Ariel view HMS Northumberland Exercise WESTLANT 19 Atlantic Ocean 2019 45166106 (Picture: Crown Copyright).
Ariel view of HMS Northumberland captured while deployed on Exercise WESTLANT 19 in the Atlantic Ocean in 2019 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

Why does the Royal Navy patrol the North Atlantic and why is Russia a threat?

Lima Charlie: What is it that the Royal Navy is protecting?

Ariel view HMS Northumberland Exercise WESTLANT 19 Atlantic Ocean 2019 45166106 (Picture: Crown Copyright).
Ariel view of HMS Northumberland captured while deployed on Exercise WESTLANT 19 in the Atlantic Ocean in 2019 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

The Royal Navy plays a key role in patrolling the North Atlantic - as brought to attention by the TV documentary Warship: Life At Sea showing on Channel 5.

Following the Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland during her patrols, the series has shown her deploying north of the Arctic Circle to track Russian submarines that threaten vital British interests. 

Why though is the Russian threat of such concern, what is it that the Royal Navy is protecting and how does it go about doing this in a way that protects British interests?

Historically, protection of the North Atlantic has been a major task for the Royal Navy. 

In the Second World War, huge efforts, and sacrifices, were made to escort convoys across the Atlantic Ocean with desperately needed supplies from North America. 

Later in the Cold War, the threat from Soviet submarines breaking into the North Atlantic, threatening troop convoys and ballistic missile submarines resulted in the Royal Navy focusing its efforts on becoming a world leader in anti-submarine warfare. 

For much of the Cold War, Royal Navy escort vessels operated in the North Atlantic tracking submarines and being ready to prevent them from causing a threat in any wartime scenario.

The change in the submarine threat after 1991 meant that the Senior Service significantly reduced its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) presence in the region. The Type 22 frigates, intended as hugely capable submarine hunters, were quickly scrapped, while the Type 23 frigates roamed around the world on more general duties. There was no meaningful Soviet threat to be concerned with, and the submarines were, by and large, rusting in Russian ports.

Vladimir Putin at a press conference 080222 CREDIT ABACA PRESS ALAMY
Vladimir Putin at a press conference in February 2022 (Picture: Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo).

The decision by President Putin to significantly increase Russian defence spending has, over the last 10 years or so, seen a significant increase in both the availability and capability of the Russian submarine force. This investment has resulted in a significant increase in Russian presence in the North Atlantic, which, when coupled with the increase in tensions between NATO and Russia, has significantly changed the strategic situation. 

The key reason the Royal Navy is interested in the threat posed by Russian naval forces is over the protection of critical assets. The first of these is the undersea cable network that crosses the Atlantic, carrying all manner of communications, internet traffic and other vital nodes that keep the western economy flowing. 

The communications revolution of the last 30 years and the explosion of internet traffic has made huge swathes of the West utterly dependent on these cables to keep the economy going. 

If they are disrupted or broken, the potential to take down the internet, denying access to everything from Netflix to complex financial transactions, is huge. Being denied access to these links could wreak huge economic damage to Western economies and cause significant population unrest. 

Many of these cables also carry sensitive communications traffic, which if tapped could be used to provide insight into Western government thinking and military secrets. 

Cable tapping is not new. During the Cold War, the US Navy ran a highly effective operation to listen to Soviet military cable traffic well inside Russian territorial waters, using covert submarine and diver operations (the so-called 'IVY BELLS' operation). This successful programme was only ended when a US traitor (Ronald Pelton) leaked the secrets to the Soviets. 

The UK economy is critically dependent on these cables and the information they carry so protecting them is one of the highest priorities for the Royal Navy. The other equally high priority is the protection of the on-patrol ballistic missile submarine that carries Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent.  

Since 1968, a Royal Navy submarine carrying up to 16 Polaris or Trident missiles has permanently been on patrol somewhere in the Atlantic, able to respond if called upon by the Prime Minister of the day to launch a nuclear strike. 

Nuclear submariners Polaris missile control on HMS Resolution
Polaris missile control on HMS Resolution (Picture: MOD).

The key strength of this system is its survivability. A nuclear submarine hidden in the depths of the ocean and almost impossible to detect has a much stronger chance of survival than land or air-based nuclear weapons. 

