Defence for 2015 and Beyond – Part 6 An Eastern and Northern Threat

Royal Navy Type 45 Destroyer and Sea King ASaC Mk7

A series of guest posts from AndyC

A far more potentially challenging threat could come from a resurgent Russia.

How prepared and effective are British and European NATO forces to counter such a possibility?

In the north, Norway shares a land border with Russia and this area is the main home of the Russian Navy.

The UK could initially deploy the Royal Marines Commandos with the support of a naval amphibious group made up of two amphibious transport docks, three landing ships and three destroyers/frigates together with one Wildcat attack helicopter Squadron and three Merlin transport helicopter Squadrons to support Norwegian ground forces.

This could be further backed up with one Armoured Infantry Brigade from the Reaction Force including 56 Challenger 2 main battle tanks.  Finally, if the situation should deteriorate further additional forces consisting of two Light Cavalry Regiments and ten Light Infantry Battalions from the Adaptable Force could be deployed to form 2nd (UK) Division.  Air support would come from at least one and preferably two Typhoon swing-role fighter Squadrons and the equivalent of two ISTAR Squadrons.

UK Naval Defence
UK Naval Defence – the white area can be covered by Maritime Patrol Aircraft operating from RAF Aldergrove, the yellow area is covered by anti-shipping Typhoons also based at RAF Aldergrove, the blue is covered by two RN carrier groups, the green by a French naval carrier group and the orange by anti-submarine patrols made up of destroyers, frigates and patrol ships with helicopters

At sea the Royal Navy would send a carrier group to the Norwegian Sea consisting of three F-35B Squadrons (one Naval Air Squadron in the fleet air defence/anti-shipping role and two RAF Squadrons primarily supporting land forces), maritime/AEW helicopters and three destroyers/frigates.  This group would work with the Royal Marines amphibious group and be joined by a French carrier group and amphibious group.  Patrolling between Norway and Greenland this NATO naval task force would provide air support to ground forces in Norway, plus surface vessels from other NATO countries.

In the Western Approaches the RN would deploy a second carrier group supported by maritime/AEW helicopters and three destroyers/frigates.  If this was led by a QE class aircraft carrier it would operate one F-35B Naval Air Squadron for fleet air defence/anti-shipping together with maritime/AEW helicopters.  If this group was led by HMS Ocean instead it would just operate the helicopters and so would need nearby air support.

All remaining destroyers, frigates and patrol ships, their helicopters and attack submarines would patrol the areas not covered by the carrier groups with the highest priority going to the approaches to Faslane.

Air defence of the UK would be provided by two Typhoon Squadrons based at RAF Lossiemouth to defend the north and two Squadrons (including the majority of the OCU) based at RAF Coningsby to defend the east.  These would be backed up by Hawk T2 aircraft and CAMM-L SAMs.

Even with the full deployment of NATO naval forces there would still be plenty of areas of the Atlantic not covered by maritime defences.  If the second carrier group was led by HMS Ocean the RAF would deploy an anti-shipping/air defence Flight from the Typhoon OCU and Maritime Patrol Squadron to provide close support from RNAS Culdrose.  If the second carrier group were led by a QE class carrier then the RAF could locate this maritime group to RAF Aldergrove.

To provide a minimum effective defence of the area around Norway and the UK would require:

  • 1 Commando Brigade
  • the formation of 2nd (UK) Division made up of 1 Armoured Infantry Brigade including 56 Challenger 2 main battle tanks plus 2 Light Cavalry Regiments and 10 Infantry Battalions
  • 1 Wildcat Marines AH Squadron
  • 3 Merlin HC Squadrons
  • 6 or 7 Typhoon units – 4 air defence Squadrons, 1 or 2 swing-role Squadrons plus 1 anti-shipping Flight
  • 1 E-3 Sentry AWACS Squadron
  • 2 ISTAR Squadrons
  • 1 A330 Voyager aerial tanker Squadron
  • remaining Hawk T1s to be replaced by Meteor capable Hawk T2s
  • Rapier surface-to-air missiles to be replaced by CAMM-L
  • 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron
  • 2 aircraft carriers – either two QE aircraft carriers or one QE and one helicopter carrier
  • 4 F-35B Squadrons – 2 fleet air defence/anti-shipping and 2 CAS/SEAD/land strike
  • up to 19 destroyers/frigates and 4 patrol ships
  • 3 Merlin HM/AEW Squadrons and
  • 2 Wildcat HMA Squadrons.

Regular training with Norwegian forces and French aircraft carrier and amphibious groups to aid effectiveness, co-operation and inter-operability should be a high priority.

The main battlefield would, however, be in Eastern Europe.  In a period of heightened tension NATO would particularly want to be able to move forces quickly to Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  It is vital that all of these countries maintain enough surplus air bases in good quality condition where air and ground forces could be deployed.

For the UK, initial deployment would come from Special Forces and the Air Assault Brigade including two Apache and one Wildcat attack helicopter Regiments.  These would be backed up by two Armoured Infantry Brigades from the Reaction Force.  Together with a reserve tank Regiment this would form 3rd (UK) Division including 168 Challenger 2 main battle tanks.

