The big message from Putin’s navy here is that it is getting ready again for state versus state war under the sea
“Russia is muscle-flexing, aiming to deter by showing battle fitness.
“Long gone are the days when Russian submarines rarely went to sea or trained for combat.”
The Pskov and Nizhny Novgorod, which are both titanium-hulled deep diving attack submarines, with a high level of stealth, were “rather long in the tooth”, having been commissioned almost 30 years ago, when compared with the US Navy’s Virginia and Sea Wolf classes of attack boats, and the Astutes of the Royal Navy, Mr Ballantyne said.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is “flexing its muscles”, said Iain Ballantyne
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin
However, he added: “Both of these Sierra Class submarines, of the Artic-based Northern Fleet, were recently refitted and received upgrades.”
Mr Ballantyne stressed that it was a “stretch” to describe the waters where the subs had been operating as Scottish.
He explained: “They were training in the traditional gateway from the High North seas the Russians consider their backyard into broader North Atlantic, namely the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap of Cold War legend.
“It’s a long way from the Scottish mainland. Traditionally, the deadly game under the sea in the Cold War for NATO was to catch the Soviets trying to break through the GIUK Gap and then shadow them, while in time of war they would have tried to stop the Russians breaking out at all.
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The Pskov is a Sierra-class attack sub
“Therefore, Putin is not trying to establish dominion of the North Sea – nuclear submarines generally try to avoid the North Sea as it is shallow and lacks the room for manoeuvre such fast and comparatively large vessels need to fight.
“Conventional diesel-electric submarines – of which Russia has quite a few very modern ones – do operate in the North Sea.”
Nevertheless, in terms of the wider picture, Mr Ballantyne added: “The big league is the North Atlantic and for sure Putin wants his navy to make the High North – the Greenland Sea, the seas under the Polar icecap and the Barents Sea mare nostrum for Russia – a place NATO will fear to venture.”
Neither was it a coincidence that Putin’s sabre-rattling was happening against a background of unprecedented strains within NATO, with US President Donald Trump voicing doubts about the future of the alliance, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s talk of a European army, he acknowledged.
Mr Ballantyne added: “Since 2014 Russia has been upping the ante in its challenge to the post-Cold War order.
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The Pskov was damaged by fire in 2003, and returned to active duty in 2016
Russia seeks domination of the “High North”, said Mr Ballantyne
“Putin regards the end of the Soviet empire as a tragedy and despite the poor state of the Russian economy, the declining birth rate etc, uses his submarines in particular to punch above his country’s weight – especially those vessels capable of firing nuclear strategic weapons.
“His submarines are a means to cow the West and ensure Russia is considered a super power still.
“Putin has, with limited military resources, established considerable influence in the Middle East, aims to do so in North Africa and sees the Arctic waters of the High North as Russia’s own.
“Submarines are the key element of Russian global power projection and, even with conventional weapons, they could devastate the cities of NATO nations without ever leaving their bastions in the Arctic.
“That is how Putin gains influence and deters foes, coercing potential enemies into staying away from Russia’s zones of key strategic interest.”
The Pskov’s key specifications
On the subject of Russia’s constant probing, Mr Ballantyne said the UK was in a vulnerable position.
He added: “The Russians have on several occasions in recent times tested UK anti-submarine Warfare forces, which were badly weakened by David Cameron’s foolish defence cuts in 2010 and will take a few more years to recover their potency, including via the arrival of the new P-8 Poseidon sub-hunting aircraft.
“However, the UK has too few anti-submarine frigates – and is not building nearly enough for its future fleet – while also not having the required force levels in its own operational attack submarines – the best counter to a Russian intruder – or ASW Merlin helicopters.
“No government in recent times has done enough to safeguard the UK against the rising submarine threat and certainly there are no signs of it being promised by any party in the election.
“Could there be a serious incident? That risk is always there if heavily armed nuclear submarines are in close proximity to each other.
“Things did from time-to-time get rather hairy during the last so-called Battle of the Atlantic, during the Cold War.
The Pskov in harbour
“The 21st Century struggle for control of the Atlantic may well see dangerous moments, likely to be kept secret by governments keen not to alarm the public. Hopefully cool heads will prevail.”
And with the nationwide poll fast approaching on December 12, there were few indications that any of the major parties was alive to the risks.
Mr Ballantyne said: “There is absolutely no sign the parties are treating national defence seriously.
“As usual they cherry-pick a few topics to discuss to try and make them seem interested in it but it’s all way short of what is needed.
“Anyone who understands the massive challenges facing the UK, especially in naval defence terms, is far from reassured that the politicians comprehend the sheer scale of rising threats.”
* The Deadly Trade by Iain Ballantyne (W&N, £12.99). Call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/postal order payable to Express Bookshop to: Deadly Trade Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.co.uk UK delivery free.
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