The Royal Navy is facing its greatest challenge from Russian submarines and warships for more than 25 years, the First Sea Lord has told his sailors.
Adml Sir Philip Jones said the Navy was dealing with the highest level of activity from Vladimir Putin’s fleet since the end of the Cold War, even as it has to make “difficult” cuts to equipment.
The message from the head of the Royal Navy comes as British warships are again being readied to escort the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov past the UK as it returns from its bombing campaign against Syrian rebels.
But naval sources said high-profile deployments by Russia’s surface fleet were of far less concern than a sharp increase in Russian submarine missions in waters north of Scotland.
British frigates and submarines, backed by Nato allies, are waging an increasingly intense cat-and-mouse game trying to find and track the Russian vessels.
Russia analysts fear the jump in submarine activity to levels not seen since the 1980s is accompanied by increased efforts to spy on Britain’s nuclear deterrent vessels, based at Faslane.
In a New Year message to the Navy, Sir Philip said: “In northern Europe and the Baltic, we are responding to the highest level of Russian naval activity since the end of the Cold War.”
His comments follow a warning last year by the commander of the US Navy’s European fleet that Nato was on the verge of a new “battle of the Atlantic” with increasingly sophisticated Russian submarines.
Dr Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, said waters separating Greenland, Iceland and the UK which had once been a key Cold War battleground were again the centre of a secret confrontation.
The so-called GIUK gap represents the gateway for Russian vessels entering the Atlantic and during the Cold War was one of the most watched stretches of water in the world.
He said: “I don’t think it’s the increase in absolute number [of missions] that’s the increase of concern, it’s the information that these Russian submarines are trying to collect.”
“Russia has been ramping up its presence in the North Atlantic at the same time that other countries have been winding theirs down.”
He said the UK decision to scrap the troubled Nimrod maritime surveillance aircraft in 2010 and the delay in getting the Boeing P8 replacement had “left the country vulnerable to the sort of activity that Russian submarines conduct”.
Sir Philip also admitted the Royal Navy is battling budget, manning and equipment woes after details of cuts and personnel shortfalls were revealed. The Navy is understood to be facing a £500 million budget black hole with commanders ordered to find more savings.
Writing in Navy News, he said the power plants of the Type 45 destroyers, which are to have engine refits after a string of power failures, “have turned out to be less reliable than originally envisaged”.
But he said the difficulties were “the challenges of a first rate Navy”. He said: “You don’t hear about the same issues in many other navies – and believe me, they exist – because they don’t operate with the same sophistication or expectation.”
A Royal Navy frigate and destroyer are on standby to accompany the Kuznetsov when it passes back past the UK in the coming weeks. The ageing carrier is currently in the Mediterranean accompanied by a Russian battlecruiser, two destroyers and a tanker.