Cold War 2: The Atlantic flank – BBC


Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

Ahoy there. We have a new national shipbuilding strategy. It's not much further down the slipway than the last one. Shipyard skills now get their own taskforce, and there is £206m to find ways of reducing shipping's poor record on emissions.
Included in the new strategy is the promise of 150 ships and smaller boats over three decades, and more than £4bn already committed.
These are Royal Navy orders, plus boats for the Border Force, lighthouse supply ships, and 38 ferries for Transport Scotland, plus the post-Brexit, export-promoting national flagship.
It confirms what we knew about complex Type 26 frigates being built by BAE Systems on the Clyde and less complex Type 31 ones by Babcock at Rosyth in Fife. An order for another five of the Type 26 variety is yet to be finalised, while Poland has joined Indonesia in agreeing to buy the Type 31 design.
The intention is to get naval shipbuilding into the top rank of productivity within eight years, and for efficiency to match the best European civil shipyards also by 2030. It has a long way to get there. The next Cal-Mac ferries are to be built in Turkey, with the current order well over double its budget and more than four years late at Ferguson's shipyard in Inverclyde. Royal Navy support ships will have a substantial foreign input.
The shipbuilding strategy is part of the "levelling up" agenda, a political project as well as an economic one, to emphasise to the north of England and elsewhere that the UK government is spending money to boost industry and employment.
It's so important that it requires a "shipbuilding tsar" – a title bestowed upon the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace.
But seeing this as a boost to the economy and jobs misses an important point. It looks less like an elephant in the room and more like a very angry bear. Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its belligerent growling at Nato are bound to give the Ministry of Defence leverage for much more spending to raise Britain's military defences and readiness for war.
Yet the shipbuilding strategy makes no mention of Russia. And in the new circumstances, calling yourself a "tsar" seems a tad inappropriate.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies notes that current plans make the Ministry of Defence the only major spending department to see a real terms budget cut in the next three years. It is inevitable that will be reversed, observes director Paul Johnson.
That's while there are many other pressures: with the NHS backlog, and to mitigate the acute pain coming the way of household budgets as inflation picks up pace, with both National Insurance and council tax on the way up.
MPs have been asking Boris Johnson about boosting expenditure on defence. He has avoided giving any clear answers.
Germany set the pace for a big lift in western defence spending soon after the invasion, with a stunning reversal of both its refusal to supply arms to foreign conflicts, and its arms budget. It is increasing its 50 billion euro annual defence budget by 50%, with a one-off boost of 100 billion.
Other countries bordering Ukraine and Russia are also stepping up their defences, with ministers indicating that spending will go up in Denmark, Poland, Sweden and Italy. Britain and the US, already past the target of 2% of national output, are using existing resources to boost their presence on Nato's eastern border.
So Vladimir Putin has succeeded where Donald Trump failed – pushing Nato's Europeans into a big uplift in defence expenditure, wary that the return of Trump or someone like him could mean that America's reliability against the Russian threat to its Nato neighbours comes back into doubt.
Constanze Stelzenmuller, a German defence expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says that historic break with post-war doctrine is politically much easier for the new left-Green alliance in Berlin than it would have been for Angela Merkel.
Even without a hot war breaking out, the sequel to Cold War One will require more of lots of hardware, as well as software, including cyber-warfare capacity that was not a feature in the last one.
Just one indicator of the prospects for that is the rise in share prices for several of the West's biggest arms manufacturers. To take just four of the international firms that manufacture in Scotland, share prices since the start of the year are up 15% for Raytheon and 49% for France-based Thales. The US giant Lockheed Martin is up 25% and BAE Systems, which has Clyde shipyards and much else besides, is up 33%.
So where will extra money be required? The disparity in land forces is striking. Military pundits point to Russian tanks vastly outnumbering those defending Nato's borders. That's not to say the tanks will work, or that they have the same role in modern warfare as the one envisaged in the first Cold War. Air superiority, if it can be established, leave them vulnerable, and Ukrainians seem to be doing a lot of damage with Belfast-made anti-tank missiles among others.
Britain's contribution to the eastern defences may see more army spending, and the cost of replacing those anti-tank and other weapons that have been given to the Ukrainian armed forces.
The Treasury provides the Ministry of Defence with a flexible fund for that, which flexed up to £4bn per year during the Afghan conflict, but is more often in the hundreds of millions.
But if we're looking to Cold War 2 or worse, there is also a need to defend Nato's Atlantic flank, which was Britain's main role after 1945. That returns several Scottish military bases into the front line. Unst in Shetland has regained its listening post at RAF Saxa Vord. After years without maritime surveillance, that has returned to Lossiemouth. Russia has been probing UK airspace with military aircraft, if only to make the unsettling point that it can.
An anonymous Royal Navy assessment of its naval fighting capacity, openly available online, sees its larger northern fleet as a mixture. There are ageing Cold War relics, including its one aircraft carrier, which audaciously belched its fumes through the English Channel a few years back.
It has some more modern surface ships, but the assessment focuses more concern on Russia's modernised submarine fleet.