This survivability is essential as it means that, even if the UK were to be attacked and wiped out by a nuclear attack, the means exist to ensure that a response can be launched against the aggressor. This means that anyone contemplating a nuclear attack on the UK knows that unless they can destroy the nuclear-armed Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN), they will be opening themselves up to nuclear retaliation.

Vanguard-class submarine HMS Victorious 2013 45159449 Picture Crown Copyright
Vanguard-class submarine HMS Victorious in 2013 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

To prevent their detection, the Royal Navy Vanguard-class SSBN is designed to be exceptionally quiet and stealthy and almost impossible to find. The Russians know that in the event of war, destroying this submarine is a key mission, so they are keen in peacetime to find and track British and American ballistic missile submarines, to record their acoustic signature and make them easier to locate and track in the build-up to conflict. 

Preventing Russian submarines from getting close to British submarines and ensuring that any deployment into the North Atlantic is closely tracked and monitored is a key mission for the Royal Navy to protect the nuclear deterrent. 

The last big threat posed by Russian forces is their unpredictability and way of operations. 

Unlike other countries, Russia uses naval deployments to stage major firepower demonstrations far from home. In early 2022, there was uproar as a Russian Navy task group off the coast of Ireland initially moved to try and conduct a major live-fire serial, which was later cancelled after diplomatic protests. 

It is unlikely that Russia would react in a similar manner if NATO were to stage similar live-fire exercises only a few miles off the coast of Murmansk and would be far more aggressive. This unpredictability and willingness to act in a way contrary to how others operate poses a real issue. 

Similarly, the deployment of Russian long-range maritime patrol aircraft to support their naval deployments, which often trail lengthy radio cables and pose a threat to civil aviation due to Russian unwillingness to talk to Civilian Air Traffic Control necessitates RAF and other air force deployments of interceptor aircraft to monitor their movements and make sure civil aviation is not at risk. 

Brought together, the current Russian threat is both credible and highly unpredictable, which is a dangerous combination. 

What are the sorts of Russian ships and submarines that pose a threat to these links though and why are they seen as such a challenge? The Russian fleet of today is a far cry from its Soviet-era highs when it was one of the largest navies in the world, but it is also a long way from the post-1991 lows as well. 

The modern Russian navy comprises a mixture of newer ships, built in the last few years and some residual Cold War era vessels. The key threat to UK interests comes primarily from the Russian Northern Fleet, which is based in Murmansk. 

Admiral Kuznetsov in International Waters close to the UK in December 2011 45153831 Crown Copyright
Admiral Kuznetsov in International Waters close to the UK in December 2011 (Picture: Crown Copyright)

The fleet comprises one very elderly aircraft carrier - the Admiral Kuznetsov - which has not been to sea for nearly five years and following fires onboard and refit challenges, is likely to be in a poor material state. While she may not sail again, she is likely to remain in commission as a source of national pride to the Russian navy. 

Instead, the biggest surface threat realistically comes from the Kirov class battlecruiser 'Peter the Great', a large surface warship equipped with a wide range of anti-ship and air defence missiles. Used in a flagship role, she is one of the largest and most capable surface warships in the world. 

Additionally, there is a single 'Slava' class heavy cruiser - Marshall Ustinov - intended for anti-shipping operations, which is now nearly 40 years old. The Ustinov has been used in a variety of operations, particularly off Syria and working with the Russian aircraft carrier group. 

Supporting her are several relatively elderly Udaloy and Sovremenny class destroyers. These ships were built in the Cold War and are increasingly elderly. The role of both classes is to threaten Western submarines and to pose an anti-shipping threat to western warships. Reporting suggests that around three to five of these ships are in the Northern Fleet in various states of readiness. 

Russian Navy Udaloy Class Destroyer The Vice Admiral Kulakov 45167790 Picture Crown Copyright
Russian Navy Udaloy Class Destroyer The Vice Admiral Kulakov (Picture: Crown Copyright).

These vessels are slowly being replaced by the Admiral Gorshkov class of frigates, which have been entering service in recent years. These ships, which were first laid down in the mid-2000s and launched in 2010, only entered service in 2018. Although at least 15 are planned, only two have entered service, with a further one reportedly on sea trials. 

