains of submarine warfare across the ages, plunging into the story of not only how the technology has evolved but also high stakes, kill-or-be-killed struggles under the waves.

Among the submarine warfare legends we encounter are Max Horton, Martin Nasmith and Georg von Trapp (in WW1), Otto Kretschmer, Gunther Prien, Malcolm Wanklyn, Alastair Mars, Dudley Morton and Sam Dealey (in WW2).

A Japanese destroyer sinks during WW2, seen via the periscope of USS Nautilus. Photo: US NHHC.

Aside from telling the stories of the undersea warriors, the book also covers the mad, bad and dangerous schemes of inventors in earlier eras as they sought to give one side or other the edge in combat via their primitive vessels. More often than not the early attempts at undersea vessels killed their own crews (rather than harming the enemy).

Those who went up against the U-boats in WW2’s Battle of the Atlantic are also part of the action, not least ‘Johnny’ Walker, Donald Macintyre and Peter Gretton. The part played by code-breaking during WW2 is told, along with the intelligence-gathering efforts of both sides in the subsequent NATO versus Warsaw Pact confrontation.

‘THE DEADLY TRADE’ offers an epic voyage from Ancient times through the invention, development and lethal application of undersea warships, from Archimedes leaping out of his bath, down through the first attempt by Germany to win a war via U-boats, to WW2’s bitter convoys battles and the US Navy campaign to bring Japan to its knees.

The story continues with dangerous Cold War shadow boxing below the waves in the North Atlantic and Arctic (1940s – late 1980s), along with hot war submarine attacks in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic (during the 1970s and 1980s respectively).

British nuclear submarine

A British nuclear-powered attack submarine of today. Photo: USN.

It comes right up to date with North Korea’s covert sinking of a warship, Putin’s submarines launching cruise missiles into the cauldron of the Middle East and China seeking to create a bastion to protect its doomsday vessels.

Hidden and largely ignored by the general public, it is clear that submarines and submariners still pursue The Deadly Trade of hunting other vessels and deterring nuclear attack by standing ready to unleash Armageddon. It is something we should ponder deeply while the global effect of submarine warfare for more than a century is demonstrated across the vast span of the book’s narrative.

‘THE DEADLY TRADE’ considers how the world’s fate has since the 1950s been in the hands of young submariners burdened with terrible destructive power. They are out there right now in their boats patrolling the world’s oceans.


The Deadly Trade cover‘THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99).
Available through Amazon and Waterstones  and other book retailers.

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