for Sunday Herald, 22 November 2015
The UK government failed to adequately protect Scotland from a Russia spy ship capable of monitoring and cutting vital underwater internet cables, an SNP MP has claimed.
The SNP blames plans to spend £167 billion on replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system for depriving conventional defences of the money they need to ensure that the UK is kept safe.
The defence minister, Penny Mordaunt, has revealed that a naval fleet meant to escort Russian ships through UK waters was not deployed when the Russian research vessel, Yantar, sailed up the east coast towards Norway on 24-26 October.
Instead Yantar was tracked by a single offshore patrol vessel, HMS Severn, because ”it made the most operational sense”. Mordaunt, however, kept further details secret in order not to “prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces.”
According to US naval officials, the Yantar has two self-propelled submersible vehicles capable of observing and cutting cables miles under the sea. As well as being seen around the UK, the boat was tracked last month by US forces as it moved down the east coast of America on a visit to Cuba.
The SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, Douglas Chapman, asked Mordaunt whether the “fleet ready escort” followed the Yantar when it was in UK waters. In a parliamentary answer, the minister said that the escort “was not activated on this occasion, but remained available at high readiness”.
Chapman, a member of the defence select committee, thought this was unacceptable. “Defending the UK’s sovereign territory is the most basic role of the military, and I’m afraid to say in this instance their response has been inadequate,” he told the Sunday Herald.
He pointed out that the Nimrod marine patrol aircraft that could have tracked the Yantar were scrapped in 2010. “The ability of the armed forces to track what is happening both above and below the surface of our seas is not what it should be,” he said.
“As we approach the main decision for the replacement of Trident, we are very concerned that the UK government’s strategic priorities are all wrong. Spending a potential £167 billion on a weapons system which is of questionable operational value in the current security climate is unjustifiable when we are unable to adequately defend our territorial waters.”
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson MP, described the decision to scrap the Nimrod programme as “completely foodhardy”. He said: “The defence footprint in Scotland has been hammered to its lowest level in decades causing needless damage to our strategic defence capability.”
UK ministers are expected to publish a new Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) tomorrow. The SNP is arguing that the country is facing a “defence credibility gap” because of years of cutbacks and plans to waste money on Trident.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) stressed that it was “false” to suggest that the Yantar wasn’t tracked. “The Yantar was monitored throughout her passage in UK waters by the Royal Navy warship HMS Severn,” said an MoD spokesman.
“We continue to ensure the defence of the whole of the UK and the forthcoming SDSR will consider the future national security risks and the capabilities the armed services will need to address these risks in the future.”
John Ainslie, co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, pointed out that the UK and the UK deployed research vessels in support of nuclear submarines. “Yantar is based at the headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet at Severomorsk,” he said.
“It would be reasonable to conclude that one of its functions is to support Russian nuclear submarines.”