These ships are intended to provide ASW protection for Russian ships, but with only two in service, it highlights a potential gap in Russian capability. In times of tension or conflict, they would not have enough modern ships to both tackle Western submarines and protect their own submarine operating areas. In theory, in years to come the Northern fleet is likely to have four of these ships assigned to it, forming the core of its major surface combatant force likely to go into the Atlantic. 

For the Royal Navy, the key threat that these surface ships pose in peacetime is their ability to conduct intelligence collection and tracking of UK military assets. As was seen in the Warship TV show, the Russian Navy has deployed Udaloy class escorts off the coast of Scotland to try to conduct intelligence gathering operations near Faslane, home of the Royal Navy SSBN force. 

Perhaps the most potent military threat to British interests in the Atlantic comes from Russian submarine forces in the Northern Fleet, which are both numerous and capable. Like the Royal Navy, the Northern Fleet has SSBNs, including older cold war designs like the Typhoon and Delta class submarines, as well as the newer Borei class. In total there are about six SSBNs assigned to the Northern Fleet. 

There are a significant number of nuclear attack submarines, including older cold war designs like the Victor, Sierra and the newer Akula class. It is likely that there are about 10 to 12 SSNs in the force, although they are at varying levels of readiness and availability.  

The two big contrasts with the Royal Navy is that the Northern Fleet also has several big nuclear submarines like the Oscar and Yansen class, which carry large numbers of cruise missiles. The Russians have used the Oscar class to attack NATO aircraft carrier groups and the submarines are intended to find and sink carrier groups using heavy anti-ship missiles – initially 24 'Shipwreck' missiles, with modernised variants carrying up to 72 Kalibr missiles. 

The Royal Navy scrapped its diesel submarine force in the mid-1990s and has since then relied on an entirely nuclear-powered submarine flotilla. By contrast, the Russian Navy continues to make use of the Kilo and Lada class to conduct a range of missions and these remain capable vessels able to operate in a range of operations, particularly in shallower waters where nuclear submarines (which are larger), may be more restricted in their ability to manoeuvre. 

In addition to the more traditional surface warships and submarines, the Northern Fleet also has access to a variety of special operations and intelligence gathering vessels, including submarines and specialist surface ships. These are used to carry out covert operations, which can include collecting intelligence, tapping cables or other discrete operations. 

These ships can pose a credible threat to British and wider NATO military operations and security by their ability to monitor movements, intercept communication traffic and conduct wider intelligence-gathering operations. This means that monitoring and tracking them is vital to ensure that they do not pose a clear threat to western military operations. 

How then does the UK respond to the threat posed by Russian forces? The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force can respond using a variety of different platforms in UK waters, as well as working with NATO more widely. 

From an international perspective, one of the most effective ways of tracking and deterring Russian activity is through NATO. The alliance has a series of well-tried and tested collaborative agreements to enable the tracking and monitoring of Russian warships and aircraft, which means that the UK (and NATO) generally have a very good idea of their location and can react accordingly.  

This could include providing close-in escorts to ships sailing close to NATO member states areas of interest or carrying out aerial surveillance. Alternatively, it enables NATO navies to consider their planned operations and ship movements and if needs be, move or delay them to avoid encountering Russian vessels. 

The Senior Service has a range of ship types able to counter the Russian threat. Most Royal Navy surface ships can, and have, been used to escort Russian vessels when in UK waters of interest to monitor and track their activity. 

HMS Trent P224 River-class offshore patrol vessel 45169616 (Picture: Crown Copyright).
River-class offshore patrol vessel HMS Trent (Picture: Crown Copyright).

The most commonly used ships include the River-class offshore patrol vessels, which are used for a lot of different maritime surveillance tasks, from fishery protection to escorting Russian ships. Although lightly armed, they are ideal for keeping station with Russian vessels passing through the Channel, or other areas and monitoring their activity and behaviour. 

Although Type 45 destroyers are sometimes used to escort ships, the main Royal Navy escort vessel used to track and monitor the Russian threat is the Type 23 frigate. This ship class, which forms the bulk of the Royal Navy's surface fleet, has eight ships with 'towed array sonar' which is a sonar that can be trailed behind the ship to listen passively for submarines in the area.  