Partly, that is because it poses a threat to the UK's nuclear-armed submarines, if they can be found out there in the Atlantic. But far more vulnerable are the seabed cables that cross the Atlantic and represent vital infrastructure for Nato members' economies.
Defending those cables has become one of the key tasks of Nato naval strategy. It also has to contend with the vulnerability of hundreds of oil and gas platforms in UK and Norwegian waters, and the pipelines that link them to the land.
The Royal Navy has a key role in that. A recent speech at Rosyth by the new First Sea Lord set out the case for this being a time for the Royal Navy to return to the forefront of Britain's military thinking.
"Having spent the last five years in the operational space and seen what Russia is doing, I say to my Russian counterparts we are watching you and we will match you.
"The Russian Navy itself has gone through a major recapitalisation programme in the last decade and a half. It's upgrading its frigates, its amphibious ships and its submarine force."
The plan is not to match Russia hull for hull, or to match China, which the admiral says is growing its naval force at "an astonishing rate", but to "pack more punch – more lethality" in the Navy's ability to project force.
This is the Royal Navy's moment,says its chief, arguing 11 days before the Ukraine invasion that history feels like it is at an inflection point: "The geopolitical tectonic plates are moving, as we shift from the large land centric campaigns of the last 20 years. It feels as if we are returning to a maritime era. Our government realises that."
The First Sea Lord will surely have read carefully a scathing assessment of the Royal Navy's many weaknesses, set out by MPs on Westminster's defence committee last December; procurement that goes off course and lessons not learned, a lack of fleet support ships, weapon systems being retired and not replaced, a failure to procure the communications necessary across the fleet, a limited ability to do much without allies, reliance on shipyards that are not fit for purpose, and new, high-end ships stuck in port because their propulsion systems don't work, and which won't be fixed until 2028 at the earliest.
"When ships do get to sea they act like porcupines – well defended herbivores with limited offensive capabilities," the MPs concluded. "This is a result of decisions by successive governments to limit budgets and prioritise defensive capabilities.
"Over the next five years or so, at least until the new classes of surface escorts come on stream, the Royal Navy will be asked to do even more with even less. This is a clear risk, which those beyond these shores can calculate just as readily as we can."
At the Royal United Services Institute in London, Prof Malcolm Chalmers says: "On the balance of investment, the Ministry of Defence would be well advised to examine very carefully what can be learned from this war in Ukraine: weaknesses to be exploited, strengths where we thought they had weaknesses, and then prioritise how best we deal with Russia.
"The UK will not fight Russia by itself, and it's important to think about how the UK can contribute to Nato."
The professor adds: "What's happening in Germany is mind-blowing". While Berlin's military planners are best placed to play the key role in stepping up defences on Nato's eastern land borders, he expects to hear calls in Britain for reversal of the recent decisions to cut army numbers.
Yet Cold War 2, and the threat of a shooting war between Nato and Russia, is much more complex still.
For years, Russia has been fighting a hybrid war, in which it uses various forms of non-military tactics to undermine its adversaries' capacity to retaliate. Interference in elections, and contributing actively to mistrust of mainstream media are among the more obvious.
Dr Stelzenmuller says this has already gone beyond a second Cold War. That ended with the Ukraine invasion, she says. And fighting is no longer like a war game that can be planned by moving military hardware around the landscape.
"We are seeing a massive focus on economic power, on weaponizing economic interdependence, in the form of sanctions and export controls," she says. It features cyber warfare, at which all sides can, and do, play dirty, and reach into every home and the basic infrastructure of adversaries' way of life, far from the military fronts. It involves propaganda and disinformation to shape public opinion using methods that did not apply before.
She also contrasts Cold War 1 and current hostilities with the ability of Russians to leave their country if they choose, for now. For Russia, that runs the risk of losing its intelligentsia and undermining its economic capacity for innovation. Leaving Russia may soon become much more difficult.
The German defence analyst also sees a future confrontation in which the West can be disoriented by its adversaries by what is known as "forum- and domain-hopping", moving swiftly from physical to cyber warfare, or attacking in several places at once: a cyber attack in Romania, perhaps, a swift boat naval attack in the Baltic, and a terrorist outrage in Paris, orchestrated on consecutive days.
What is also lacking compared with the first Cold War, she adds, is a safety net of treaties and trust-building measures – the infrastructure of de-escalation. These are the means by which warring nations can lower the heat, relieve pressure on civilians and ultimately achieve a ceasefire.
Relationships were built up between military commanders on either side of the Cold War, to improve their understanding of each other. At Edinburgh University, Prof John Erickson played a significant role in brokering talks between them.
Arms control treaties, which were hard-fought in the 1960s and 1970s, are no longer fit for purpose. Like an old submarine, they're rusting and of little use in a conflict.
To Constanze Stelzenmuller, the role of the UK in Nato's military defences is not in doubt. What concerns her, post-Brexit and with her twin perspectives from both Washington and Berlin, is whether Britain can be counted as a politically stable and reliable partner.
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