Further support would come from the deployment of the majority of the Adaptable Force consisting of four Light Cavalry Regiments and twenty Light Infantry Battalions.  These would form 1st (UK) Division.

Additional combat capability for 1st (UK) Division could be found by assigning 144 Challenger 2 tanks, held in storage, to the Light Cavalry Regiments in periods of heightened tension.  Eight Sabre Squadrons would receive basic tank training during peacetime with additional training being supplied by armoured units of the Reaction Force should the international situation deteriorate.

The Challengers would be held in storage at Monchengladbach in Germany with crews being flown there for deployment only when the need arose.  This would convert them to Heavy Cavalry Regiments.

Challenger 2
Challenger 2

Air support would be provided by at least three and preferably four swing-role fighter Squadrons, the equivalent of three ISTAR Squadrons and five helicopter transport Squadrons.

To provide a minimum effective defence in Eastern Europe would require:

  • Special Forces plus 1st and 3rd (UK) Divisions consisting of 1 Air Assault Brigade and 2 Armoured Infantry Brigades plus 4 Heavy Cavalry Regiments and 20 Infantry Battalions respectively with a total of 312 Challenger 2 main battle tanks
  • 2 Apache AH and 1 Wildcat AH Regiments
  • 3 Chinook HC Squadrons
  • 2 Puma HC Squadrons
  • 3 or 4 swing-role fighter Squadrons and
  • 3 ISTAR Squadrons.

Regular training with local ground and air forces is absolutely essential to aid effectiveness, co-operation and inter-operability especially with newer NATO members.

As Poland still operates 30 older Su-22 fighters we should work with the German government to provide them with a financing deal that would enable the Polish Air Force to replace these aircraft with Eurofighter Typhoons.

However, the major question is: are these forces really strong and capable enough to provide an adequate defence?

This can best be assessed by comparing the current armed balance between Russia and the European NATO members to see if there are any particular deficiencies which need to be addressed.

Similarly to the Cold War, Russia has a marked advantage in the number of main battle tanks.  At present they have 2,500 in active service, but over 12,500 in reserve!  This compares to only about 6,000 between the European NATO members even including reserves.  That gives Russia a 2.5:1 advantage.  However, most of their tanks are older and less effective.  This is why we need to retain all of our formidable and still serviceable Challenger 2 tanks.

RAF Regiment Soldiers Firing Javelin Anti Tank Guided Missile
RAF Regiment Soldiers Firing Javelin Anti Tank Guided Missile

Russia also has an advantage in the number of infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers.  They have 6,000 in active service and 21,500 in reserve.  European NATO has a total of about 22,000 so the advantage is only 1.25:1.  Altogether Russia can field 45,000 armoured vehicles (including 2,500 units of self-propelled artillery).

The number of attack helicopters is very similar with both Russia and European NATO operating about 500.  However, Russia relies very heavily on the older Mi-25 whereas NATO has the more capable Apache and Eurocopter Tiger.

European NATO air forces are numerically superior to Russia’s with around 2,200 combat aircraft compared to about 1,700 Russian aircraft.  NATO also has an advantage with over 320 stealth fighters currently on order compared to Russia’s 60 and 650 advanced Typhoons and Rafales largely in service compared to just 370 of the latest Su-30/33/34/35s and MiG-35s mostly on order.  40% of Russia’s air force relies on 1970’s technology whereas except for Greece, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania there is very little that old in NATO.

Apache Helicopter
An Apache helicopter from 4 Regiment, 656 Squadron Army Air Corps, during live firing training at Otterburn Ranges in Northumberland.

European NATO naval power is numerically superior to Russia’s.  NATO has five aircraft carriers either currently in service or on order compared to Russia’s one.  Russia is also outnumbered in the rest of its surface fleet.  While it has five cruisers and NATO has none, it has only 17 destroyers/frigates and even if you add in the 74 smaller corvettes that only makes 96 surface warships.  In contrast European NATO countries have 121 destroyers and frigates.  Under the water Russia has six cruise missile and 33 attack submarines compared to NATO’s 58 attack submarines.

Type 45 Destroyer Royal Navy
Type 45 Destroyer Royal Navy – European NATO forces have a clear numerical advantage at sea.

In conclusion, European NATO members have a clear numerical advantage over Russia both at sea and in the air but Russia has the advantage on the ground.

What messages does this analysis have for our armed forces in the new SDSR:

  1. we should retain an option to reactivate currently surplus Challenger 2 main battle tanks by maintaining a store of at least 144 of them in good condition in Germany
  2. even with numerical superiority at sea there aren’t enough ships to cover our side of the Atlantic so the RAF should set up 1 Maritime Patrol Squadron and 1 anti-shipping Flight
  3. there is at most only a questionable case for operating a second QE class aircraft carrier in any of these scenarios.  HMS Ocean would be adequate to cover the Western Approaches with support from land based maritime aircraft.




The rest of the series

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – Defence of the United Kingdom

Part 3 – Other Sovereign Territories

Part 4 – NATO

Part 5 – A Southern or Middle Eastern Threat

Part 6 – An Eastern and Northern Threat

Part 7 – Global Intervention

Part 8 – British Army 2025

Part 9 – Royal Navy 2025

Part 10 – Royal Air Force 2025

Part 11 – Conclusion




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