The Type 23 force, like HMS Northumberland in the Warship TV series, are intended to track and in wartime, destroy enemy submarines. They are extremely capable at this task, as they are fitted with a wide range of sensors, including sonars, and highly capable radars to track both submarines and surface ships. 

Ariel view HMS Northumberland Exercise WESTLANT 19 Atlantic Ocean 2019 45166106 (Picture: Crown Copyright).
Ariel view of HMS Northumberland captured while deployed on Exercise WESTLANT 19 in the Atlantic Ocean in 2019 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

They also carry a wide range of weapons including a 4.5"-gun, anti-aircraft missiles and stingray torpedoes. They also deploy with a Merlin helicopter, one of the most capable large ASW helicopters in the world, which can be used to track submarines some distance from the ship and monitor their activity. 

These ships are regularly deployed on operations to monitor Russian activity, often in a range of sensitive waters far from home. It is notable that even though practically nothing is said about what they are doing there, many Type 23s in recent years have deployed north of the Arctic circle and returned home with 'blue noses' to indicate a deployment into the far north. 

These ships have been in service for many years now and although extensively modernised, are clearly beginning to age. Their replacements are already under construction, with the Type 26 frigate, nearly twice the size of the Type 23, now being built in Glasgow, with the first due to be launched within the next year. 

The Type 26 will be an extremely capable ASW platform, representing new technology and sensors and being able to tackle the threat by the next generation of Russian submarines. The design has been sold to Australia and Canada, who are also building them and in turn, it may yet be sold elsewhere. The Royal Navy has an exceptional platform for the future of ASW operations with the Type 26. 

Under the water, the UK response is likely to come from one of its fearsome Astute class submarines. The hugely advanced nuclear-powered attack submarines are well equipped to track and monitor Russian surface and submarine activity. 

Royal Navy Astute class submarine HMS Ambush arriving at HMNB Clyde 19 September 2012 in Faslane, Scotland (Picture: DFID / Alamy Stock Photo)

Their role is to monitor shipping, conduct intelligence gathering and also protect Royal Navy SSBNs on patrol. One of their key roles is to be deployed out to monitor and if needs be, pose a real tactical threat to Russian nuclear attack submarines that are getting too close to UK areas of critical national interest. 

Although little is publicly said of their work, it is safe to assume that wherever there are risks from Russian submarines to UK interests, be they SSBNs or cables, a Royal Navy SSN is almost certainly on the case to protect them. 

Above the sea, the Royal Air Force is also able to help monitor events through its newly introduced P8 force. These maritime patrol aircraft, which have replaced the Nimrod, are based at RAF Lossiemouth and are used as long-range maritime patrol surveillance aircraft, capable of monitoring shipping movements, tracking activity and also carrying out ASW work. 

RAF Typhoon performance take off from RAF Lossiemouth 310317 CREDIT ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
RAF Typhoon performance take off from RAF Lossiemouth in 2017 (Picture: Angus Alexander Chisholm / Alamy Stock Photo).

Equipped with capable submarine detection systems and Mk46 torpedoes, the P8 is a hugely capable addition to the RAF that is intended to provide a very potent long-distance ASW capability. It will be used to track hostile submarines at some distance from home, tracking their activity and if needs be, working with Merlin helicopters and Type 23 frigates to provide a comprehensive defence that can tackle any submarine threat.  The result is a highly capable integrated force that can work exceptionally well together, able to tackle a wide range of challenges posed by the modern Russian Navy. 

Overall then, although the Russian Navy does pose a meaningful and credible threat to UK interests and has, over the years, quietly equipped itself with some capable new technology, it is also fair to say that the UK has not been resting on its laurels either. 

What this means is that even if the Russian Navy does want to threaten cables of interest, or try to track the Royal Navy SSBN force, it will find itself matched against an equally capable Royal Navy, which, working with NATO partners, will do all it can to ensure that any potential threat is properly mitigated.  

The result is that although Russia can and does, deploy ships and submarines to pose a challenge to UK operations in highly sensitive waters, it is always tracked, monitored, and deterred by the highly capable British Armed Forces, who are able to act in a professional manner throughout. 

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section. 

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life. 

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.